“If I had my s— together, I’d never feel despair.” Or so I tell myself. If that’s true, I definitely don’t have my s—together. I’m a happy person…and sometimes I experience despair.
Should I hit “delete” and retreat to a safer topic? Perhaps. But experience tells me I am not alone in feeling this. If you have not yet accepted your sensitivity, you too may know despair firsthand.
Despair is hard to feel, and even harder to write about: too intense, too personal, too revealing. Shameful even. Why is it such a challenging feeling? How do you move through it?
What is despair?
Despair is defined as the “total loss or absence of hope.” Hope, in turn, is “a feeling of expectation or desire for a certain thing to happen.” So despair is “the total loss or absence of any expectation and desire that a certain thing will happen.”
There’s a lot to that. The totality of it—”total loss.” Despair is not just the loss of desire, but of expectation and even possibility as well. No wonder this is so challenging to feel: intense pain that feels as if it can never change.
That sounds like despair is too much to feel. But is it? I wonder if I’ve had it backwards. I wonder if pushing the despair away is what feels so terrible, not the despair itself.
When I push despair away, I soldier on, but at a price: with each step, I feel as if a trapdoor could open into the abyss. What if my true task is to feel the despair?—to let go of that which cannot happen to make room for what can happen?
Two parts in conflict
When despair shows up, I end up oscillating between two “somethings”—two inner parts. I merge first with one, then with the other:
- Something in me that feels despair
- Something in me that is terrified of the despair, and determined not to feel it
When I am merged with the first part, I feel as if I am drowning in despair. This is unbearable, so the second part steps in. It works overtime to push away the despair.
#2 keeps me alive and functional. That’s good. But it too is desperate. It is sure I’ll be annihilated if I fall into the abyss. So it gives my determined productivity a forced, desperate edge.
What despair needs
What makes the despair unbearable is not the feeling itself. It is the loneliness and overwhelm of being “in the river” with the despair. No one is there to hear its cry for help.
So despair needs company. But it also needs respect. In fact, it demands it. A despairing part has no tolerance for being cheered up, and no wonder. From its point of view, there is no hope. To be with despair, you need to respect that and not flinch.
And despair needs radical acceptance. If I patronize my despair, or try to fix it, I send it into deeper despair. It needs to know I’m willing to let it be as it is for as long as it needs to. No conditions.
The gift: pure Presence
Though I’ve somehow always known how to be with others’ despair, I felt ashamed of my own. This became a vicious cycle in which I’d keep the feelings pent up until they burst out, which alarmed those around me even more and made it impossible for them to be with me in an accepting way.
Focusing changed that. With Focusing, I could accept and be with all that: the part that feels despair, the part that is terrified of the despair, and the part that is ashamed of the despair. Focusing covered it all. It transformed my ability to be with the intense feelings that are a hallmark of high sensitivity.
It takes time and practice to develop the skill to be with emotions as intense as despair, but the reward is high: a rare level of unconditional Presence. If you can be present with all this, what can faze you?
To meet life fearlessly as sensitive persons, we need this skill. Stay tuned for information about my upcoming focusing course designed especially for HSP’s.
Thank you, Kaitlyn (kaity.wyenberg.gmail.com) for this extraordinary photo
Great article Emily, It seems we feel it but don’t talk about it… I love the way you explain despair and what it might feel like.
“What makes the despair unbearable is not the feeling itself. It is the loneliness and overwhelm of being “in the river” with the despair. No one is there to hear its cry for help.”
And just being with it, accepting and allowing while making space for it.
You are welcome Deb. Yes, “just” being with it. I say “just” because it isn’t always so easy….but it is what is needed.