An Antidote for Hope-ium: Mindfulness

Chelom E. Leavitt, J.D., Ph.D.

False hope impedes growth and relational connection. Mindfulness may help.

  • “Hope-ium” describes a harmful behavior that looks for small moments or experiences to bolster false hope.
  • Hope-ium is a druglike response to avoid the hard realities of a problematic relationship.
  • Mindful acceptance is the first step in sorting through the issues of the relationship.
  • Acceptance is not condoning or approving of bad behavior, it is recognizing what reality is.

The pattern of struggle was well-established: Sarah would voice a concern and Troy would blow up, yell, or give her the silent treatment until she acknowledged the problem was hers alone. Troy would later say he knew he was out of control, but she was the one who pushed his buttons. Sarah didn’t want to face how bad the relationship had gotten, so she convinced herself (and it didn’t take much convincing) that she could manage Troy’s outbursts better next time. She could be more accommodating. With that hope, she carried on.

Patrick Doyle[i], a therapist, coined the term “hope-ium” to describe when a person denies harmful behavior and instead looks for small moments or experiences that bolster the false hope that they are not being harmed or that things will magically change. Doyle asks people to consider the connection between hope and a painkiller. If painkillers are used for a short time to overcome a difficult event (like surgery) that’s an appropriate and necessary use. However, painkillers can become problematic when they are relied upon, and the person is dependent. In this case, painkillers prohibit growth, healing, or resolution. Hope can be like a drug—use it appropriately and it’s a powerful tool for recovery. Overuse it and it impedes growth, autonomy, and may even encourage an unhealthy tolerance of abusive behavior.

Is This a Difficult or Destructive Relationship?

For some people, it’s hard to distinguish between what’s just a difficult relationship and what is destructive or abusive. Defining emotional abuse can be vague. Here are some important warning signs of emotional abuse:

  • You feel crazy or like you’re never heard
  • You are always to blame
  • Your partner tries to isolate you and control who you talk to
  • Problems never resolve and your feelings are minimized

If any of these are your experience, consider seeing a therapist who specializes in destructive relationships.

Using Hope-ium to Avoid

Using hope to avoid the reality of destructive behavior is not helpful or healthy. For hope to be helpful, both partners must act on what is hoped for. Hope is hard won, not ignorance of reality.

Recent research suggests that there is a close connection between false hope and ignorance.[ii] When a person chooses to ignore or pretend that behavior isn‘t problematic, that‘s hopium. Instead of dealing with the immediate issue, bad behaviors become more entrenched and wounds fester. Hope is justified only if it is “realistic.” That is when hope is based on good judgment and the likelihood of performance. But when patterns continually indicate poor behavior, hope is not warranted. When a person ignores regular poor behavior to maintain hope, they are using hopium—or false hope that keeps them stuck in a destructive pattern. To avoid hopium, don’t distort reality.

Use Mindfulness, Not Hope-ium

Mindfulness is a practice of slowing down thoughts and focusing on breath. It sounds simple and it is—but it takes practice.[iii] Although mindfulness is associated with happinessproductivity,[iv] satisfaction in relationships, and lower stress,[v] it achieves these positive outcomes not through fanciful denial or avoidance. Mindfulness as a practice requires a constant attunement with the reality of the present and an acceptance of what can and cannot be done. Hope-ium is simply an avoidance tactic or an unwillingness to address the problematic realities of the relationship.

Mindfulness encourages an opposite approach. Instead of avoidance, sit with the reality of the destructive behavior. Acceptance means no longer resisting or denying what is. It is not approval of the bad behavior.[vi] An accepting person is not condoning, agreeing with, or sanctioning bad behavior. Acceptance is the first step to sorting through the issues of the relationship. If a partner is willing, talk through the issues and frankly discuss healthy boundaries. If a partner is not open to authentically addressing the destructive behaviors (which likely includes counseling), then mindfully consider what steps need to be taken to create a healthier environment. This may require permanent separation from the destructive environment.

Here is one way to practice mindfulness instead of hope-ium.

When you experience problematic behaviors:

  • Ask yourself: How do I feel in my body?
  • See if you can locate a place where your feelings are most noticeable. You may notice a concentration of emotion in your head or face, your heart, a weight on your shoulders, or an ache in your belly.
  • Mentally “breathe” into that location (In other words, visualize that you are infusing fresh air). Then touch it warmly with your hand.
  • Let go of the need to make the feeling go away. Let it be there moment by moment and notice what it does or how it feels. Accept this moment, even if it is filled with sorrow. This moment is precious and can teach you.



[ii] Musschenga, B. (2019, July). Is there a problem with false hope?. In The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy: A Forum for Bioethics and Philosophy of Medicine (Vol. 44, No. 4, pp. 423-441). US: Oxford University Press.

[iii] Leavitt, C. E., Butzer, B., Clarke, R. W., & Dvorakova, K. (2021). Intentional solitude and mindfulness: The benefits of being alone. The handbook of solitude: Psychological perspectives on social isolation, social withdrawal, and being alone, 340-350.

[iv] Coo, C., & Salanova, M. (2018). Mindfulness can make you happy-and-productive: A mindfulness controlled trial and its effects on happiness, work engagement and performance. Journal of Happiness Studies19, 1691-1711.

[v] Barnes, S., Brown, K. W., Krusemark, E., Campbell, W. K., & Rogge, R. D. (2007). The role of mindfulness in romantic relationship satisfaction and responses to relationship stress. Journal of marital and family therapy33(4), 482-500.


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