Behavioural Strategies for Addressing Hopelessness (Part 2)

February 20, 2022

This feature by Christine Dunkley, DClinP is Part 2 of 2 in a series about behavioral strategies for addressing hopelessness. In the first part, Christine began with tips on personal relationships, loneliness, and learning how to identify what a client wants. Today, she addresses two more tips, including painting word pictures and suspending disbelief.

Another tip in dealing with hopelessness is a strategy I call ‘painting word pictures’ for the client to cling onto. There is an art to this, and it again includes a dialectical twist.

  1. Identify through conversation or guesswork what they might like in the future.
  2. Choose something that is as mundane as possible. Don’t go for extreme examples, such as, “I can see you on the stage receiving an Oscar.”
  3. Describe it as though seeing it in real-time through a crystal ball.
  4. Add in some error that they are making (this is the dialectical bit.)

Here’s an example that I might use with an adolescent client:

“Well, I’m looking into my crystal ball, and… is that you? Looks like you are in your own place here, hmm, nice flat… you’re rushing around,  maybe you have friends coming over, looks like you’ve been out and bought a cushion, you’re unwrapping it, oh… wait, oh no, it’s the wrong colour… no.. .you don’t like it, you’ve shoved it behind a chair. Oops, your guests are knocking. You’re not quite ready… oh, two of your mates have come round, one has brought cake…”  

The idea is that you become their telescope into a possible future. The insertion of an error somehow pre-empts their natural inclination to think it will all go wrong and makes it more believable. Even if your client says, “That won’t happen,” it means they have at least engaged with the ideas in it, laying down some new neural networks in the process.

Here is another example for an adult client finding it hard parenting young teens:

“Just a minute, is that you? Your hair is different. Looks like you are in a café waiting for someone. Oh my goodness, is that your daughter all grown up? Oooh, she’s got the new boyfriend with her; she’s brought you a magazine and two toilet rolls “on special offer” apparently. Oops, you’ve forgotten to put the money in the parking meter! Oh no, you’re going to have to rush out. No wait, the boyfriend’s going for you. Aw, he’s quite nice actually. He’s trying to impress you. Chloe’s asking if you like him. You’re smiling…”

Remember most people who are hopeless don’t want the earth, they just want to know it can be ok. Your belief can bridge the gap until they can do this for themselves.

Finally, some clients say, “I really want to believe this, I just can’t.” That’s ok. They don’t have to believe it, but it might be helpful if they can suspend their disbelief. This is a dialectical balance to “having to believe,” allowing both things to co-exist at the same time.  And the great thing is we can ALL do it. Every time you watch a film on TV you put aside your knowledge that this is only actors, you allow yourself to go with the plot. Don’t enter a tug of war with the client, instead urge them to acknowledge their disbelief and put it to one side. You might ask,

“What have you got to lose? Seeing as we don’t know the future, we might as well invest our thinking time in our preferred option. After all, if you are trapped in a broken lift and fear it might crash, you might as well imagine being rescued, because if these are gonna be your last moments, why spend them miserably?”

Clients can be astonished that they don’t have to believe something for it to make their life better.

I hope this has given you some new ideas on approaching hopelessness in a behavioural and dialectical way.  My top tip is to keep your own energy up. Hopelessness can be contagious, so use your consult to support each other.

Interested to read more from Christine? Read here for her two-part blog on Teaching the GIVE skills.

Christine Dunkley DClinP is a consultant trainer with the British Isles DBT training team. She had 30 years in the NHS as a medical social worker and psychological therapist. She is a Fellow of the Society for DBT and author of  ‘Regulating Emotion the DBT Way.’ Read her full bio here.


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