Why You Must Get Your Hopes Up

How many times have you been told or even said it yourself: Don’t get your hopes up! We’ve been conditioned to think that it will hurt more if we get our hopes up and then they don’t come true. We rationalize that if we set our sights lower, we won’t be as disappointed. 

In the medical field, I’ve heard my colleagues say things like, “I didn’t want to give my patient false hope, so I made sure they knew the chances were slim for…a cure, a positive response to a new treatment, a speedy recovery…and so on.” 

My heart always sinks when I hear things like this. Hope is a powerful force and critical ingredient for letting go of the past and moving courageously into the future. Contrary to that popular adage, we must get our hopes up if we want to heal and transform. 

What is Hope?

Hope is an emotion, and just as with other emotions, hope is generated by a certain way of thinking. That means that if we practice engaging in a hopeful way of thinking, we will experience greater hope. 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines hope as “a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen.” 

Thus, we can think of getting our hopes up like setting an expectation for a desired future outcome. So, based on this definition of hope, why is it important that we get our hopes up?

Because, in general, we get what we expect. 

To help understand why this is true about expectations, we’ll have a look at self-fulfilling prophecies and the placebo effect. Then, I will give you an effective strategy to help you get your hopes up.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

When we expect something, we act in ways that line up with our expectation. These actions help to bring about the thing we expect. In the world of psychology, this principle is called the self-fulfilling prophecy. 

For example, if we expect to have a fun evening with friends, we likely arrive in good spirits and eagerly engage in the conversation. Our positive attitude and engagement is felt by our friends and is reciprocated. We feel encouraged and pleased that we are being responded to well and this inspires more positive feelings and actions. Eventually, by the end of the night, we have created a fun evening for ourselves. 

Conversely, if we expect to be miserable, we will likely arrive with a poor attitude and either withdraw from the conversation or contribute in negative and critical ways. This will not be received well by the people we are with, who will send subtle or not so subtle messages of their disappointment or disapproval. 

These messages will further confirm our expectation that this was going to be a miserable evening, and we will end the night having experienced exactly what we expected to experience. 

The Placebo Effect

The placebo effect is another example of the power of hope or expectations. A placebo is an inert substance that doesn’t have any healing properties in and of itself. However, people can experience benefits from an inactive substance, such as a sugar pill, just by expecting that it will help. When this happens, it’s called the placebo effect. 

Researchers at Harvard Medical School found that, remarkably, our bodies can adjust our experience of pain relief from a medication just by altering the information we’re given and presumably the expectations we have as a result of this information (Kam-Hansen et al., 2014). 

Throughout the study, each patient received true, false, or uncertain information about the pill they were taking to help reduce their migraine pain. Sometimes they were given pain medication and were told they were taking pain medication (true condition), and sometimes they were given a placebo pill and were told it was a placebo pill, meaning it was inert (i.e., a sugar pill) and would not have an effect on their pain (also true condition). 

In the false condition, they were either given the real medication and told it was a placebo (to lower expectations) or given the placebo and told it was the medication (to raise expectations). Finally, in the uncertain condition, they were given a pill and told it could either be a placebo or the medication. 

The Results of Having an Expectation

Here’s what happened. People who received the pain medication experienced a greater reduction in pain than those who received the placebo pill. And, those who received the placebo pill did better than no treatment. These two findings were expected (no pun intended!). 

Now here’s where it gets interesting, where we start to see the power of information and expectancies. People who were given the migraine medication, but were told it was a placebo pill experienced less pain relief than when they were told they were getting the medication (false condition to lower expectation).  

In other words, the pain medicine was less effective when people didn’t believe it was medicine. 

Furthermore, people who received the placebo pill and were told it was medicine (false condition to raise expectation) experienced more relief from their pain than if they were told they got the placebo pill. In fact, they experienced the same amount of relief as those who received the medicine, but were told it was a sugar pill! 

In other words, the placebo was more effective when participants believed they were actually getting the medicine. 

Your Beliefs are Powerful

These results, and those from hundreds of other similar studies, demonstrate that what we expect impacts us, and it does so at the very neuro-cellular level. The effects of pain medication can be blocked by what we believe. Not only that, but we can also create pain relief in our body just by believing we are doing something that is going to reduce pain. 

I believe this pain relief isn’t just applicable to physical pain; our beliefs impact our experience of emotional pain, too. The bottom line of the research on the placebo effect and self-fulfilling prophecies is that we get what we expect. 

And given that, it is so important that we be intentional about what we expect—what we hope for—and to use this power for our good.

Your Expectation Is Your Choice: Choose Wisely

But when we’ve been pummeled by life, it can be very hard to expect things to get better, especially when the pummeling just seems to keep on coming. It can also feel scary to expect things to get better because what if they don’t? Then what? It can feel unbearable to think of having to go through more pain and disappointment. 

However, what I’ve noticed in my own life and in the lives of my clients is that it’s far better to hope for something and not see it realized than it is to sink in the pit of hopelessness and despair and resignation. 

You see, here’s the real kicker: You are never expectation free. You’re always expecting something. 

You’re either expecting nothing to change, for things to get worse, or for things to get better. Given what we know about the self-fulfilling prophecy and placebos, it’s clear that we can change our reality with our beliefs. Knowing this, we can and should use our hope for our benefit. 

A Strategy for Getting Your Hope Up

I want to leave you with a strategy for how we can get our hope up. It’s a strategy I learned from my writing coach when I was going through my divorce. It was a life saver for me. Here it is: 

You need to do more “What if’ing.” 

But not the kind of what if’ing you’re likely doing right now. How many times have you said something like, what if I’m never happy again? What if I can’t have another baby? What if we go bankrupt? What if treatment for the illness makes it impossible to work and we lose the house? What if no one ever loves me again? What if I can’t do this? 

We’re really good at imaging the worst-case scenarios. As we just saw, when we focus our attention and our thoughts on these negative scenarios, our emotions, behaviors, and our very lives begin to go in these negative directions. 

Instead of coming up with worse case scenarios, try focusing on best case scenarios, or even just better case scenarios. You can do this by changing your “what if” statements. 

Here are some examples: What if this turns out well for me? What if I go to bed with a smile on my face? What if there’s another way of looking at this? What if this is the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me? What if love is right around the corner? 

What if I’m being prepared for something incredible? What if our needs are provided for? What if I’m not alone in this mess? What if I’m stronger than I think? What if I love the person I end up being as a result of going through this pain?

By asking “what if” in this manner, you create a little opening in your brain. You’re not telling it something definitive, like I won’t lose my job or I will love again, which could easily be rejected as not true.

Instead, you’re proposing a possibility for your mind to marinate on. Filling your mind with these positive, curious questions is a wonderful way to quickly generate a more hopeful state of being. 

The next time someone tells you not to get your hopes up, try instead to double down on your hopeful beliefs, set your expectations high for what you desire, and feed your hope by creating positive what-if statements. 

In other words, get your hopes up like your future depends on it—because it does. 

About Dr. Michelle Pearce:

Dr. Michelle Pearce is a clinical psychologist, author, researcher, health and wellness coach, and Professor in the Graduate School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Her newest book, “Night Bloomers: 12 Principles for Thriving in Adversity,” uses journaling as a tool for building resilience. For more journaling prompts, check out her book at one of your favorite online retailers, including AmazonBarnes and Noble, and Indie Bound.

5 Ways Journaling Can Build Your Resilience

Michelle Pearce, PhD

Writing is good for you. I don’t mean writing a term paper or a work report or even a Dear Diary entry. I mean a type of reflective writing that allows you to get your deep thoughts and feelings out of your head and onto the page. This type of journaling has been a lifeline for me and for many of my clients during difficult times.

Journaling helps us to process adversity, improve our health, and build our resilience—all things we could use during this challenging year! But you don’t have to take my word for it. There are have been more than three decades worth of research on the benefits of reflective journaling. Let’s first look at why writing is good for you. Then, I’ll share 5 ways you can use journaling to build your resilience.

Research Shows Writing is Helpful

Dr. James Pennebaker, a social psychologist, conducted the first journaling experiment in 1986, now repeated hundreds of times by researchers around the world. He and his team asked undergraduate students to write about either a trauma or a neutral topic (such as describing the room they were sitting in) for 15 to 20 minutes a day over a period of four days. The students who wrote about a trauma, describing both the traumatic event and their feelings about it, experienced better physical health, fewer doctor visits, improved sleep, less pain, and more positive mood over the following months.

That was our first glimpse that there is something about getting one’s pain into the written word that helps the body and mind feel better.

Since then, researchers have found a host of other benefits for the writer, including better immune system functioning, improved sleep, reduced depression, and lower stress hormones and blood pressure. The physiological and psychological changes facilitated by writing cause our bodies and minds to relax, creating a fertile context for healing.

How Writing Helps us to Build Resilience

Writing is an effective and convenient tool, one we can use anytime and anywhere when we’re going through times of suffering, stress, and loss. Here are at least five ways that journaling can help us better manage adversity and build our resilience. To help you experience the benefits of journaling yourself, I’ll provide a writing prompt for each way below. Try giving yourself 10 to 15 minutes to write about each prompt.

  • Grieve Your Loss
Writing helps us to move through our suffering and pain by first acknowledging its existence. Many of us want to skip over mourning and get right on to feeling resilient. I get it, I’m the same way. But I’ve learned through years of clinical practice as a psychologist, and in my own life journey through loss, that you have to grieve before you can grow. There’s just no way around this. 

Thankfully, journaling provides us with a safe, private, and welcoming place to release our painful emotions and dark thoughts. We can say the same thing over and over again in our journal without worrying that anyone will get tired of hearing about it. We can also write about the things we’re too afraid or ashamed to say to someone else. Our journals can help us ride the inevitable waves of grief. 

Try this Writing Prompt: 

“I said to someone I know, ‘I don’t know why this hurts so much.’ And she said, ‘it hurts because it mattered.’ And that was a huge thing for me to realize. That there are things in life that hurt. And they hurt because they were important.” (John Green)

Can you identify with this idea that “it hurts because it mattered? What in your life has hurt because it mattered?

  • Mine Your Mess

“Mine your mess” is a phrase I use with my clients to describe the process of looking back at what has happened in our lives, so that we can learn from our painful experiences and from any mistakes we may have made. Armed with this precious knowledge, we can make the changes we need to overcome adversity and become more resilient. The difference between thinking about our mess and mining our mess is meaning-making. 

When we find meaning in our mess, we are mining the lessons that will allow us to change course. When we simply think about the mess, we stay stuck in the past way of doing things. Researchers who study loss and bereavement have discovered that it is not time that heals all wounds, but rather it is meaning that heals all wounds. Making meaning or making sense of our painful experiences and our potential role in them is what leads to healing and transformation. In other words, reflecting on the mess plus finding meaning and lessons to be learned equals mining the mess. Our journal is an excellent place to mine our messes!

Try this Writing Prompt: 

It has been said that our fiercest enemies can be our greatest teachers. Make a list of at least ten things you have learned through experiencing this difficult time in your life. These might be things you have learned about yourself, others, relationships, your priorities, your strengths and weaknesses, spirituality, and life in general. Elaborate on how you learned each of these things. Notice what feelings come up for you as you make this list and take some time to write about these emotions.

  • Explore Other Perspectives

Journaling is like acting—the page is a stage where we can try out new identities, new perspectives, and new ways of thinking and being. There is often a difference between who we are showing up as in our lives and who we wish we were showing up as. We can use our writing to explore a different way of thinking about and handling the challenging situations in our lives. 

One of the most powerful things a therapist can do is help a client find a new perspective—a new way of thinking about something that has caused distress. We can use our journals to do the very same thing a therapist would help us do: Explore a different perspective and change our thoughts. Once we change how we are thinking, we start a dynamic chain reaction. Our feelings, outlook, behavior, and physiology all change when we change how we are thinking. 

Try this Writing Prompt: 

We spend a lot of our mental energy worrying about the worst-case scenario. We imagine that if we plan for the worst, we will somehow be better prepared for it. Unfortunately, not only are we no more prepared for this feared situation, but we also make ourselves miserable in the process. Most of the time, what we worry about never happens! 

Rather than imagining the worst-case scenario, we can use our minds to do the opposite: imagine the best-case scenario. Take some time to write about the very best way your current circumstance (or life) could go. Be as detailed as you can. Then, write about how you feel dwelling on the best-case scenario.

  • Create a New Narrative 

To heal, we need to do more than simply recall our story of pain and suffering. We need to reconstruct our story. You’ll find that as you write your story about the adversity you endured or are currently experiencing, it will become more objective and you will gain emotional distance from it. Eventually, you will integrate the trauma and suffering into your overall life narrative, so that it no longer runs the show. Like editing, you will “rework and reword,” and finally you will find yourself with a new narrative and with a new ending to your story.

Try this Writing Prompt: 

What story have you been telling yourself about your challenging life situation? This might be a story about what led you into this time of pain and suffering or what it’s been like for you since you’ve experienced this difficult event. Write a few paragraphs describing your current story. Include facts, feelings, thoughts, and explanations.

What would your story look like from the vantage point of you already thriving? Write a different story about the same facts and events you wrote about above, but this time from the perspective of your already thriving self. You might also incorporate the best-case scenario ending you wrote about above.

  • Celebrate Your Growth 

It can be easy when we’re grieving or going through adversity to just put our heads down and do whatever needs to be done to get to the other side. But there are lots of things to celebrate before we get to that other side. In fact, it’s vital that we take time to acknowledge and celebrate each baby step we take forward. These moments of celebration fuel our next steps and remind us how we are growing through this pain. 

Try this Writing Prompt: 

No matter where you are in your process, take a few moments to celebrate your achievements (big and small), as well as your effort, perseverance, and courage. Use this space to list all the things you have to celebrate. Include all of the blessings, benefits, and becomings as a result of this challenging time. You might reflect on the following questions as you write your celebration list: 

  •  What character traits have you developed or refined?
  •  What new doors have opened?
  •  How has your life expanded?
  •  How have your priorities changed?

Your journal is a powerful tool for healing and transformation. When your world gets turned upside down, when you’re grieving a loss, when you’re trying to make sense of something or chart a new way forward—try journaling, and build your resilience, one word at a time. 

  • About Dr. Michelle Pearce:

Dr. Michelle Pearce is a clinical psychologist, author, researcher, health and wellness coach, and Professor in the Graduate School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Her newest book, “Night Bloomers: 12 Principles for Thriving in Adversity,” uses journaling as a tool for building resilience. For more journaling prompts, check out her book at one of your favorite online retailers, including AmazonBarnes and Noble, and Indie Bound.

How to Bloom in the Dark

Beyond Resilience: How to Bloom in the Dark

Michelle Pearce, PhD

I used to want to be resilient. Then, I learned there was another option when going through adversity, a perspective that would allow me to go beyond resilience. Now, I want to be a Night Bloomer.

Let me back up.

Resilience. It’s a popular word these days and there are many ways of defining it. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences” (APA, n.d.).

Adapting or “bouncing back” can mean any number of things. It might mean interviewing for another job after being rejected by the last ten companies with whom you’ve interviewed. Or, falling in love again after you have been betrayed.

Resilience Isn’t Always Enough

As wonderful as resilience is, I don’t think it’s enough. For one thing, we don’t always want to “bounce back” to where we were before the adversity arrived. That original place wasn’t necessarily a great place to be. And, second, if we must go through it, why not come out even better than we were before? Why not have something positive to show for all our effort and struggle? Time spent in suffering and struggle is like an investment, and no one strives for a zero return rate.

A few years ago, I came across the psychological concept of post-traumatic growth. The idea is that people can grow as a result of going through a trauma or severe stress. It’s the opposite of post-traumatic stress, which leaves us in a worse state after experiencing a trauma.

Post-traumatic growth is also possible without going through a trauma as defined by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual—the set of criteria that mental health professionals like myself use to diagnose mental health disorders. Small “t” traumas, losses, and adversity can also result in our growth. It certainly has for me and for many of my clients. I call positive transformation and growth through adversity “blooming in the dark.”

Blooming in the Dark

I was in clinic seeing clients one afternoon, not too long after my husband rocked my world by announcing he wanted a divorce. A friend texted me a picture of a vibrant pink flower with a message that read, “Night blooming cactus. I’ve cared for this cactus for years and it finally bloomed last night.”

Those two sentences and that pink flower changed everything.

I had no idea that some flowers bloom in the dark, that some flowers actually require the dark to bloom. As I paused to consider this new information, it hit me: some people need the dark to bloom.

Some people need the trials and suffering and loss and life upheavals to experience growth and transformation, to come into the fullness of their beings and life purpose. I am one of those people. Like it or not, my greatest personal growth has always come from spending a season in the darkness of pain, loss, and suffering.

I think there are a lot of us out there who need the dark. I call us “Night Bloomers.” We do just as our name says—we bloom in the darkness of adversity.

People Who Bloom in the Dark Become More Than They Were

Blooming in the dark includes the idea of resilience, but it’s about even more than that. When you bloom in the dark, you don’t just bounce back from a trauma or adapt to adversity—you become more as a result of that trauma or adversity.

Let’s return to the examples we used earlier to help define resilience: the job seeker seeking again and the lover loving again. Now let’s take it a step further and see what it would look like if these people bloomed in the dark, allowing their adversity to propel them forward in life.

The man didn’t just continue to interview for jobs after experiencing a series of rejections. He took the time to do some difficult soul-searching with the help of a therapist and realized that deep down he didn’t believe he was worth hiring. He expected rejection, not just from potential employers, but from everyone in life. He worked through this negative self-belief and not only did he interview well and get the job, but he also started enjoying life in a brand-new way. His whole outlook was more positive and engaging.

The woman who had been betrayed didn’t just fall in love again; this time she loved with her whole being. She fully engaged in her next relationship and experienced a level of intimacy that she didn’t even know existed. This second relationship was far more fulfilling than her first one. Through her experience of loss, she learned how to really love a partner and how to receive love in return.

In these examples, the individuals weren’t just resilient, meaning they didn’t just refuse to let an adversity define them or their dreams. These individuals bloomed in the dark. They allowed the force that collapsed something in their lives to be the very energy that caused them to become a better version of themselves.

How to Bloom in the Dark

In my book, Night Bloomers: 12 Principles for Thriving in Adversity, I discuss 12 concrete strategies that we can use to bloom in the dark. I’ll briefly summarize three of those strategies here. Let me preface the strategies below by saying how important it is to acknowledge our pain and mourn our losses before we get to blooming. Indeed, one of the first principles in Night Bloomers is to Grieve Before Growing.

1. Set an Intention to Bloom

This might sound obvious, but before you can bloom, you need a vision of your own transformation, a vision of what is possible in your life, and a clear idea of how you want to harness the adversity you are experiencing.

Usually the pain and suffering that enters our lives is out of our control, as is the ultimate outcome of the painful situation we are in (e.g., whether or not a cure is found for an illness). However, setting an intention to develop certain character traits or create a new focus for one’s life, coupled with practical tools to achieve these intentions, can provide you with a sense of control and agency during difficult and uncertain times.

Blooming Tip: Journal about the type of person you want to become and the story you want to be able to tell about yourself and your life when this dark season is over. Creating a blooming vision board is another great way to have a visual reminder of who you want to become, as a result of this dark season.

2. Support Your Bloom

Don’t try to get through the darkness alone. We need to get and stay connected to others, especially during difficult times. Just like some plants need to be staked as they are growing, Night Bloomers need to be “staked” or supported as they are going through their blooming process. This kind of support can come from a variety of people in your life: family, friends, professional counselors, coaches, clergy, mind-body workers, and so on.

Blooming Tip: Make a list of all the stakes (i.e., support system) you already have in your life and what role each person plays. Then, write down the steps you can take to draw upon each person’s support strategically, as well as who you might need to add to your support system to have a well-rounded garden of support.

3. Expand Courageously

Blooming takes a lot of courage. For some, courage means facing reality rather than embracing an illusion. For others, courage is simply getting out of bed in the morning. For other a little farther along in the process, courage means forging a new identity and expanding both internally and externally. To become more than you were, you must expand, and expanding takes both action and courage.

Blooming Tip: Make a list of new hobbies and experiences you want to have, and what baby (and big) steps you need to take to get there. Then, flex your courage muscle by engaging in one of the activities on your list. Take a friend with you if you need, and remember to stretch, but not splatter as you are expanding. One baby step at a time.

If you are going through a difficult time right now—and with everything that is going on in the world, most of us are facing more challenges than ever—I hope you will consider going beyond resilience and instead choose to bloom in the dark.

You’ll be in good company—there are a lot of us Night Bloomers out there. And, with this new perspective and these practical strategies, I think you’ll find the darkness to be a surprisingly fertile and transformative place. Here’s to you blooming!

–Adapted excerpts from Night Bloomers: 12 Principles for Thriving in Adversity published by Ixia Press/Dover Publications.

About Dr. Michelle Pearce:

Dr. Michelle Pearce is a clinical psychologist, author, researcher, health and wellness coach, and Professor in the Graduate School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Her newest book, “Night Bloomers: 12 Principles for Thriving in Adversity,” is available at your favorite online retailer, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indie Bound.