The Benefits of Despair

One of the greatest pleasures I have doing my job is being able to help people escape their feelings of desperation and despair.

Many therapists will tackle acute feelings of sadness and desperation on a very superficial level, adopting a protocol or process that in the case of many of their clients, will only work temporarily and when those feelings do reappear, actually reinforce the desperate identity the client had adopted. I still help clients relatively quickly, but have adapted my approach to involve educating (and empowering) the client to understand the origins of their negative feelings and what purpose they are serving for them.

Initially these feelings may begin as frustration, a negative identity or image of oneself, or the experience of being controlled by disempowering events of the past. These feelings and beliefs in time evolve into more powerful feelings of helplessness, often compounded by a realisation that having feelings of excessive sadness and despair has certain benefits to it. In many respects those suffering from acute sadness and despair measure everything in terms of their pain and suffering, with positives in their life being attributed to the pain and as a result, strong secondary gains begin forming.

It is important for anyone seeking to help others to start the process by differentiating between those who are genuinely and unconsciously trapped by the compelling secondary gains of their despair and those others that would be described by an honest therapist as attention seekers. Unfortunately, this isn’t always as easy as it may seem. Experience will make you more intuitive to time wasters, but when meeting clients for the first time, it is equally important to not be too judgemental until you have more insight into what is driving the subject and to understand what negative emotions are doing for them.

It is important to realise that sadness and despair are incredibly powerful sources of human connection.

Let me give you an example – One friend tells another friend how wonderful life is for them and the other friend thinks ‘great’. However, were they to tell them that instead of life being great, that the world was on their shoulders and they felt incredibly sad, the likelihood is that the response they elicit would be greater and the other friend would be more engaged.

Attention is just one side benefit of despair and it is important for both coach/therapist and client to identify all of the benefits despair can bring. So the client needs to understand what all of these side benefits can be and what their own particular negative emotions are doing for them. It is important as you lead the client along this path of realisation, that as they discover being chronically sad may make them feel more cared for, or absolved of responsibility in certain areas of life, they realise that the sympathy and support they are receiving will eventually wane and disappear over time. You want clients to have a clear understanding that most pain related benefits are only temporary. It also must be made abundently clear that this is not about making judgements at this juncture but a process of discovery.

The therapist is only really going to be successful with this approach if he simultaneously teaches the client coping mechanisms, while working with them to build a compelling future for themselves and where they learn to value what they are striving towards, more than the short term benefits of the pain.

As I have evolved my practice and my own style, I find myself increasingly putting so much more emphasis on building that compelling future.

So what are the benefits of despair that both therapist and client should be aware of? The list I use is not complete by any means, but is an adaption of the work of Tony Robbins and Chloe Madanes:

  • If you are feeling despair you are relinquishing an element of guilt in the form of paying a price / penance.
  • As touched on before, helplessness and despair elicit feelings of sympathy from others which is mistaken for, or used as a replacement for love.
  • The person suffering from despair can use it as a justification for abandonment.
  • Similarly, a person may use it as a way to avoid responsibility or obligations
  • People will also overlook the fact that often, despair is a way to make someone else pay for something
  • Despair can give the sufferer a level of vulnerability that forces others to stay and removes their ability to leave – taking this further, combining despair with threats of suicide becomes a very powerful tool to hold over others and dominate – ‘he said if I leave he will kill himself’
  • It also can be a green light to indulge in self destructive behaviour or to satisfy cravings and addictions

So we can see that despair can have both hostile and benign motivations underpinning it and it is our job to decipher how the client is positioned in relation to their benefits and intentions and to illustrate to them that by looking at their despair from a purely benign perspective, they become aloof to the pain it causes others.

When a client comes to you with depression, sadness and despair, get them to immediately commit at the very beginning of the process to reject indulging their negative feelings in anyway (you may have to start with some exercises and demonstrations on choice). Then spend time going through cultivating a detailed, thorough and compelling future, before identifying both their thought patterns and scrutinising all of the benefits previously mentioned that could be at work. This process may unearth a number of enlightening moments for the client which will help when you ask them for a second time to commit to making a decision NOT to indulge in despair.

I believe that if you take this approach with your clients, not only will you create a solid foundation for all of the subsequent work you do with them, but you will be better positioned to eliminate those clients who are less than genuine.

If you are a therapist who has had limited success with depressed and sad clients and are looking for some help and supervision, if you know someone who has had limited success in dealing with their own issues themselves and feel could benefit from working with me, or if wish to be added to the mailing list for the New Advanced Practitioner Certification in development and scheduled for the end of the year, covering this and a number of other new topics, please email me at 



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