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How Losing All Hope Can Be Freedom

Kneeling Silhouette

“Losing all hope was freedom.” ~Edward Norton in Fight Club

We naturally think of hope as a positive thing, as we do freedom, but this quote says that losing hope brings freedom. It may seem contradictory, but losing hope has been my most unexpected lifesaver.

My Mental Breakdown

I struggled with severe anxiety four years ago. The onset was abrupt.

Until I was twenty-five, I was the healthiest person I knew. I never got sick, would play basketball six hours straight, and always felt great. That changed suddenly in 2011.

I woke up one morning with an itchy spot on my chest; I looked down and saw two small fang marks. A spider bite. After a few more minutes, the toxins set in and I started convulsing a little bit, so my dad took me to the ER.

At the ER, they gave me a steroid shot in the butt and antibiotics to prevent infection (such wonderful memories).

Long story short, the whole experience shook me, and I developed severe health anxiety, constantly worrying about what would happen next. I feared going asleep because I couldn’t protect myself. I could be seen visibly shaking upright in my bed.

Spider bites are rare, right? I shouldn’t have worried about it, right? I thought so too until another spider bit me a few days after the first one did! Luckily, my body didn’t react so… emphatically to the second bite, but it still made me even more paranoid.

In this short period of time, I went from being calm to only knowing how to be really anxious. It was a strange and unexpected slippery slope of worrying, not getting enough sleep, being scared to sleep, and freaking out because I was freaking out. Meanwhile, I hoped for it all to go back to the way it was. I had never hoped for something so much in my life.

Hope’s Dark Side

Hope has a dark side in the way that it impacts the mind.

It’s an intense yearning for something to happen: You hope to conquer anxiety or depression. You hope to get into your favorite college. You hope to find love one day. You hope to overcome the pesky problem that’s weighing you down. You hope the Detroit Lions will (please) just win one Super Bowl.

Hope can become an ironic mental prison by its mere intensity and dominance of your thoughts.

“Letting Go”

I’ve studied the self-help book market quite a bit, and one of the most popular, best-selling topics I’ve noticed is that of “letting go.” Last I checked, several of the top 20 self-help books were about letting go of one thing or another.

Letting go of whatever dominates your mind (including hope) instantly frees it to think of other things such as warm breezes, the beauty of friendship, and the simplicity of enjoying a meal. We lose out on these small joys of life when our big problems take more than their deserved mindshare.

But there’s still the issue of hope. Why would letting go of hope—something seen as positive—bring freedom and not darkness?

How Is Losing Hope Helpful?

I beat my downward spiral because I lost hope. Nothing else worked.

When I was in the worst part of the struggle, I hoped so much for things to just go back to normal. The worse it got, the more I hoped. Why can’t this nightmare end? I hoped that my next breath would be drawn out and deep and relaxing, but it never was. I hoped to go back in time and punch that spider’s fangs out. I hoped and tried to change without success.

Hoping is like a weaker form of expecting something. When you expect something, you’re almost sure it will happen. When you hope for something, you don’t know it will happen, but you’d like it to happen.

Hope is dangerous when it compels you fight a battle you can’t win. 

For example, in my situation, I could theoretically relax and “beat this,” so I did what people instinctively do: I threw the gauntlet at the problem. For example, I tried adjusting my breathing, but it backfired because I became hyperconscious about it; it made things worse.

My hope kept me fighting so hard. But fighting is not what I needed to do.

In life, like in war, we must know when to attack, and equally important, when to retreat. Not all enemies can be defeated in a straightforward conventional way.

I remember the very day I purposefully lost hope and “gave up.” I was in the kitchen, being really anxious for no reason, and I was fed up with this fight, so I decided to quit. I gave up hope in winning this fight. I was surprised when, over time, the enemy walked away!

Here’s specifically how I changed my behavior when I lost hope: I stopped trying (and hoping) to not get butterflies in my stomach for no reason. I stopped caring about my breathing frequency and depth. I even began to be playful with my problem, showing that I didn’t care: “Only five butterflies this time? That’s it? Give me a few more!”

Losing hope meant I stopped trying to fight the battles. And that’s how I won the war and regained my mental freedom!

I know, it’s a story as inspiring as Braveheart. But did you know this concept has been shown elsewhere?

One day, novelist Leo Tolstoy’s brother told him to sit in a corner until he stopped thinking about a white bear. Much later that day, Tolstoy remained in the corner, his mind fixated on the white bear he needed to stop thinking about. He was finally able to stop thinking about the white bear when his brother gave him permission to think about it.

This experiment has been replicated, and the result is always the same: when people forbid themselves or attempt to rid their mind of something, it boomerangs back to them with alarming consistency and persistency.

“Studies show that the more you try to suppress negative thoughts, the more likely you are to become depressed.” ~Kelly McGonigal, PhD. (The Willpower Instinct)

Hope drives persistence, which is why losing hope in an area that requires retreat is so often freedom. 

More effort does not always bring greater results. Smarter strategies always bring greater results.

Think of an area in your life in which you are trying, fighting, and hoping without making progress. What would losing hope and letting go look like?

This is most helpful with areas like anxiety, worry, fear, and depression. When you accept them and stop hoping they go away, they lose a considerable amount of their power over you.

For me, losing hope was freedom. Maybe it will be for you too.

Kneeling silhouette via Shutterstock

About Stephen Guise

Stephen Guise is the international bestselling author of “Mini Habits” and “How to Be an Imperfectionist.” His blog, Deep Existence, is one of the world’s most popular resources online for focusing and habit-building strategies. Sign up for updates and you’ll receive 40 custom desktop focus wallpapers, Stephen’s book on stress-management, 50+ subscriber-exclusive articles, and practical life tips every Tuesday morning.

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  • Dee

    This was awesome and right on time. You don’t know how much this has helped. Thank you.

  • neethu nath

    It is a very useful one for those who are going through this. Thank you for sharing your experience. But its really difficult to cope up with anxiety. I too feel like giving up.

  • Lovid1930

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  • Stephen,

    I totally enjoyed your post. yes, giving ourselves permission to give up hoping and just allow life to unfold can be so liberating. You have given me renewed hope or shall I say no hope. grin!

  • Susan Mary Malone

    You hit the tack on its head, Stephen. When hope means insanely desiring (which it often does :), it’s so counterproductive. And isn’t letting go incredibly liberating! Good for you, and thank you for this post!

  • Lis Moeller

    I’ve been through some ridiculously difficult phases in my life that led me to see that hoping for certain outcomes is a horrible waste of emotion and time and a great way to set yourself up for repeated disappointment. Flowing with life and looking for the beauty and the lessons while doing the best I can in each moment is the way for me. Control is an illusion and so is hope. Thank you for putting it into words far better than I could.

  • jay_em

    I totally agree with this article as I got tired of worrying and hoping,thus I just threw my hands up in the air and let life happened to me. I am not saying that we should just sit, wait and see what future will hand in to us, still we must do what for us seem reasonable and what we as humans should do but if it seems uncontrollable and worrying and thinking about it just drain us of our precious energy then I really think it is safe to say ” Let it go…”

  • Laura J Tong

    It’s amazing how giving up moved you on. A great post with a difficult story shared, thank you Stephen. So pleased you found such a positive strategy.

  • I know. Anxiety is extremely difficult to deal with. I recommend exercise, too. Exercise was a huge help to me.

  • Hi Susan,

    I’m glad you liked it. Haha, I hope you stay hopeless? This perspective does create awkward-sounding conversations. 🙂

  • Thank you, Susan. Letting go is blissful freedom. I thought this angle of letting go by losing hope would help people to do it as it helped me. Thanks for your comment!

  • I like how you said “waste of emotion.” That’s a good way to put it. I really appreciate what you said here. Our emotions in life are mostly due to what we get compared to what we expect. This is why letting go of “hopeful expectations” puts us in a better emotional state.

  • That’s insightful. Letting go of intense hope doesn’t mean being passive. It actually “unfroze me.” When I was in the anxious hopeful state of mind, I was afraid or too preoccupied to live life normally. Once I let go of that and accepted that I would sometimes feel nervous for no reason, I was able to go and exercise, which further helped my condition. It’s important to get into a positive cycle. Thanks Jay!

  • Thank you, Laura. I appreciate the support! I was surprised that this ended up being the solution for me, but it made more and more sense as I thought about it.

  • I’m so glad, Dee! Best of luck to you.

  • OK I have to shrae. Even I would freak out over spider bites.

  • Benz Perez

    Yes, hope is often something that is portrayed as positive when it can really backfire on us.

    We should “be as if” – In your case, be and think as if the spider bite will never happen. NOT hope. BE. Make it reality.

    Hope defines something as something that is not there YET. BE will allow us to avoid unnecessary stress. It is also something that might be hard to get at first. To practice BEING I believe that you should practice staying present and meditating.

    Hope you all are well!

    Lol just kidding,

    I KNOW you all will BE fine

  • satpalkhayaal

    Dear Stephen guise- good article ,you have said well that all the self help book are about let go and I am also going thru such real pain thru fake worries. Its good to accept everything as it happened,but its not easy. Good article

  • Paula Ronen

    Some quotes by Eckhart Tolle:

    “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it.”

    “Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.”

    “Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.”

    “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”

    “Whatever you fight, you strengthen, and what you resist, persists.”

    “Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? what could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say “yes” to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.”

  • neethu nath

    I know. But still find it very difficult. Thank you for the article.

  • Mike Loader

    Not sure if this is really relevant but I’d like to share it anyway. An attempt at a poem.Thirty years ago I was teaching Shotokan Karate as a Black Belt. Today, I have to take 9 different medications every day plus another 4 if I need them. Life Changes!

    “My mindfulness
    To be still & feel real
    to let life’s fears drift away
    and let our lives be in harmony
    with all that we should be.
    There is so much in life, to give and so much to live
    we must not loose sight, of failing to a plight
    of loosing our direction .
    The need for re-connection and help with a new direction
    will lead to our better life,
    no longer full of strife but full of love,
    for all that is around and profound
    to see the beauty that we need to succeed
    and to be able to heed all the love in all of our hearts
    and where that must lead,
    Is all I think we need,”
    Mike Loader
    July 2015″

  • I love your emphasis on being. There are no expectations attached to being. This is why meditation is so useful—it’s practicing just being. Thanks Benz!

  • It’s not always easy, but it can be easier with the right mindset and strategies. Best of luck to you!

  • Admittedly, I haven’t read much Eckhart Tolle, but these quotes are absolutely fantastic. Thanks for sharing these!

  • It’s very nice, Mike. I’m sure it was therapeutic to write that, as well! I wish you the best in what seems to have been a challenging life transition. Keep writing!

  • Drew

    You’re right I have had similar health anxiety that basically took over me 24×7 until I gave up ‘hope’!! This sounds more like surrender unto Super Self and allowing a thing to take it’s natural course… Just a spiritual perspective.

  • Skywalker Payne

    Know this may seem strange to you Stephen, but those spider bites were a blessing. Think if it hadn’t happened would you have accomplished all you have done so far? I say this because the spider is my totem. Spiders are sacred and special creatures. They bring abundance and carry their homes with them. And it seems brought you benefits too. By the way, I totally agree with what you wrote. I apply letting go too, to letting go of our fears.

  • Tir

    Hope, to me, is accepting that no matter what happens you will be ok.

  • Lis Moeller

    Also, you can’t just let go once. You have to constantly be letting go, because society often tells you what you should expect from this and that in life and you have to actively choose to tune that input out. Sometimes, your expectations exist subconsciously, instilled from birth, and you have to ask yourself how you set yourself up for disappointment with expectations you didn’t realize you had for yourself, your environment and others.

  • Annie Anne

    “Hope is dangerous when it compels you fight a battle you can’t win.” Was fighting so hard to make things work in my career and hold onto a relationship with hope that things will get better. Letting go of hope is in a lot of ways letting go of some expectations which aren’t dominating in the present moment. Thank you for your wonderful words.

  • Lily

    Stephen, I’m deeply touched by your experience – partly because I found a bit of myself in it. Hope, in its most innocent form, is no more than the beginning of expectation and I’ve been an expectation addict my entire life. It’s what lead me to a mental breakdown as well – having high hopes and great expectations of myself and people and how my life SHOULD turn out. Guess what – none of my expectations came to life and I ended up losing hope, losing myself completely and founding my new, true self in the process. It was time to truly live, not just hope to live. Some days, I find myself entangled in hope’s web, but then a powerful piece of writing like yours comes along and I am reminded of the present moment again. So, thank you for sharing.

    Lily

  • Lily

    Wise words, Lis. Had I known that my high expectations were subconscious, I would’ve saved myself from hours and hours of therapy. But, it had to happen in order for me to wake up.

  • lacy.escalan
  • mtlrp

    Nice advice, I can see very clearly while reading this exactly how letting go can help me because I am in a bit of a no-hope situation right now and continuing to think about it–all day long most days–is not helping me one iota so far.

  • OverwinCoach

    Losing all hope is freedom. So once I lose all hope I become free? Free of the prison of mind and suffering? Unfortunately this is not true. Why? Because if you believe that losing all hope will set you free (or make you happy) you hope for it too happen.

    And let’s say that it does happen. You lose hope (hit rock bottom) for a day or so. Then you’ll hope for it to always be this way so you can stay free or happy. Trust me I’ve been there and done that.

    But when there’s a hope there always will be fear. Hope and fear are two sides of the same coin. And you’ll fear to lose your acquired happiness of freedom. And this fear (as a consequence of hope) puts you back in the prison of mind or suffering.

    The truth is the mind is not capable of losing hope. It’s part of it’s broken nature. Therefore there’s no hope for you or me. You’ll never become free of mind or happy. In your heart you know this to true. Suffering is part of life. Accept this fact. Not to become free. But because it’s the truth. Nothing more, nothing less.

  • Hello There

    An excellent write up! This exactly describes my current state of mind.. I don’t have a single shred of hope to stick to, and yet I don’t feel depressed like I used to earlier. Perhaps a true Zen feeling where you feel have truly let go of the past and don’t let it drag you down about your future. And yet, you don’t fear the future as you know you are not completely in control of your destiny.

  • Hello There

    Thanks Lily, that comment reverberates with my experience as well. I find that a lot of my peers have moved on with their lives, and a lot of what I expected from myself has not come to fruition and probably never will. It feels good to know that I’m not alone in this, and articles like Stephen’s definitely are a soothing balm to the soul.

  • DarkPlaceDarkTime

    I think you need to be cautious when telling people it is ok to give up hope. In some cases of mental health issues a faint glimmer of hope can be all that keeps someone from suicide. I do appreciate the concept of surrendering to what will be but that is not the same as giving up hope when a tiny ray is ALL you have left keeping you alive.

  • Joshua

    Great article! Keep it up.

  • weldon labang

    Thanks.. i can suicide now..

  • Aishwarya J

    ”Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torments of man” – Nietzsche

    Paulo Coelho — ‘Now that she had nothing to lose, she was free’.

    Great Article. Must read for everyone. Thanks!!

  • Karl Booth

    This makes me remember people in war time talking of only having hope and the need to hold onto it to try and keep it together?

    As without hope all you have is dispare and that’s not a good state to be in so I’m not sure if I agree with this ie is depression a form of loosing all hope?

  • SeekerOfTruth

    Contrary to some of the comments, in my opinion, “letting go of hope” is not the same as “nothing will ever get better” (as some commentators interpreted). Rather, it means “Stop fighting by letting your noisy primal brain doing the battle for you, and instead give a chance to your still and quiet mind to do the battle for you.” The difference in the outcome could be enormous.

    Here is a poem from the mystic poet Rumi. Note that in this poem “to die” does not refer to “physical death”, rather it refers to the death of all the noises in our head (e.g., the expectations, the negative thoughts, the constant inner chit-chat and so on.)

    Inside this new love, die.
    Your way begins on the other side.
    Become the sky.
    Take an axe to the prison wall.
    Escape.
    Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
    Do it now.

    You’re covered with thick cloud.
    Slide out the side.
    Die, and be quiet.
    Quietness is the surest sign that you’ve died.
    Your old life was a frantic running from silence.

    The speechless full moon comes out now.

  • Thomas E Croucher

    Ok….so, Aho and love to you. But….let’s find humor in the Announcement at the end. Well……it’s sorta funny :/

  • john conor

    Ich bin nicht gut, meine Liebe, wir haben eine Situation, hier bin ich im Krankenhaus Liebling

  • Alice4

    Although I can see where you’re coming from, I think you’re talking about just taking a different approach and stopping fighting something that you couldn’t fight, rather than stopping hope. I think it’s dangerous to advise people to stop hoping. Hope drives us, it’s what gives us the motivation to try things. The loss of it can bring despair.
    In your case you were hoping for something that couldn’t happen that way, and of course hoping in vain needs to be let go of. The thing there is discernment – knowing when to quit, and when to keep going.

  • John Lyshitsky

    Good post! You couldn’t be more right. Whoever believes in hope is a fool and will continue to be depressed and miserable till they are free from that prison they put themselves in!