Hope & Fear maybe two faces of the same primal emotion – separated by perspective…

Hope / Positive Psychology


When considering the concept of hoping that something “will” happen, there is an inference that it goes hand in hand with fearing that it won’t. Similarly, when we fear that something “will” happen, we, I would infer that we tend to hope that it won’t. This presents the possibility of a link, and potentially more than this, that the two are fundamentally joined in a way that may be impossible to separate. Some of the suggested evidence for this is summarised below:

  • They are both motivators, one towards something and one away from something. (Snyder C. R., The Psychology of Hope, 2003)
  • They are both felt when an event has either positive or negative outcomes that are impactful and, or meaningful to the individual. (Averill, Catlin, & Chon, 1990)
  • Physiology doesn’t lie! They both cause anticipatory physiological responses which are uncannily similar, i.e. sweaty palms, excitement, and trepidation. The only difference is the fact that one outcome is desired and the other is not! (LeDoux, 2003)
  • They are both felt where meaningful consequences require action from the individual, yet where total control of the outcome is not possible and therefore there is an element of speculation. (Averill, Catlin, & Chon, 1990)

Fig.1: Hope and Fear Operator Pyramid (Coker, 2015)

When we are terrified that something may happen, we are experiencing the fear mentioned above. This fear may be all consuming. When we turn to “hope”, instead, we shift perspective and rather than fearing that it will happen, we start to “hope that it won’t”. In the case of an event or goal that we want to avoid, it may be a goal that we have not chosen, it may be one that has been imposed on us and that we have to deal with. There are also times that I can remember, whilst serving in the security services, where the ultimate fear that we all share, in the form of death came up more than once. I remember turning to hope in these instances. Frankly, hope was the only thing that kept me going, and it is a good job that I did, as help arrived and I am alive to tell the tale. At one point, I recall that the temptation to gain some control by “choosing” to give up started as a small voice whispering in my head, and rose to the volume of an orchestra until hope arrived and dampened the sound.

There are many survival stories where people have given up and died, and yet unbeknownst to them, they were a few miles from salvation. There are also stories, where others have kept on and survived. Is it hope that has kept them going? If it is, then clearly hope is a powerful tool for survival and one that isn’t just an opposite to fear, nor is it something working against fear, it is a motivator that pulls us towards a goal, whereas fear is a motivator pushing us away. If one is pushing and the other pulling, then double the force is created to overcome inertia, get us going, and keep us going through adversity! So perhaps, if hope is a survival tool, its evolutionary origins may be shared with fear. Imagine a situation where there was no such thing as hope, and we were faced with an overwhelming perception that we are about to die, or that someone we loved was about to die. How would we continue to function without hope? Ultimately, all hope in the world wasn’t able to change the outcome for my mother, and yet we kept on, we coped with the eventual outcome, and hope gave us time to adjust, time to rally round, and the strength to deal with things – eventually. Fear is a very expensive emotion to feel. Fear takes a lot of resources and causes massive hormonal and chemical changes in the body. Fear is meant to motivate quickly and in the short-term, fear is a sprint! Fear drains resources rapidly. Hope, on the other hand is a marathon! Hope is designed to be energizing, exciting, and for the long haul.

My mother announced that she had cancer and that the prognosis was highly negative. Initially there was shock, followed by fear and a sense of helplessness and loss of control or influence. Then, I looked for second opinions, searched for information, educated myself on the condition in order to gain some kind of control – in some way. When the second opinions echoed the first opinions, and even more helplessness set in, I even turned to searching for anecdotal evidence of miracles and where medical opinions had been wrong, and, I prayed. It was almost as if hope was a life raft to me in a sea of fear. Some may say that I was in denial… Now that may be true, perhaps hope is a form of denial, but I would argue that it is a denial of giving in to fear and a suspension of fear. Hope for me attenuated the fear, it didn’t stop it, there was always a background noise of fear, but through hope, I could function, I could keep going, I could gather my strength, rally round… If not for the hope, I would have to face and deal with the grief of losing my mother whilst she was still alive, and notwithstanding the fact that I believed that I had to be strong and supportive – for her. In this instance delaying dealing with the outcome was useful.


Perhaps the question that will lead to the ultimate answer is why… Why hope and what is it for? For me, hope is something that I turn to when the consequence and gravity of something that I want to happen, or want to avoid is of a certain size and level of intrinsic meaning. Essentially, I often experience “fear” towards the outcome – particularly where I have no perceived ability to exert control or influence. In order to deal with this fear, I simply switch perspective and start to “hope”. The ingredients of this hope are explained in the following personal account:

  • Telling myself that it won’t happen (denial which can be productive and can lessen the fear)
  • Asking myself if there is anything that i can do to stop it from happening (productive and leading to ingenuity)
  • Deluding myself, which may be enough to keep me going rather than acting like a rabbit in the headlights and freezing! When we switch it around and consider a goal that we choose and that we really want, we “hope that it happens”. In this instance, it is potentially the “fear that it won’t” that galvanizes us and keeps us focused on the goal. The interesting thing for me, is that I find that it takes more courage for me to choose to hope for something than for me to deal with fear that is imposed on me without a choice. I believe that the reason for this is that when one is born, the other is invoked at the same instant. If I hope for something, I will instantly fear that I may not get it, and if I fear, I will hope my way out of it. Now this sounds absolute, but if I am really experiencing hope, and not wishful thinking or nice-to-haves, then this hope invokes fear and in turn, if I fear for something, it invokes hope. For me, this represents further evidence that hope gives rise to fear, and that in choosing hope, I infer you are opening the door to fear, and who let fear in? Perhaps, only the brave! To explain this further; I believe that for hope to exist, the goal has to have real meaning to the individual. The goal could be an avoidance goal, or a move towards goal. This goal would not simply be a “nice to have” like “I hope it doesn’t rain today – because I want to wear that dress”. It may on the other hand be “I hope it rains because if not, I cannot grow my crops and feed my family”. The stakes are much higher with the latter, and with the latter, there is no control, no ability to choose an alternative pathway. In this context, if I am hoping, and maybe even praying for rain, I must also consider that there is the possibility that rain will not come, and the result of that could be life-changing, or even life ending! If we are talking about towards goals, another example may be an athlete dreaming of winning the Olympics, training, eating, sleeping, breathing the very thought of what it would mean to win that medal. Putting everything on the line, family suffering, relationships suffering because of the focus needed… What would it mean to lose, to not win after all of that? Surely it would take courage to dare to hope at this level, and if so, would the prospect of failing would potentially invoke fear?Hope and fear seem to be two aspects resulting from a deeply meaningful goal. Courage is something that has to be present when we choose to walk away from something we want, or towards something that we want to avoid in order to act in a selfless way. Courage cannot be felt just because fear is present, or imposed on us. When we use courage to “dare to hope” we are not being courageous in order to face hope, it is actually because we fear not achieving our goal, and in failing, we risk embarrassment, a sense of loss or any one of the other fears that we all share. As the polar model suggests, when we “hope that it will” we “fear that it won’t”. The hope triangle provides a model which suggests that each axis is an element that has to exist in order that we are able to exercise choice in relation to choosing a hope journey and direction towards hope or fear.

Fig:1 Above The Polar Model of hope and Fear (Coker, 2015)

The model suggests that as soon as we experience fear, we turn to hope, and when we experience a deep meaningful hope – we will often experience fear in the form of predicting a potential loss, or failing to reach our hope goal. The model is also polar in the sense of a magnetic attraction and repelling action across contradictory poles. In simple terms, if we hope it will – we fear it won’t and if we hope it won’t – we fear it will…

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