False hope is futile

Hope is life-affirming, a longing for the particular that gives energy to go on despite struggle and disappointment.

Hope teaches the value of persistence when there are scant results and we doubt the worth of our efforts. We learn to value the process of working towards a goal, not just reaching it.

This is not blind hope, it’s hopefulness underpinned by hard work.

Many great accomplishments have been made this way, from dismantling segregation to life-changing scientific discoveries.

False hope

But false hope is deadly. It chains us to an outcome we hope for but cannot achieve.

It locks us into an idea – of a person, job, institution – that has little bearing on reality. We are seduced by the idea of what could be, instead of what is.

It takes a lot of energy to sustain these fictions and leaves little for anything else. It’s exhausting.

False hope is a cousin of wishful thinking.

It means believing that –

  • A boss who has stolen every idea you put up is going to do the right thing this time (they won’t)
  • A spouse who has blatantly lied about everything from their whereabouts to fidelity is now telling the truth (they aren’t)
  • A child who has failed to take responsibility will without intervention miraculously step up (they can’t).

Often we recast this as optimism or believing the best in people. We should label it for what it is – denial.

Why it thrives

We’ve confused ‘being supportive’ with ‘affirming others no matter what’.

“If you love me, you will believe I can do it.”

Who said? I can love you and believe a goal is unrealistic. I can love you and see that you are fooling yourself. Why equate them? Blind belief is not love. False support is not love.

We also demand it, tacitly asking others to side with us, agree with us, think like us because it makes us feel less alone in the futile pursuit.

Agreement is the price we pay for staying ‘in’. We do it to avoid the fallout. For the one who demands we do, it’s a hollow victory.

There’s a better word for this dance – collusion.

Hope v delusion

It’s easy to distinguish hope from false hope when we have facts.

Let’s say you’re dating someone who is hot and cold. If you know they aren’t really interested you’ll interpret that differently from if you know they are but are flat-out at work.

But because facts aren’t always communicated, we infer intention from action.

Some people aren’t open about what they feel. They may not know, or be poor communicators, or have bad intentions.

The darkest deliberately create a false persona. Mask-makers can be very sophisticated. They deceive with information. We can’t stop them but we shouldn’t harbour false hope about them.

Degrees of realism

Although brute realism can be harsh and does not take into account the many synchronicities and unexpected kindnesses that come our way, pragmatism helps create clarity.

Creating world peace, for example, is unrealistic given we can’t keep peace with those closest to us, let alone ourselves.

On the other hand, systematically tackling the causes of discrimination – legislation, policies, practices – although difficult and with limited results – is doable.

Ask –

  • Is this specific (change the HR policy) or abstract (world peace)?
  • Is this unrealistic (demolish segregation this year) or realistic (this will be a long and relentless journey but let’s start by changing the way we draft our position descriptions)?

This will help you moderate expectations and create real rather than false hope.

You can’t change others. Spent the energy doing things that have an impact.


Pay attention to patterns.

Look at what people do, you can pretty much ignore what they say.

This will tell you what they are most practiced in and what to expect going forward.

This applies as much to individuals as institutions, because institutions are just collections of people.

Leaders set the cultural tone for an organisation. A leadership team that brushes sexual abuse or discrimination under the table is unlikely to suddenly start dealing with it unless there’s an external pressure, like legislative change.

Patterns repeat –

  • A person who has always blamed others when things go wrong will blame you
  • A person who lies (and here I am talking about proper whoppers and not the everyday human variety) will continue and become defensive if exposed.

In this way, the past predicts the future.

While change is possible it requires desire, determination and effort. Most people default to type.

Seeing the wood for the trees

An insight is just an insight, you’ve got to do something with what you’ve learned.

Too often we ‘get it’ then sit back and … hope.

How long should we make observations before assessing what is realistically possible? A month? A year? A lifetime?

You can go through hard times in a relationship and hope the monster who ate the person you fell in love with spits them back out. This is hope. And it’s a realistic place to start.

Anyone can have a hard day. Stress is debilitating. Recalling happy times brings balance. No person is just your last interaction with them. Hope makes room for imperfection.

But you cannot focus on how they were to the exclusion of how they are, particularly if dysfunction becomes the new normal.

Couples ‘give it another go’ all the time. It may work. Marriages come back from the brink. People survive affairs. Open warfare at work settles down. Colleagues adapt. Factions find common ground.

But progress requires willingness and commitment on all sides. If everyone is in, there is hope.

But without it, it is false hope.

We are what we do. Clinging to our version of a person, a role or institution in the face of evidence to the contrary, just because we prefer it, is stupid.

Sometimes that means acknowledging that what we first saw and believed in and clung to before things went bad was never the truth, but always the anomaly.

Dionne Lew

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