Despair and its treatment

This family of feelings chart is my attempt at a taxonomy of emotions in people. There are as many classification systems of feelings as there are feelings in the literature. Every therapist has their own, most usually never articulate it as I have done here. This comes essentially from my work as a therapist so it is oriented to that field of practice. One of the big names in the study of emotions is Paul Ekman who has done considerable research on the classification of emotions. His list is somewhat different to mine because he is coming from a research point of view. The family of feelings list is what I often have in my head when working with clients.

Families of feelings Jpeg copy

However the point at hand is my inclusion of the group of feelings for despair. This is not common in taxonomies of feelings. I have included it because one does find it in a small group of clients and I am working with a man now who very much does have this feeling. Which is why I am writing about this now. I see it as important because it needs to be distinguished from depression which as we know if one of the more common feelings people mention. In my view a despairing person would usually be misdiagnosed as depressed and often prescribed anti depressants which of course have little effect because the person isn’t depressed. If you are ever working with some one who reports their anti depressant medication has little effect consider the option that they are despairing rather than depressed.

The depressed person reports feeling low, down, blue, lack of energy, hopeless, loss of pleasure and so on.

The despairing person reports feeling a sense of nothingness, a vacuum, a hole inside of themselves like there is a bit missing inside them and so on.

emo girl 2

The emo subculture is charcterized by despair to some extent


John Bowlby does address the feeling of despair in his study of attachments as indeed does the renowned Czechoslovakian psychologist Zdenek Matejcek who I actually met and my mother did a lot of research with in Prague.

In my TAJ article on character feelings I presented this model for explaining feelings and their relation to attachment. The two extremes being complete abandonment and complete smothering of the child by mother

Separation scale 2

I didn’t just make this up but it is based on the work of Bowlby and Matejcek. It really is just a user friendly and much clearer way of describing what their research found. Despair can result from an attachment disorder but it does not really fit the usual categories of attachment disorder which are:

Insecure attachment = fear and anxiety

Disorganised  attachment = fear + anger

These are the feeling responses children have in reaction to those attachment styles. To explain despair which both Bowlby and Matejcek says can result from an attachment disorder we really need to articulate another attachment style which I have called the empty attachment style, so we end up with three:

Insecure attachment = fear and anxiety

Disorganised  attachment = fear + anger

Empty attachment = despair

According to them a child who lacks a primary attachment figure in its early years of life will have the resultant feeling of despair. The attachment is not insecure or disorganised instead the child has a sense of there not being any substantive attachment. Hence my use of the word ‘empty’ attachment style. In an insecure attachment the child has a defined attachment figure but it is insecure as with disorganised attachment where there is a defined attachment figure that is unfortunately disorganised. With the empty attachment there is not a clearly defined attachment figure in the first place.

matacheck book

An excellent book by  Zdenek Matejcek if you can get hold of it



It can be seen as more ‘serious’ or ‘deep’ than the other two. On the separation scale it is further along the continuum to the state of full abandonment. Insecure or disorganised attachment would be in the anger and scare parts of the continuum as I have indicated.

A person reporting significant levels of despair or a character feeling of despair is usually quite a damaged person and a third degree impasse is a real possibility. Thus the transference relationship becomes of considerable importance in the treatment of such people. The therapist (or the ‘object’ in the eyes of the client) essentially sets about filling up the emptiness the client feels inside self.

As I said before the despairing person reports feeling a sense of nothingness, a vacuum, a hole inside of themselves like there is a bit missing inside. Which makes sense in terms of their empty attachment style. A significant attachment figure was never fully internalised in childhood and thus there is a sense of a hole inside self. The therapist is used by the client to fill that hole.

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