What Do You Do If You Are Stuck? Using Creativity in Career Counseling

By Mary Ann Hollingsworth

Getting stuck with career indecision is a common obstacle for both high school and college students in the selection of majors and career paths (Kelly & Pulver, 2003). Getting stuck in a work career path can be prompted by economic downsizing, job loss, geographical moves, or by the personal realization that a different line of work would be more desirable. As workers move into the retirement years, later life career planning can include re-entry into the workplace in a different capacity that also presents the possibility of becoming stuck or stagnant in career indecision.


How then can we help our clients to open up new career ideas and to gain the momentum necessary for change? Career counselors can use creativity to help clients of all ages move past career indecision. Unsworth (1996) described creativity as the "power to think new and differently, to make new connections, or to develop an innovative, new idea". Creativity is a way to move a person toward emergence of the whole, and fits with a person's need to know more about the self in the process of career selection (Lucas,1999).

Creativity has moved beyond the turf of artists to the average person in the larger world of work, and is now considered valuable across settings from social situations to workforce management (Flew, 2004). Creativity has gained increasing value in the world of work as businesses have realized that creativity can produce ideas that lead to a competitive advantage in the market place. The creativity process in counseling includes encouraging clients to:

  • Think differently or newly about important issues.
  • Temporarily set emotions and fears aside when feeling stuck.
  • Remove barriers to decision making or problem solving,
  • Let the natural joys of life become a fertile ground for the creation of new ideas.
  • Clarify a problem or remove possible erroneous mental messages and cognitions which serve as barriers (Carson & Becker, 2004).

Research conducted on brain hemisphere influence on thinking and behavior has connected right brain hemispheric influence with creativity (Gabbard, 1997; De Castro, 1998; Wonder & Donavan, 1984; and Vitale, 1982). Those techniques or interventions labeled as "right brain" can enhance creative thought and encourage the use of creativity, which therefore have the power to ultimately enhance self-management of career indecision. DeCastro noted that both hemispheres contribute in different ways to normal functions, with interaction between the two as the root of all cooperation in the central nervous system. Edwards (2001) indicated that with practice, one can learn to shift from hemisphere to hemisphere at will or to use both sides at simultaneously. With practice, one could then purposefully switch from more routine approaches for problem solving, to the use of more creative interventions for cognitive decision making and problem solving skills. The following table outlines several creative interventions that counselors at all levels, and within a variety of settings, can use to help clients become unstuck from career indecision:



Guided Imagery and Daydreaming

(Meyerson, 1998; Wonder & Donavan, 1984))

Dreams, images, and metaphors formed by the right hemisphere can unlock the potential of the left hemisphere.

A guided imagery exercise could be constructed to help lead a client to a state of relaxation to serve as the foundation for other creative activity OR as an activity within itself to focus on identifying things that might best fit a person in pursuit of a career decision, i.e. awareness of personal values or interests.


(Buzan, 1991; Mento, Martinelli, & Jones, 1999)

This technique generates ideas and outlines in a format similar to that of natural brain processing (similar to "brainstorming") versus a traditional linear format - working with key concepts in an interlinked and integrated manner, starting at the center and working out versus working from the top down or bottom up. Like-ideas and interests are grouped together in a map with lines drawn to connect related thoughts.


(Wonder & Donavan, 1984)

Problems can be identified and defined by allowing the client a set period of time for open expression that captures any idea that comes to mind. Client is encouraged to let any and all ideas flow out, suspending judgment until the time period has expired.

Framing the Decision

(Wonder & Donavan, 1984)

This process identifies what a person wants versus what a person has at present, and visualizes the most pleasant outcome to the decision process. This can stimulate courage and empowerment for the client as they approach their decision making-process.

Inside/Outside Thinking

(Wonder & Donavan, 1984)

This approach has a person focus on things outside the indecision - such as life factors which accompany being stuck, a new skill to learn, or looking at the indecision through the eyes of someone else, such as a most admired person. This allows the client to see their problem/decision from a new perspective.

Change of Setting

(Vitale, 1982; Wonder & Donavan, 1984)

A counseling setting can be modified to support creativity through use of color, music background, aromatherapy, or physically stepping outside of a building space into an outdoor space.

Management of Anxiety

(Gordon, 1981; Kelly & Pulver, 2003; Grubbes & Keitel, 1992; Pappas, 2007)

Anxiety was found to inhibit getting unstuck and could be managed through the use of art to uncover possible hidden agendas which ultimately block decision-making. Artistic activities that can manage anxiety include the use of clay, paint, collage, and other art mediums.


Lack of career momentum is a common human problem that arises in career counseling. Therefore clients often get stuck in career indecision due to anxiety, lack of personal insight, difficulty with clarification of problems, or difficulty with resolution of problems. Creativity has been used in other settings, such as the business sector and in therapeutic counseling, to manage issues such as these. Career counselors can also use creative techniques, such as the ones listed above, to enhance the process of career decision making and to move clients past the feeling of being stuck, hesitant, or indecisive about career-related issues. Graduate students and new professional career counselors may wish to add these creative approaches to their existing repertoire of interventions in preparation for facing the "stuck" client. Similarly, seasoned professionals may find these creative approaches helpful when working with the exceptionally challenging client, or when they simply wish to refresh and revitalize their counseling style.


Buzan, T. (1991). Using Both Sides of Your Brain. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Canaff, A.L. (1997). Later life career planning: A new challenge for career counselors. Journal of Employment Counseling, 34 (2), 85-93.

Carson, D.K. & Becker, K.W. (2004). When lightening strikes: Re-examining creativity in psychotherapy. Journal of Counseling & Development, 82, 111-115.

DeCastro, E. (2001). Brain Lateralization. Biology 202: 1998 First Web Reports, 1-3.

Edwards, B. (1999). The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. New York: Penguin Putnam.

Flew, T. (2004). Creativity, the 'new humanism' and cultural studies. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 18 (2), 161-178.

Gabbard, C. (1997). Coming to terms with laterality. Journal of Psychology, 131 (5),561-563.

Gordon, V. N. (1981). The undecided student: A developmental perspective. The Personnel and Guidance Journal, 59, 433-439.

Grubbes, C.A. & Keitel, M.A. (1992). Career indecision, anxiety, & societal problem solving: A path analytical model. East Lansing, MI: National Center for Research on Teacher Learning. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No.ED372326). 

Harper, M.C. (2004). Counseling for continued career development after retirement: Anapplication of the theory of work adjustment. The Career Development Quarterly, 52, 272-285.

Kelly, K.R. & Pulver, C.A. (2003). Refining measurement of career indecision types: A validity study. Journal of Counseling & Development, 81, 445-454.

Lucas, M.S. (1999). Adult career changers: A developmental context. Journal of Employment Counseling, 36, 115-118.

Mento, A.J., Martinelli, P. & Jones, R.M. (1999). Mind mapping in executive education: Applications and outcomes. Journal of Management Development, 18 (4), 390-407.

Meyerson, J. (1998). A relaxing way to help your child learn. Learning Disabilities Association of MontgomeryCounty Journal, 3, 1-2.

Mitchell, L.K. & Krumboltz, J.D. (1987). The effects of cognitive restructuring and decision-making training on career decision. Journal of Counseling and Development, 66, 171-174.

Pappas, D. (2007). Talent and career explored using journaling and art therapytechniques. National Career Development Association Website. Retrieved from on March 27, 2007.

Vitale, B. M. (1982). Unicorns are Real. Rolling Hills Estate, CA: Jalmar Press.

Wonder, J. & Donavan, P. (1984). Whole Brain Thinking. New York: Ballatine Books.

Mary Ann Hollingsworth is a licensed professional counselor with counseling experience in community mental health, vocational rehabilitation, K-12 education, and the higher education settings of technical school, undergraduate, and graduate school. She is a retired Army Officer with a military career in personnel administration and credits much of her interest in counseling and career development to her various army assignments. She currently is an adjunct instructor with the counselor education program for Mississippi State University-Meridian and has worked as a school counselor for the last 5 years with the MeridianPublicSchool District in Meridian, Mississippi. She is in the final year of her doctorate in Counseling Psychology and Health Psychology through WaldenUniversity. She can be reached at mah145@msstate.edu

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