One aspect working in career development I love is the opportunity it provides to build hope. In my experience working primarily with university students, there have always been opportunities to reframe clients concerns, develop new goals and empower clients to develop a life they want for themselves despite the setbacks they face. We even have theories in career development on the link between hope and career counselling.
Hopefulness has been defined as a belief that through envisioning meaningful goals and performing specific actions, positive outcomes will likely occur (Niles, Amundson & Yoon, 2019, p.284). Fostering hope is foundational to my career counselling process, which encourages and empowers clients to consider and pursue future possibilities through relevant action.
Even while traversing the long shadows cast by a corporate downsize, unexpected move or life change, we continue to look for concrete steps to help clients to move toward a brighter future. Hope is a constant presence in our careers and our lives and it is flexible, requiring reshaping from time to time depending on the situation.
However, we are sometimes confronted with circumstances that challenge or even defy hope for a better future. Eight months ago, I had the privilege of completing a practicum with spiritual health practitioners in a hospital setting. As I met with patients nearing the end of their life, I wondered, how do we maintain the light of hope as the sun is setting?
Learning to listen
One topic that came up again and again in our conversations was career, as patients reflected on their career choices and the satisfaction, or lack thereof, that they received from their work. For those who could reflect on their life’s work with a sense of satisfaction, the experience was a pleasant journey through the highlights of their career. Stories ranged from taking pride in creating the perfect weld on a building’s support beams to a sense of purpose from providing love and care to children in an orphanage – work that had aligned with the patients’ values.
For those who regretted and questioned the value of their life’s work, the journey was far more harrowing. Whether it included not pursuing the career that the patient dreamed of or simply questioning their competency in their field, the conversations sometimes turned to despair. My hope-filled and future-focused strategies no longer felt useful or appropriate. Action plans and SMART goals had little value for those undergoing the hardest and, in some cases, final moments of their life. There was no easy reframe, goal-setting or visioning for the future. The result was that I was struck by a profound sense of powerlessness. I struggled against my urge to highlight positive exceptions, to redirect, to fix.
Instead, I let the patients show me what they needed. I realized that I needed to let them guide me in our discussions – not the other way around. Feelings of loneliness are common concerns in mental health; had I tried to steer these conversations, I would have risked reinforcing this sense of isolation by not acknowledging the client’s experience. I came to appreciate the importance of sitting with patients’ adversity and pain to validate their experiences and the depth of their suffering, and not recoil from the discomfort of being unable to propose a solution.
Anne Lamott encapsulates the experience of loneliness in writing: “my mind is a bad neighbourhood that I try not to go into alone” (Lamott, 1997). By accompanying clients into the dark caverns of their experiences, I was able to validate their pain. Though I could not promise an easy way out, I could offer them my company and my empathy.
Finding hope in the dark
I also learned that hope often remains even in the darkest moments, but in a different form. Hope appeared not as an action plan, but as an acceptance of the present and a sense of equanimity toward the past and the future.
Looking for a theoretical lens, I found acceptance toward the challenges of life reflected in existential therapy and its application in career and medical contexts (Bates, 2016; Maglio, Butterfield, & Borgen, 2005; Cohen, 2003). Existential therapy helps clients confront the challenges inherent in life. This approach is based on the belief that anxiety is an inevitable part of life as we are confronted with such painful realities as a lack of inherent meaning, a sense of isolation and the inevitability of our own death. Yet it is our ultimate responsibility to make meaning in life through our choices and our values.
Having now left the hospital and returned to my work with university students, I am reminded that there is a time and a place for solutions and action-planning. Yet I am more mindful now when I move to solutions and fostering hope that I do it for my client and not to remediate my own anxiety with the client’s situation. I am careful to reflect more deeply on their past and validate their challenges before collaborating on fostering hope for a brighter future.