Along with everything else you work on in sessions, bringing a genuine sense of hope and optimism to treatment is an essential ingredient in the therapeutic relationship. Therapy is often the last resort for people who are struggling. By the time they land in our waiting rooms they have exhausted other resources including: guidance from self-help books; seeking advice from friends and family; confiding in clergy; and looking for answers from talk shows or the internet. When those resources fall short, the notion that things can improve, solutions can be found, or inner peace and healing can be achieved is severely tested and clients often enter into treatment with a fair amount of pessimism.
In addition to struggles in one’s personal life, the bigger societal picture can be equally challenging: these are divisive, confusing, and unsettling times. As decisions get made and events unfold, individuals often have little or no input and, understandably, feel disempowered and lacking in any agency. Therefore, as mental health professionals, despite our own anxieties and concerns, we must be the arbiters of hope for our clients. Fortunately, there are ways we can infuse the therapy process with hope and empower our clients to focus on the aspects of their lives that are still within their power and control.
- Look for “exceptions” or times when clients didn’t have the symptoms or problems they are currently trying to overcome. Identifying those “symptom-free” experiences helps to challenge and shift clients’ one-dimensional narratives of hopelessness or helplessness. Put those “exceptions” in context so clients begin to make connections between hope and other dynamics that need to be operating in their lives.
- Invite clients to talk about the challenges they have overcome in the past. This helps to highlight their inherent resiliency, identify internal and external resources, and encourages them to focus on strengths they probably minimize or have taken for granted.
- Identify and validate even the smallest positive baby steps that clients take outside of sessions. Explain that acknowledging small successes can have a powerful cumulative effect that begins to reinstate a feeling of hope. Encourage clients to track and document those baby steps as an ongoing homework assignment to help shift the lens they use to look at themselves.
- Take the time to frequently pause during sessions to shine a spotlight on new insights or compassionate statements uttered by clients. Their positive statements are frequently said in an offhanded way, and clients need help in acknowledging their significance. Use those statements as “evidence” to support the notion of hope and their potential for growth.
- Encourage clients to “borrow” the hope that other people, including you, have about them and their ability to move forward in their lives. I often think about therapists as gardeners. Perhaps the most important seeds we can plant are the ones that repeatedly let our clients know that we have hope and faith in their ability to grow and to heal. I always encourage my clients to borrow and lean on my hope, or the optimism of loved ones, until they have their own.
- Help clients look at their lives through adult, compassionate eyes. Oftentimes, hope is compromised when clients are frozen in time and remain stuck in either judgment, self-blame, or the feelings of disempowerment that are associated with childhood. When clients can let go of past regrets or compassionately resolve pain from the past, it frees them up to focus more on present and future possibilities and goals. Realizing that they have choices, power, and wisdom goes a long way towards reclaiming a sense of hope.
How do you enable your clients to focus on the aspects of their lives that they can still influence and manage? I’d love to know your thoughts. Please leave them in a comment.