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Jun 2015 by PCI College

Cultivating Hope - Managing Despair

Dr John Sharry will be a guest speaker at the National Counselling & Psychotherapy Conference on 20th June at the Gibson Hotel, Dublin. Here he writes on Cultivating Hope - Managing Despair, A strengths-based approach to overcoming adversity and discovering new meaning

In dealing with the major and minor challenges of living, frequently we encounter within ourselves two very different instinctual positions. First we can respond with despair to our circumstances, whereby we can plumet into negativity and even withdraw from living. Or second we can respond with hope whereby we choose to live well despite our circumstances and even to seek meaning within our challenges. These existential responses are beyond the simple modern optimism/ pessimism dichotomy  (so dominant in populalar psychology) and are more akin to the life and death instinctual drives proposed within Freudian thought (Eros and Thanatos).


Equally, Hope and Despair cannot be reduced to simple emotional categories that one feels on different days depending on a mood, but rather they are existential human responses, driven not only by emotion but also by what a person thinks and believes about their circumstances and crucially how they choose to respond to them. Neither can Hope and Despair be categorised into simple ‘good/ bad’  terms with Hope being Good and Despair being Bad, but rather both have a function in living well. Despair is often reduced to pathogogical medical terms such as depression without it being properly understood as a legitimate response to life’s circumstances  While we do not want to be overwhelmed by our Despair often it has a special grounding function that keeps us in touch with reality. Once understood despair can sweep away false optimism and help us live in a way that allows the possibility of a real hope to emerge.  The gift of despair is to teach us the fragility of life and once confronted, allows for the the possibility of preciousness of life is understood and appreciated. Indeed, experiencing Hope without an appreciation of  its ‘sister’ Despair lurking in the background is largely an unreal experience. In addition, it is impossible to eliminate despair from your life (even if you wanted) and repressing or denying the existence of your despair is detrimental. Instead the key to living well  is understanding the co-existence of Hope and Despair in life’s drama and undertanding how to manage their interdependence.
A useful way to frame the work of a psychotherapist/ counsellor is within the dynamics of Hope and Despair. Clients usually seek help in response to adversity or difficult life challenges and to deal with the despair that might ensue. The act of seeking help is a step towards hope. The role of therapist is to help them understand and manage the despair they experience and to ‘cultivate’ their hope in response. Managing despair is about understanding and confronting our darkest thoughts and feelings while being able to choose our response to them within our life. Cultivating hope is about creating the condidtions in which life affirming meaning and choices can emerge. ‘Cultivation’ is a great metaphor for this process. Anyone familiar with establishing a blooming garden know it is a process that can’t be rushed. All we can do is the hard work of ‘digging’ and constant ‘weeding’, and then sow seeds of hope and then patiently let nature take its course.  When dealing with trauma and adversity, cultivating hope is a crucial human quality that ensures not only survival but also a transformation of the original traumatic experience.

In my presentation at the PCI conference,  I will look at how understanding the dynamics of hope and despair can be a helpful frame in which to understand the therapeutic process Drawing on clinical work with children and families, I will present a number of practical strategies for cultivating hope in the face of despair and show how this can not only help in individual therapy but also in how we can collectively cope as communities in the face of the many current societal challenges we face.

Dr John Sharry, (June 2015)

Co-Founder Parents Plus Charity
Adjunct Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology UCD


The National Counselling & Psychotherapy Conference takes place on Saturday 20th June at The Gibson Hotel, Dublin and you can see full details here on our website.

About John Sharry:
Dr. John Sharry is a social worker, psychotherapist and solution-focused trainer with over 25 years experience working in Child and Adolescent Mental Health as well as consulting with individuals and organisations. He is co-founder of the Parents Plus Charity, an adjunct senior lecturer at the School of Psychology in University College Dublin and co-founder of SilverCloud Health, an international technology company that develops online mental health programmes for health services. 

John is also the co-developer of the award winning Parents Plus Programmes (evidence-based parenting courses) as well as the Working Things Out Programme (a multimedia therapeutic resource for young people overcoming mental health problems) which are used extensively in services and schools. Through SilverCloud Health he has written several evidence-based online treatment programmes for depression, anxiety and stress which are used in Ireland, Europe and the USA.

He is the author of twelve books in counselling and mental health including three best selling solution-focused therapy books: Becoming a Solution Detective, Solution-Focused Groupwork, and Counselling Children Adolescents and Families and nine popular self-help books for parents and families, such as Parenting TeenagersParenting preschoolers and young children, When Parents Separate- helping your children cope, Coping with Depression in Young People and Positive Parenting: Bringing up responsible, well-behaved and happy children. His books have been translated into nine languages including Japanese, Chinese and Arabic.

Originally trained as a physicist, John has worked previously as consultant research scientist with Media Lab Europe, and currently co-leads a research group based at Trinity College Dublin, looking at the application of technology to promoting mental health.

He  is a regular contributor to radio and the national media, and is a weekly columnist in the Irish Times newspaper, writing on the subject of mental health, parenting and family life.
His practice website is www.solutiontalk.ie


References / Further Reading:
Weingarten, K (2007), Hope in a Time of Global Despair, in C. Flaskas, I. McCarthy, J.Sheehan (Eds) Hope and Despair in Narrative and Family Therapy  East Sussex: Routledge
Sharry, J. (2007). (Second Edition)  Solution Focused Groupwork. London: Sage.
Sharry, J. (2004). Counselling Children, Adolescents and Families: A strengths-based collaborative approach. London: Sage.
Sharry, J., Madden, B., & Darmody, M. (2012). (Second Edition)  Becoming a solution-focused detective: Identifying your client strengths in brief therapy. Routledge.
Sharry, J. (2010). Cultivating hope and managing despair. In R Douthwaite & G. Fallon (Eds.), Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the risks of economic and environmental collapse. Green Books
Sharry, J., Darmody, M., &   Madden, B. (2008). A solution-focused approach to working with clients who are suicidal. In S. Palmer (Ed.), Handbook of Suicide Interventions.  Routledge.

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