Hope in Therapy
What place does hope occupy in therapy? What about during a global pandemic? As we look to the year ahead, Professor of Counselling Dr Denis O’Hara discusses the nature of hope, its power to shape our futures, and the role therapists can play in helping clients to discover, uncover, or even create their own hopes.
The importance of hope at a time of a world pandemic cannot be overstated! Covid-19 has highlighted the fragility of our mortality and challenged our ability to feel secure in the world. It causes us to ask, “Will the social restrictions be sufficient to change the course of the pandemic?” “Can governments of any stripe manage such a problem?” and “What will happen next?” The pandemic has undermined our confidence in the possibility of a good future, and it is the future that hope is principally about.
While we often refer to hope in more general or trivial ways, such as ‘I hope 2021 is better than 2020’ and ‘I hope mum cooks my favourite meal when I visit’, genuine hope has much more import. The focus of genuine hope is specific and deeply felt. Hope draws our attention towards a preferred future. This is what makes hope both potentially scary and exciting. If I invest energy into hoping, will that emotional investment pay off or will it result in a sense of personal failure, a proof of my impotence or stupidity?
Of course, we all respond in different ways. One approach is failing to place hope in anything that has deep personal meaning. We can ‘wish’ for our favourite meal and for our sporting team to win, but nothing beyond these trivialities. Unconsciously we know that deep personal desire can get us into trouble. We of course can still make plans and set some goals, but we do so lightly, ‘wishing’ that all things work out for the best.
The problem with this approach is that we do hold deep desires and, in pursuing them, we both express and discover ourselves. We are in fact ‘wired’ to image the future. Research has demonstrated that the same areas of the brain are engaged in remembering and in imagining. It seems we select from a composite of remembered events and experiences to construct our imagined futures. The past, in this sense, influences our imagining of the future – our hopes are connected to our experiences.
Hope is so powerful that it shapes our future. In other words, what we focus our attention on tends to happen. We all have had the experience of not pursuing something because we didn’t think we could achieve it or have it. This is probably best expressed by Henry Ford when he said, “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t… you’re right”. If Henry Ford is right, and if our memory of experiences influences our imagination, then in therapy it would be helpful to deal with our negative and damaging past experiences in order to be free to hope for a more fulfilling life.
Counselling and psychotherapy have great potential to help people both heal the effects of negative past experiences and explore their hopes and expectations. As therapists we can hold hope for our clients, but we also need at times to help clients discover hope or even risk the creation of their own hopes. We all know that the problem that clients first identify in therapy is often not the real or most salient problem. It sometimes takes a while before the real problem is identified and clarified. In a similar way, clients’ hopes are not usually on the surface because hopes and desires are so core to our existence we protect and even hide them from ourselves.
One of the most profound responsibilities of therapists is therefore to help others discover their hopes. While we and our clients will have to discern the difference between false hopes and unrealistic desires to identify the ‘real’, the benefits of doing so will surprise and delight. To live a life that expresses who we really are is a bit scary at times but it is, at its centre, a life energised by hope.