“I just feel hopeless!” A day does not go by without hearing my patients talk about their feelings of hopelessness, especially my younger ones. I put a lot of thought into both the causes and reasonable ways for my patients to manage these feelings. Recently my wife and my assistant Karen were discussing this issue and Karen made an observation neither my wife nor I had considered: social media.
Throughout history people have asked, “What’s the point of life?”, and of their own existence. Today with the “global village” we create through social media and the digital world, it is very easy for people to define themselves and their meaning by the images others project. The problem is people generally only put out a very edited view of their life. So, we are constantly bombarded by stories of the successes of our friends and acquaintances. Z has his/her life perfectly planned out, X has the ideal boy/girlfriend, B found the greatest job, Y went on a luxurious vacation, A only buys expensive clothes, Q just had a wonderful destination wedding, J is expecting a perfect child, P just bought the perfect house, and on it goes. If you are looking for the meaning of your life, this all gives you impossible expectations.
If you’re reading all about the wonderful things happening to others, and not much positive seems to be happening in your own life, you begin to wonder “What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I have all the great things I read about?"
Let’s compare the social media version of life to the real world: Few young people today have anything approaching a perfect life. Many college grads are saddled with a crazy amount of debt from college loans and little chance of finding a decent job in the field they studied. Q’s great wedding has a 50% chance of ending in divorce. J’s perfect baby could turn out to be less than perfect, especially around two years old. B gets down-sized out of the ideal job. Yet people continue to post about how wonderful their lives are. They frequently omit any doubts, insecurities or failures. They exist, but not digitally.
The last thing most young people want when they are feeling hopeless is to be told what to do to improve their situation. Many of the suggestions adults make sound irrelevant to them. And perhaps they are.
The first thing I can do for a patient who feels hopeless is to give them the opportunity to express their feelings without judgement or unwanted advice. If the hopelessness is placing the person in danger, I will follow the protocols to keep them safe and get them the additional help they need.
To the young person experiencing an episode of hopelessness I offer you the following possibilities to consider:
Remember you only see the very small part of another person’s life that they want you to see, through their social media postings.
Many people use social media simply to brag or complain.
When you compare yourself to the braggarts, you might question your own success in life.
When you only listen to the complainers, it can hook into your own doubts, frustrations and anger bringing you down till you find yourself complaining as well.
To deal with hopeless times, become physically active: put down the screen(s), look or even go outside, phone or visit a friend. Reach out for some live human contact, even if it’s just going to a coffee shop and observing or even striking up a conversation with another person there.
Reach out for help. In the 1960s and 70s, we had a saying: “Never trust anyone over 30.” And many believed it. In the decades that have passed since I hit 30, the experience of life has taught me a lot both about myself and the world. Life has also given me hope. Consider the possibility you could learn from some of your elders’ experiences.
If the hopelessness stays with you for more than a couple of days, or keeps returning, seek professional help where you can be really listened to, heard and understood. It might help you learn to find the seed of hope I believe is in each one of us.
If you know someone who is feeling hopelessness, reach out to them. You never know, you might just give the one word of encouragement that tips the scales from Despair to Hope. And if that doesn’t happen, keep reaching out until they get whatever help they need.
Screens can connect us to the world; they can also blind us to reality.