Hope can seem in short supply these days. My clients are more likely to mention it in terms of there being no hope, ‘for my job, my relationship, my children and the planet’. How we relate to clients around their hope, or their lack of it, is pivotal. This article explores three aspects of hope relevant to the therapeutic relationship. Should counsellors encourage clients to have hope? Are there problems with counsellor assumptions and beliefs about hope? How can we best facilitate clients to feel free to approach hope in their own way?

It may surprise ‘positive thinkers’ to find that, in the ancient Greek myth, hope was in Pandora’s box among all the evils. It was put there by the god Zeus, as an act of revenge. In 700BC, the poet Hesiod said all ‘those who hope are gullible’. Then, in the Christian era, St Paul maintained that we could hope because life was no longer bound by death. So hope came down to the modern world as a Christian virtue, along with faith and charity.

This philosophical evil-versus-virtue debate is evident today, and it presents some dilemmas for talking therapists. Hope is good when it motivates clients to overcome their troubles, feel better and take empowering actions. It is not so good when people overuse it and avoid examining disturbances seated in the realities of their past and present.

Embedded in culture

A problem with hope is that it is both personal and instinctive. We don’t tend to question ‘Why do I respond with a “glass half full” attitude to this situation?’ Rather, we tend to assume that our hopeful position is correct; it is defended as a healthier attitude, or, conversely, more realistic when our response is ‘half empty’. Socrates said, ‘An unexamined life is not worth living,’ and because hope is so instinctive in this way, it is easy to have unexamined beliefs about how other people should be in relation to hope. Such unexamined beliefs or assumptions are a questionable basis for doing therapy.

Many of these beliefs about hope seem to be embedded in our present culture. We are told that being hopeful is an antidote to low mood, that adopting an optimistic outlook overcomes adversity, and that being hopeful is better for long-term relationships – but then also that anyone who is hopeful is deluded.

Furthermore, as therapists we are surrounded by many powerful injunctions about hope, and it can be challenging not to pass them on to our clients. For example, therapists may be influenced by the digital commercial world we all inhabit. Marketing and advertising campaigns show everything as upbeat, with the promise of a better life. Add to this the apparently joyous lives being led by our social media ‘friends’, and we are left with an insidious message of hope to which we must always aspire and be upbeat or we will be left behind.

Therapists may say that they do not let these things influence them when they are with clients. However, while we may lead more self-examined lives, we are far from immune from this culture of commercial aspirations. ‘I am a positive person’, ‘upbeat’, ‘hopeful’, ‘buoyant’ we say on our directory profiles.1 Even therapists and coaches are using hope to sell their wares and imply promises that they may not be able to keep.

Additionally, injunctions that we should be positive and hopeful exist at a deeper level: hope is embedded into our spiritual lives. A belief in an afterlife or spiritual world in any form is, for many, the seat of hopefulness, as it was for St Paul. Those in the helping professions with these convictions often cite evidence showing that people who have spiritual or religious beliefs are more hopeful and psychologically resilient.2 It is difficult not to unconsciously carry such deeply held beliefs into the work and this may be unsuitable for the therapeutic relationship with many clients.

A further influence on talking therapists at present is that positive thinking has become extremely fashionable in both counselling and coaching. Behavioural and mindful methods of dealing with ‘negative’ thoughts and moving towards more ‘positive’ ones have certainly helped many people. However, there now seems to be an assumption in many talking therapy circles that these methods are a cure-all. I question this.

Seed potatoes

At the humanistic end of the range of therapies, some injunctions about hope are also being challenged. Carl Rogers, on whose shoulders many of us stand, had what now seems a rather hopeful 1960s attitude. In a much-quoted metaphor, he said that, given the right conditions, all seed potatoes will eventually grow, reaching for the light, and have the potential to ‘self-actualise’.3 Today, snowballing inequality means that many seed potatoes seem doomed to life conditions of complete darkness. This phenomenon is increasingly evidenced in our consultation rooms, and for therapists to advocate ‘positive thinking’ could mark a denial of reality of Orwellian proportions.

This leads to another unexamined assumption that therapists may now be carrying when they meet clients: hopelessness. Many commentators foresee doom in our politics, our society and our planet. Therapists inclined to this view may find themselves running a counter sub-script in sessions with people with a hopeful outlook.

In addition to all these cultural influences, the notion of hope is enticing for therapists as it makes them feel good. Like many others, I have experienced how life-affirming it is to hear clients move to more positive feelings about themselves and their future; it implies I have done a good job. So the drive to be proactive in moving clients towards a more hopeful attitude is pushed by a personal need. And it is pulled by the fact that sitting with clients who feel relentlessly hopeless can be acutely uncomfortable. If we carry unexamined assumptions about hope, they can interfere with the three basic core conditions.4 Empathy, for example, can become a challenge: the nature of a client’s no-hope world is unimaginable if we are carrying a sedimented belief that there must always be some hope. Nor can we be fully genuine or congruent with the person who is exploring the darkness of hopelessness if we have pressing and repeated thoughts that some ‘positivity’ is the route back to health. Equally, it is hard to be fully accepting if we find ourselves asking why on earth this person is denying reality by continually ‘looking on the bright side’.

A desired future

So how should we manage the tricky subject of hope with our clients? Every therapist will find their own way of course. However, it is useful to discriminate between two different ways of talking about a desired future. The difference between them can be subtle yet significant. The first approach is when we say something like, ‘There is also the potential of a good outcome for you.’ Although this may be appropriate on occasions, it imposes a condition; it guides the client to focus on the positive– what the therapist wants.

The second approach is illustrated by a therapist asking, ‘How would you really like things to be eventually?’ This asks the client to imagine or envision the future that he or she desires. When people imagine what they really want in the future, they are gaining understanding about who they are. Counselling is a place where people have the possibility to look within themselves and accept what they see – their deepest, heartfelt likes and dislikes. Only then can they gain the power to make their own choices about the future.

Imagining a desired future with a client is different from imposing a message that they must cling onto hope and ‘think positively’ – an attitude that prioritises the action of hoping over the content. Hope may be a wonderful symptom of improvement, but this does not mean it leads us directly onto the path forward.

This article was inspired by two past counselling experiences. In the first, a couple began by saying they had been together for so long, it would ‘be such a waste to throw it all away’. It transpired that, underneath their apparent hopefulness, bitterness had simmered for years. Yet I sensed an injunction to make things work; I was asked for help and now I embodied their hope. Our sense of failure inexorably progressed, with each session exposing further ugly realities. Supervision revealed how obstructive my hope was. I realised how important it was for their children’s future, and theirs, for me to stop trying; then we could all manage better the sad reality of inevitable separation. I learned that my role was to accept reality, not to embody hope.

Later I worked long-term with an abuse survivor who was chronically job-stressed and depressed. One day he began, ‘I have at last realised something that comforts me.’ My hopes leapt after years of bleakness. He said, ‘My future is to continue in this job and caring for my parents until they die. I will then retire and wait to die myself.’ I felt shocked and said, ‘That makes me sad. I had hoped for better for you.’ He replied, ‘F**k your hope! I had just worked out how to not feel disappointed all the time.’ This initiated a journey towards a more enabling relationship; I was released to hold his hand on useful visits to the dark realities of his no-hope world. Hope is not always the ‘brave saviour’.

It is my strong personal opinion that, when it comes to hope, it is not our job to try to direct our clients; we are not responsible for them in that way. It is our job to bracket our own preconceived ideas and to remain empathic and accepting, however hopeful or hopeless our clients may feel. I believe that this is particularly challenging in today’s world; it is only possible after significant personal reflection and examination of our own beliefs and assumptions about where we stand in relation to hope.

Clients are seldom wrong. The consulting room is a place where they should feel absolutely and completely free to find their own hope for themselves, in their own way – or not, as the case may be.

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1. BACP Therapist Directory. www.bacp.co.uk/search/Therapists (accessed January 2020).
2. Mental Health Foundation. Keeping the faith: spirituality and recovery from mental health problems. London: Mental Health Foundation; 2007.
3. Rogers CR. The Carl Rogers reader. London: Constable & Robinson; 1997.
4. Rogers CR. The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology 1957; 21(2): 95–103.