Want Positive Change? Train Your Brain to Hope

By Mandy Johnson -Originally posted at Renegade Wellness

It is the lack of hope that can hold us back from trying to take on lifestyle changes. After all, why will this time be different than the last time? If you learn to hope it can be.

Hope is passion for the possible.

Søren Kierkegaard
Hope in all capital letters on a bright purple background with the L-E-S-S crossed out leaving only hope visible.
Photo by Marcel Strauß on Unsplash

Scholars have debated whether hope is a process or an outcome; they have discussed whether hope is an emotion or a state of being. The more important question is, why is a Physical Therapist, exercise enthusiast, and Wellness Coach writing about it. The answer is that I think it is key to those who continually meet and achieve their goals.

I have been working in the wellness field for 20 years and in healthcare for 15 years. I have had the chance to work with inspiring patients/clients. Mostly, I work with people full of wishes and unvoiced fears that are holding them back from trying to work toward what they want. But what pushes some of them to walk on a path that might lead to failure or to embrace the possibility of failure again to make those wishes a reality? I believe it is learning to hope.

Hope and the Brain

Researcher C.R. Snyder correctly asserted that hope is a process that occurs in the brain and can be learned, as opposed to coming preinstalled. Hope comes from telling yourself where you want to go and that you have what it takes to succeed. You can make the light at the end of the tunnel appear closer or brighter. But often, we don’t. Hope is risky because failure comes at a personal cost. The longer we have been on this planet, the more difficult and more painful it will be for us. 

Research notes that when a person has a history of unsuccessful goals, they often experience reluctance, hopelessness, and apathy when faced with working on a goal. Isn’t that just peachy? If you have already achieved goals, you are likely to have hope that you can succeed at another one, and if you have failed, you are more likely to sit on the couch with your sea salt chocolate caramels while looking to see if there is something on Netflix. Why hope for a goal when failure hurts, and chocolate just loves you back?

Altruistic Hope vs. Hope for Yourself

I have seen individuals pour unbelievable amounts of hope into organizations or their kids, but those same people have very little hope for themselves. They are great at what I will define as Altruistic Hope. They act to promote someone else’s welfare or some other group’s welfare at a cost to themselves. They hope, plan, and advocate for their kids, their spouse, and the organization they support, but the tank is empty when it comes to hope for themselves. 

Often these people have had a hope go wrong in the past. A hope that was painful to lose. There is fear when they are faced with the prospect of hoping again to the point that they would prefer not to try so they don’t have to experience the failure again. This is a form of Loss Aversion, the idea that losses generally have a much larger psychological impact than gains of the same mental or physical importance. This is because we DO NOT do a good job of celebrating our wins, but we do an AMAZING job of beating ourselves up if we lose/fail. 

Hope should not be something we only dole out to those we love. It is something we need to learn or relearn for ourselves. Hope has many benefits across a lifetime, but for it to happen, we have to let go of perfectionism which is all so hard to do in today’s Instagram society. 

How A Perfectionist Kills Hope

We want to be perfect. Keep a house like Joanna Gains, bake unique yet healthy treats, and have toilets that never look like someone puts poop in them regularly, all while maintaining that beach-ready body. Brene Brown notes in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, that perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system. Perfectionism leads us to believe that if we look perfect, work perfect, or parent perfect, we can avoid or decrease the feelings of shame, judgment, and blame. She has a helpful definition of shame vs. guilt, which I resonate with as a recovering perfectionist. 

Guilt = I did something bad
Shame = I am bad

Shame is about who we are, and guilt is about our behaviors. Guilt can be a motivator, and its effects as a motivator are often positive, while shame is destructive. When we see people apologize or replace negative behaviors, guilt is often the motivator. Shame corrodes the part of us that believes we can change and do better. Shame takes away our autonomy and agency. Hope gives it back. So let’s learn how to teach your brain to hope again. 

Ingredients for Hope

C.R. Snyder was the first psychologist to dedicate himself to researching Hope. He also probably had to overcome parental disappointment when he said he would get his Ph.D. and specialize in defining Hope. Luckily for us, he stuck with it even if his parents felt he was wasting his excellent education. They weren’t on Facebook, so we shall never know. Snyder found that hope has three primary components:  a goal, thoughts about how to achieve that goal, and the motivation or agency to achieve the goal. He also found that high-hope people (because, yes, he created a hope scale) embrace self-talk agency phrases such as “I can do this” and “I am not going to be stopped.”

How Self-Talk Empowers Hope

I never really had that much trust in self-talk in the past, as I was a believer that everything has to suck to get to a good place type gal. But I also had a period of life where just repeating the suck daily with a plastered smile led to discussions of divorce and contemplating single parenting. After counseling and SO much reading and research, I believe, and science believes self-talk is real and can be a game-changer. Let’s have an example as those tend to help me, and really all of these posts are notes to myself that I wish I would have known years ago. 

Hopelessness-based self-talk: I’m fat. I look like crap. I am the only one with a muffin top. I am the only one with a messy house. 

Hope-based self-talk: I want this for me. I want to feel better and be healthier. The scale doesn’t get to decide if I am loved and accepted. I can do this.

Hope-based self-talk leads to steady, small increments of change because you change out of love for the person you could be. Hopelessness-based self-talk leads to depression and ice cream and then more depression because of the ice cream. If you don’t have hope you don’t have a way of combating difficult emotions and are drawn to numbing activities. However, when we numb ourselves, we numb the good and bad feelings. We do not need to hustle for hope. We need to claim it. When stress happens, and it threatens to throw you off of your goals, take a breath. Is there another path to make that goal happen? Does the goal need to be retooled instead of abandoned? Do you need to call a friend and problem solve with them? Maybe that stress is not a threat to achieving your goal and is just a challenge you can overcome. 

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

I think this quote by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross beautifully illustrates that there is beauty in the dark places when we can get in there and work through them. There is no three-step process to getting hope and achieving your goals. You can’t skip over the hard emotional stuff if that is holding you back. You have to look at the past failures that have kept you from hoping you can ever change. Right now, your past failures might own you and your future. They have gotten in the way and will continue to get in your way until you lovingly address them instead of berating yourself again. 

I have failed so many times in big ways. I have been fired.  I was rejected two years in a row for graduate school. I failed a specialty exam which meant I failed a piece of my fellowship program and couldn’t complete it on time. I have absolutely beaten myself up and numbed myself via blended caffeine and sugar, EBay, extra work, and YouTube (k-pop music videos are my guilty pleasure) to ignore the emotions I didn’t want to acknowledge. Neither beating myself up mentally nor numbing actually helped me, as, during free time, my mind would recycle images of my failure over and over. 

I started small and picked one thing I could change with tiny adjustments in my day-to-day life. That slow change helped me have wins, but I had to lean into the discomfort and have several chats with a counselor. Strong emotions are very sharp and when they poke at us it is normal to shy away. Living a hope-filled life requires risks, but they are worth it. You can’t have extraordinary days if you live every day ordinary. 

Action Steps

Taking a note yet again out of Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, your action step with this post is to DIG deep. Brene discusses changing how we see the concept of digging deep in a new way to avoid exhaustion and overwhelm. 

Get Deliberate: Try this exercise during the day as a way to focus when you are slogging your way through a difficult day where it seems easier to just grab a donut and browse your feed for an hour than to do the hard work of staying on track. 

A = Have I been Abstinent today? (sweets, soda, email at the dinner table, define the tool you use to numb and distract yourself)
E = Have I Exercised today? (walking 5 min counts, watching Cheer on Netflix where others exercise doesn’t count)
I = What have I done for myself today?
O = What have I done for Others today?
U = Am I holding on to Unexpressed emotions today?
Y = Yeah! What is something good that’s happened today?

Get Inspired: Find a quote on hope that you resonate with and print it out. Hang it up in your bathroom or somewhere you can see it all the time. Write why that quote motivates you to continue hoping for yourself. I have the following quote on my wall in my office where I sit and write:

We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Whenever I see those words, it put my bad day in perspective. If he can hope while being belittled and hated for the color of his skin then I can hope despite what has gone on in my day or my week.

Get Going: Try a guided relaxation on YouTube, Reflect: Christian Mindfulness, the free version of Headspace, Ten Percent Happier, or prayer. The best way for me to decrease all the voices in my head is to get quiet so that I can get collected. 

This is a guest blog by Amanda (Mandy) Johnson of Renegade Wellness. Mandy empowers people to live their lives without physical limitations. This article was originally posted on her Substack.
To enjoy more of this Renegade Wellness goodness, visit https://renegadewellness.substack.com/.
Mandy is an avid Full Focus Planner® user.

More wisdom from Renegade Wellness

Scroll to Top