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Lisa Ferentz, LCSW-C, DAPA

Therapists as Resources for Hope

Now more than ever, when the world seems inside out and upside down, bringing a genuine sense of hope and optimism into the therapy process is a necessary counter-balance to the fear and despair that can permeate clients’ lives. It is also paramount in forging and maintaining a safe and meaningful therapeutic alliance with clients. Along with a pervasive sense of societal fear and confusion, it’s important to remember that 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 endeavors fall short, the idea that things can actually improve, solutions can be found, or inner peace and healing can be achieved is severely tested and pessimism is likely to set in. Therefore, the burden is often on the mental health professional to hold a sense of hope.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways in which clinicians can infuse the therapy process with the notion that there is truly a light at the end of the tunnel:

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 process the ways in which they have overcome challenges 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 re-instate 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 made 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 can access 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, shame, 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 re-claiming a sense of hope.

Clinician’s Tips:

It can be very empowering  to help clients let go of the anxieties and fears that come from macro-level realities, challenges, and stressors such as social media, world news and events, and instead encourage them to re-connect with the microcosm of their immediate world. This can include issues related to their nuclear family, close friends, their physical and mental wellbeing, and the personal and professional behavioral choices that they make. These are the arenas where they can reclaim a genuine sense of power and control and choose to act in ways that make a difference. It can also reduce a sense of overwhelm, hopelessness, and despair when clients recognize and refocus on the relationships and situations where their actions and their voices matter.

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