What’s in a name? Creative helplessness or hopelessness?

Sometimes I hear people who are just learning ACT, or who have been working with ACT for some time, talk about Creative Helplessness. They mean the process of investigating how control strategies work in the short and long term. Through this process, someone can come to the realization that control strategies can’t work or are even counterproductive in the long term. This can help them to stop unworkable behavior. That opens the way to new, more workable behavior.

This process is called ‘Creative Hopelessness’. It seems like a small difference: helpless or hopeless. But if we dive in a bit, the meaning of both turns out to be quite different.

Hopelessness means a lack of hope. What we want to achieve in therapy is for someone to give up hope that the strategies will work. After all, the strategies will not result in someone becoming free of difficult emotions or being able to decide for themselves how much emotion he or she experiences. And that applies not only to emotions, but also to the other inner experiences. An important side note here is that the person concerned is not hopeless. The therapy is not hopeless and life is not (Hayes, Strosahl and Wilson, 2012). Letting go of the hope that the strategies will work opens the door to new forms of behavior. Value-oriented behavior. Hence: Creative Hopelessness: space for something new.

Helplessness means that someone can’t help themselves. But that is not the message that we want to convey in ACT. On the contrary. Everyone has experiential wisdom. ACT helps people to access this wisdom, so that people are able to help themselves again. Moreover, a linguistic monster arises if you want to show that the strategies are helpless. And what about this message: “We assume that the person concerned is not helpless. The therapy is not helpless and life is not “. That also does not make sense linguistically. The use of the word “helpless” makes important nuances invisible.

We will not always use the term ‘Creative Hopelessness’ in the conversation with someone seeking help. But at least we are talking about it with ourselves. Or in training with students. Careful formulation makes the message you want to convey more powerful. So: Creative Hopelessness!

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K.D. & Wilson, K.G.  (2012). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful ChangeNew York, The Guilford Press.