Moving from Forlorn Hope to Real Hope

I heard the phrase ‘Forlorn Hope’ a little while ago from my Supervisor. I felt deeply moved because it completely captured the sense of guilt and loss that I have encountered in the therapy room. It describes the great longing and unfulfilled hope of those who from childhood had fought to win the love and approval of a parent. What they have carried into adulthood is a deep sense of guilt and shame that they are to blame for being unworthy of love. They also carry a deep grief for the loss of something they have never had.

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Human babies are programmed to bond with their mother. It is a strategy designed to give them the best chance of survival. In their early life a human child is completely dependent on others for food, shelter, warmth and closeness.

Babies make sense of their world initially through their senses and through the brain’s representation of what is happening inside their body organs, tissues, hormones and immune system.  Their brain learns statistically to discern patterns form the external and internal sensations and make meaning from all these inputs and the social context in which they are happening.

They learn what actions are likely to get particular responses. If they cry, they are comforted and fed. If they smile, they are cuddled and entertained.

If, however, the same behaviour sometimes gets one response from mother and at other times get a very different response then a baby struggles to make sense of their world. If the behaviour yesterday resulted in food and comfort but the same behaviour today got a very different response it is difficult for the baby to make meaning, difficult to know what to do and what to avoid doing.

A child who is never quite sure how a parent is going to act cannot predict the consequences of their own words or actions. They may become constantly vigilant of the face, voice and actions of the parent. They may try different ways to behave to find some consistency in their world, some way to please, some way to feel accepted: to do as they are told; to rebel; to predict what a parent may want before being told;  to be ‘good’; to do well at school or sport or music; to not be too clever; to not be like your Auntie; to be more like your cousin.

A child who often hears “you have always been selfish”, “after all I’ve done for you”, “you’re so stupid”, “you’re going to turn out bad” is very unlikely to grow up with a positive self-image and robust self-esteem.

The situation becomes more complex when the second parent is quite reasonable and approachable when not in the company of the first. The child may feel safe, accepted and has an ally. However, if the second parent becomes a passive observer in the presence of the first parent then the child is left with no protector, no ally, no-one to balance the behaviour of the first and no-one to help the child build a positive self-image. This is another betrayal of the child’s trust and sometimes is more painful to the child than the behaviour of the first parent.

Children often try to maintain a bond with their parents. If they come to the realisation that the relationship is so damaging to their mental and physical health then, as adults, they may feel compelled to separate themselves completely. Another survival strategy.

This is not an easy decision and typically leaves the adult with a deep sense of guilt as well as hurt. They carry a belief that they are bad, that they are indeed selfish and ungrateful and that they are unloved and maybe even unlovable. After all this is what they have been told by those who are closest to them. Their rational self and logic tell them that this is not so, but their childhood experience still remains. It may not be true, but it feels real.

Along with the guilt is the hope that one day their parents will tell them that they are loved. This is often referred to as forlorn hope and the name says it all.

And yet, many adults with this background do build a life, have successful relationships and jobs. They just have this additional burden that has been placed on them.

“Your brain is shaped by the realities of the world you find yourself in … you perceive the world not in any objectively accurate sense but through the lens of your own needs, goals and prior experience ..."  

Lisa Feldman Barret, from "How Emotions Are Made - The Secret Life of the Brain"

How can real, living, lasting hope be created? Isn’t hope something that has to come from outside? No. Hope is how you look at the world. If you can look again at your experience, acknowledge your own needs, desires and goals then you can start to perceive the world differently. The past doesn’t go away, but the future can be different.

There are many ways to start to build and bolster a sense of real hope. Here is one of those ways.

The Tree of Life [1] is a process of identifying the positive and affirming things in your life. It helps to give a sense of being grounded and embedded in a life that is nurturing and orientated toward growth.

The strong, natural and growing shape of a tree is used to capture memories, people, your strengths and capabilities (of which you will have many), dreams and intentions that reflect the essential nature of you, to help you see yourself reflected in a way that shows the Wholeness of You. It can be difficult to admit to the good stuff if you are used to hearing only distortions!

The Roots of the tree record where you come from: where you were born, where you grew up, your immediate and extended family and their characteristics, the hobbies, schools and groups that helped to shape you.

In the Shade your tree casts on the ground are spread the things you love to do, not the things that you have to do.

On the Trunk of your tree are noted all your capabilities, skills, attitudes and aptitudes and the things you care about. If you find this challenging perhaps you can find someone you trust to help you. They will be able to help you notice the wonderful things that others see in you. Write them down!

The Branches represent your dreams, wishes, plans and intentions for the future. Find something that you plan to do in the next 6 months, the next 2 years and the next 5 years and write each one on one of the branches. If it is too difficult to see that far ahead then find something that you want to do today, tomorrow and next week. It doesn’t matter how small it seems.

The Leaves hold the names of those who have had the biggest positive impact on your life. It may be someone you met only briefly; it may be someone who is no longer be alive; perhaps there was a teacher, a group leader or sports coach; may be a friend or work colleague; a pet; or it may be a fictional character. Write the name of each one on their own leaf. It doesn’t matter how many or few they are, they have been something good and wholesome in your life. Near each named leaf write down what it is about them that is so important to you.

The Fruits on the tree are the things that have been gifted to you by others. These could be something you have learned from them like patience, or a gift they have given you that you treasure, or a kindness that made a difference to you.

The Flowers and Seeds are the things you would like to pass on to others perhaps because those things have been important to you or perhaps it is something that you needed but did not have.

The whole tree from root to shoot to fruit helps to remind you of all the resources that you have: people who care about you and for whom you care, your natural talents and skills you have learned, things you care about and bring meaning to you, things you have learned about yourself, others and the world.

When you become aware of all that you have and start to see who you really are then you can start to build a new hope.

 [1] Taken from: Retelling The Stories Of Our Lives – Everyday Narrative Therapy to Draw Inspiration and Transform Experience by David Denborough

If you are coping with a burden like this and would like to explore what might be possible for you to change, please do contact me: mobile: 07768 869 551 emailto: website: 

Patty Everitt Psychotherapist|Clinical Supervisor|Clinical Hypnotherapist

My role is to help you find your emotional and psychological Centre of Balance, the safe place in yourself. If you can find no safe place for yourself then we can work together to help you create one. From our Centre we have choice. Choice about the relationships in our life and choice about the quality of those relationships. We can choose how we want to feel about events or situations or people. Yes! We do have choice about how we feel. When we are Centred then our body is better able to repair and heal and grow so we are healthier. When we are at our Centre of Balance then we can be in the world in a way that expresses the richness of who we are and not who we felt we 'should' be or really 'ought' to be. As a therapist I create a space, both physical and psychological, where together we can explore how you experience your world and the beliefs you hold about yourself, others and the world... Because beliefs may be just that, beliefs and not truths. I am a UKCP accredited neurolinguistic psychotherapist, clinical hypnotherapist and coach-therapist. I also offer supervision to therapists. Mobile: 07768 869 551 Email: Website: