KeywordsDepressive Individual Effective Therapeutic Intervention Beck Hopelessness Scale Distorted Sense Love Object
Derived from the Latin term spes, meaning hope, despair may be defined as “the complete loss or absence of hope” (Hawkins and Allen 1991, p. 392). In turn, despair has been associated with hopelessness in that despair may be defined as an unbounding sense of hopelessness. Within the philosophical existential-phenomenological literature, a different definition arises, with despair emerging within the concept of the self.
Despair as a specific focus has been relatively neglected in the psychological literature. In fact, it is generally located as an illness and a “psychopathological” phenomenon, one emerging within the category of depression, linked to hopelessness and inextricably linked to suicide (Abramson et al. 2000). This is also evident where, for example, the Beck Hopelessness Scale is employed as an assessment of the client’s despair, mostly used in the context of suicide as it is seen to tap into associated aspects.
Burgy (2008, p. 1) puts forward an understanding of despair as a pathology, which is thought to provide a theoretical basis for the development of effective therapeutic interventions for despair. Therefore stating that “despair, thus, becomes a psychopathological key term through which access can be gained to the subjective experience of the depressive individual and which can provide the basis for promoting understanding and communication as well as developing successful therapeutic interventions.”
However, the psychological view of despair can be seen as underdeveloped, assuming despair, not as a fundamental human experience, as it is described particularly within philosophical existential-phenomenological writings, but treating it as pathology. As Heaton (2009) outlines, the philosophical existential-phenomenological tradition understands despair not as something out there to be apprehended and known but as a phenomenon, knowledge of which is gained by attending to human consciousness.
By reviewing the literature found within psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, and philosophical existential-phenomenological writings, the conclusion can be made that despair is a complex human experience, which holds diverse meanings and cannot be measured simply.
Causes of Despair
Despair is often described as involving some form of confrontation with a harsh reality, such as a confrontation with death. Farber (1976) suggests that despair may arise from the dread of death and the terrors and uncertainties which it evokes. Despair can also be seen to arise through exposure to destruction, trauma, and grief, such as in the Hiroshima atomic disaster and Nazi concentration camps.
Within psychoanalytic thought, despair is also thought to be associated with early object loss and denial of libidinal strivings. Green (1977) describes how despair may arise through a deficiency in essential mothering in infants whose mothers are absent. After searching for the mother, the infants become distressed and inevitably lose hope and interest in food and toys, with despair as a longing for the mother, without hope of the longing being fulfilled.
However, within the existential-phenomenological literature despair emerges within the concept of the self, and not a self defined as a process or entity, but depicted by Kierkegaard’s (1989) realization of the self as a relation which relates to itself. Kierkegaard posits that despair is essentially always over ourselves; a despair over oneself that leads us to want to be rid of ourselves as the self can no longer endure itself. It is in this despair that a person wants despairingly to be himself, but the self which in his despair, he wants to be, is a self he is not. Despair negates all worth and meaning for one’s life, a “sickness unto death” (Kierkegaard 1989, pp. 38–39). Despair is also seen as arising from man’s struggle with their ultimate responsibility and freedom (Sartre 1949). Ultimately, despair is considered as over the self, even when it is disguised as being despair over something.
Importantly, Kierkegaard also writes of how despair can also emerge without the outward appearance of despair, suggesting that despair can be unconscious. Therefore, to not be consciously aware of one’s despair is in itself to despair, as despair is all the more entrenched when it is unaware of itself.
Experience of Despair
With regard to the experience of despair, a loss of hope for the future, alongside a loss of the fundamental meanings, strivings, and values of one’s life, is often described.
In a psychological study exploring suicidal preoccupation, Beck (1963) found that patients viewed self-harm and suicide as the only way out of their situation, as the impotence of despair offered no other possibilities. Further, Marcel (1962) outlined a distorted sense of the nature of time in which the future is closed off from meaningful possibilities and offers no means of escape from the present despairing situation. Within psychoanalytic writings, Burlingham and Freud (1942) describe how babies who experience prolonged hunger with no chance of fulfillment lose hope in any future. Despair, it can be argued, is different to depression which is often viewed as presenting with low or depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt, or low self-worth, but does not impinge on the ground of hope as in despair. However, Burgy (2008, p. 153) does suggest that despair can occur as an additional experience of the depressive individual leading to a “depressive despair.”
Despair also involves the fundamental loss of purpose and meaning in one’s life. Reflecting on victims of the Holocaust, Frankl (1958) found that those who experienced despair had lost sense of the meaning of life, despair as a suffering without meaning. From a developmental perspective, Erikson (1968) speaks of the despair that emerges in later life and comes about if the individual feels they have not achieved something meaningful to leave behind them after they die. Living with the belief that one’s very being is without meaning may bring about despair and if consistent, eventual self-destruction.
From a psychoanalytic perspective, realities that deny the infant’s oedipal wishes to be the parent’s love object may lead the infant to give up on the libidinally desired parental object alongside their phantasies of omnipotence and importance of self, resulting in inevitable despair and a loss of strivings. A further aspect of the experience of despair is a felt isolation from others, experienced as the loss of another, such as a parent, in the source of libidinal supplies (Burlingham and Freud 1942), or a felt solitude. Further, due to a “mounting self-absorption,” those in despair may experience a felt difficulty in the ability to be with others (Farber 1976, p. 69).
Kierkegaard (1989) speaks of despair as an estrangement and isolation from oneself. It involves falling into judgment about oneself and concluding that one is helpless, hopeless, and futureless. This condition must be concealed from others and endured alone.
With regard to measurement, there are no direct methods for measuring despair. The multitude of quotients and questionnaires available in assisting the measurement of depression, and emotions such as sadness, do not extend to collecting information on despair. Further, although the Beck Hopelessness Scale is employed at times as an assessment for aspects of despair, it attempts to collect information of outward signs of hopelessness, as opposed to despair, which is more about a relation to the self, and can occur in unconscious forms.
Indeed, existential-phenomenological approaches to despair view empirical data on despair as having little significance in terms of despair as experienced. For Kierkegaard (1989), it is through attendance to experience that knowledge of phenomenon may be gained. In turn, despair may be present even when this is not outwardly apparent to the other, throwing into question methods, which claim to measure despair through observation. This raises questions about whether human experience can in fact be quantified and suggests information on despair cannot be gathered through scientific study, observation, and measurement.
Consequences of Despair
Despair is often considered a place of vulnerability, one of profound aloneness and alienation, within which the loss of hope for the future and feelings of impotence and isolation are associated with self-harm and in turn suicide. Kierkegaard (1989) further suggests that if the introversion is maintained, then suicide will be the danger.
However, many also view despair as an opening from which possibilities may emerge, seen as “the prelude for an authentic hope that far transcends mere naïve optimism” (Marcel 1962, p. 36). Kierkegaard (1989), too, posits that in order for the self to become a self, it must be broken. Through the emergence of this despair which breaks us, we move ever closer to being “cured” (Kierkegaard 1989, p. 54). For many, “life begins on the other side of despair” (Sartre 1949, p. 143).
In turn, psychotherapy is implicated as an appropriate treatment for patients in despair, in ensuring the patient’s safety and promoting recovery from the despair.
Despair is a complex human experience, emerging within the concept of the self. Occurring in conscious and unconscious forms, knowledge of despair can only be gained through attendance to experience. It is a place of vulnerability, involving a loss of hope, meaning, and strivings for the future.
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