The importance of hope
Hope is a feeling or a desire for something (positive) to happen. This may be a desire for change and wished-for anticipation for this change. To hope for something is to wish for it while at the same time considering the possibilities of the wish not becoming true. Hope is related to uncertainty. If we know our wishes will come true then we do not need to hope.
Hope in the counselling room
Hope is at the heart of therapy. As a client, you start therapy hoping that it will help you to experience a change. You may not be certain that therapy will enable you to achieve the desired change but you are willing to give it a try. Hope is not the same as optimism – even a pessimist can have hope. Optimism involves an expectation that all will be alright without any consideration for a person’s ability to influence the outcome. Hope is more active; to hope for something is to invest in something that has emotional significance for you. Hope involves the notion that where there is a will, there is a way.
In 1991 the psychologist Snyder and his colleagues developed 'Hope Theory'. Hope, they argue, has two elements to it: agency and pathways. Hope enables a person to have the will and determination to achieve a goal as well as the capacity to develop different strategies or pathways to get there. Therapy in this context is one strategy that enables you to achieve your particular goal. Your goal may not be that clear at this point in time; it may simply be to not feel stressed anymore or to have a better relationship with your partner.
It is helpful to consider how hope has helped you in the past to overcome difficulties. Hope is likely to have made a very challenging situation less unbearable. Hope can help to define a difficulty as having a time limit: ‘this too shall pass’. Looking ahead in time, hope is future orientated. The word ‘hope’ derives from Old English ‘hopa’, meaning ‘confidence in the future’.
Conversely, hopelessness often goes hand in hand with helplessness. As hope allows us to access agency and power in our lives, not having hope can render us feeling helpless. At the extreme end, hopelessness is often a critical factor in suicide risk. Hopelessness implies that difficulties are permanent and unchangeable. Finding specific and temporary causes for your difficulties rather than regarding them as universal givens helps you to move away from a position of despair.
Hopelessness is often a symptom of depression. In a depressive state, the will for change may be there but the pathway may be obscured. Depression itself is not a cause but a symptom of underlying difficulties in your life. Looking at the difficulties in more detail and understanding why you are experiencing these difficulties may enable you to consider different pathways away from these difficulties. This, in turn, may instil a sense of hope.
Instilling a sense of hope is an important part of therapy as it enables clients to develop not only optimism but also agency in their lives. Thus in therapy, you may explore ways in which you did manage difficult situations in the past or look at times which were less troublesome and where you felt more in charge. Your therapist will be there to tend to your hope on your behalf at times when you struggle; you may need reminding that you always have the potential for healing and for creating change in your life.
The very fact that clients start therapy means that they have hope; they have a will for change in their life and a way to make this change happen: going to see a therapist. Other pathways will open up as a result of this initial step as therapy progresses. This, in turn, may also refine the initial goal as hope for other changes springs up.
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