Help Clients Focus on Their “Possible Selves”

One of the characters in Gail Godwin’s (1985) novel The Finishing School warns against getting involved with people who have “congealed into their final selves.” Clients come to helpers, not necessarily because they have congealed into their final selves—if this is the case, why come at all?—but because they are stuck in their current selves. Counseling is a process of helping clients get “unstuck” and develop a sense of direction. Markus and Nurius used the term “possible selves” to represent “individuals’ ideas of what they might become, what they would like to become, and what they are afraid of becoming” (1986, p. 954). Over the years a great deal of interesting and clinically useful research has been done on the concept of “possible selves” (Bardach et al., 2010; Carroll, Shepperd, & Arkin, 2009; Cross & Markus, 1991, 1994; Eagly, Eastwick, & Johannesen-Schmidt, 2009; Meek, 2011; Oyserman, Bybee, & Hart-Johnson, 2004; Robinson, Davis, & Meara, 2003; Rossiter, 2007). Although we are using the term as a tool for helping clients imagine a better future for themselves, it is also possible that clients come to us with very limiting or negative possible selves. Consider the case of Ernesto. He was very young but very stuck for a variety of sociocultural and emotional reasons.

A counselor first met Ernesto in the emergency room of a large urban hospital. He was throwing up blood into a pan. He was a member of a street gang, and this was the third time he had been beaten up in the last year. He had been so severely beaten this time that it was likely that he would suffer permanent physical damage. Ernesto’s lifestyle was doing him in, but it was the only one he knew. No thought of any kind of upbeat possible self crossed his mind. He was in desperate need of a new way of living, a new scenario, a new way of participating in city life. This time he was hurting enough to consider the possibility of some kind of change. The counselor worked with Ernesto, not by helping him explore the complex sociocultural and emotional reasons he was in this fix, but principally by helping him explore his upbeat “possible selves” in order to discover a different purpose in life, a different direction, a different lifestyle.

Remember that identifying and developing an opportunity can help clients manage a problem by transcending rather than “solving” it. More than 40 million people with physical challenges live in the United States. Brenda, a victim of a hit- and-run driver, is one of them. The accident left her with a back condition that cut short her career as a fitness instructor and left her understandably depressed. She was now one of the physically challenged who, as noted by Cartwright, Arredondo, and D’Andrea (2004), “possess strengths that are often overlooked by persons in the dominant cultural group in general and by many counselors who work with these persons in particular” (p. 24).

Some of Brenda’s friends now saw her as “broken” and shied away from spending time with her. Unfortunately, her counselor also fell into this category. He was sympathetic, rather than empathic, and expected little from her. Once she realized that this relationship was one of the main sources of her depression, she switched counselors. Her new counselor used the notion of possible selves to help Brenda use inner resources to focus on opportunities rather than loss. She found ways of coping with her chronic pain. She had always been interested in design, but never had the time to pursue this interest. Now she wanted to experiment with becoming an interior designer. This was one of her possible selves. She took online courses and purchased design software. She became a successful interior designer, now mentally and imaginatively active, and she did whatever she could physically.

She became so engaged in her new career that there was no need to mourn the loss of her previous one. Her new career also brought some new friends. She still lived with her bad back, but transcending was her way of coping.

The second counselor quickly spotted pools of resilience together with a range of strengths and talent in Brenda. He helped her tap into the positive resources within her. Possible selves are broader and therefore richer than stark behavioral goals. “Possible selves encompass not only the goals we are seeking but all the imaginable futures we might occupy” (King & Hicks, 2007, p. 626). The term “possible self,” although psychologically respectable, has a flair to it that can capture clients’ imaginations in a way that behavioral goals cannot.

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