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Making Therapy Successful: Setting Goals for Therapy

Making Therapy Successful: Setting Goals for Therapy

Good therapy can seem like magic. You sit in your therapist's office and talk and things in your life start to get better. You don't get as upset during conversations with your partner and don't get as stressed out at work. You finally start dealing with that bad habit that's been holding you back and are feeling creative again.

While there's an art to therapy, there's a science to it, too, and specific things you can do to increase your chances of success. In this first article in the "Making Therapy Successful" series, we'll explore an often-overlooked element of therapy: setting tangible and measurable goals.

It's possible to take even the vaguest or most poetic motivations for therapy and set goals based on them that you can use to track your progress. By following these steps, you can come up with a list of personally meaningful goals that can keep your work in therapy focused and productive.

1. Start by identifying broad motives, hopes, and dreams.

At your first therapy session, when your therapist asks, "What brings you to therapy?" the first thing that comes to mind might be a simple, heartfelt statement like, "I just want to be happy," or "I feel stuck," or "I'm tired of just going through the motions." These statements are too vague to make effective therapeutic goals, but they're a good start.

What does being happy look like for you? What specific struggles make you feel stuck? Answering these questions can guide you toward more specific goals.

One way to develop goals is to brainstorm and write down as many reasons for coming to therapy as you can. Whether you're writing in paragraphs or making a mind map, the simple process of getting your ideas down on paper (or on a screen) can help you clarify them. It can help to start with a prompt:

  • What are some things in your life that you're tired of?
  • What are some things in your life that you love and want more of?
  • What are some things you haven't done yet that you still want to do?
  • Was there a specific problem that brought you to therapy? How and when did it start?

As you build lists and examine your responses to these or other prompts, you may find that certain motives, hopes, or struggles stand out more than others. Explore these more deeply. What you thought your reason was for coming to therapy might not be the most important change you want to make in your life.

2. Choose a theme to focus on.

You might come to therapy feeling like your life is a total disaster. Where do you even begin? You're having serious problems at work and at home. Your bad habits are affecting your health, your finances, and your relationships. You're having trouble getting on track with anything.

It's okay to walk into your therapist's office and say, "I'm a total wreck. Can we fix everything?" Your therapist will be sympathetic, want to help, and ready to listen to you describe the problems you're having. But you'll be more successful if you work with your therapist to find specific issues to focus on.

If you're falling behind at work and snapping at your partner or children, it might be related to a specific cause that you can address in therapy, such as stress or guilt. Your therapist is trained to identify root problems and can help you if you're overwhelmed or uncertain how to proceed.

3. Narrow your theme into one or more specific goals.

Sometimes, it's easy to identify specific goals for therapy. Sometimes it takes a little more work. Often, it's a matter of finding the right term. "I want to figure out if I'm depressed" is easier to turn into an effective goal than "Something just seems to be wrong." Either one is a fine place to start, but it's easier to identify symptoms of depression than to identify a needle in the emotional haystack of "Something is wrong." These example goals may give you some ideas:

  • "I want to heal from depression and get my hope and energy back."
  • "I want to stop having the same fight with my partner over and over again."
  • "I want to stop overeating when I'm stressed out and find healthier ways to cope."
  • "I want to be creative like I used to be when I was younger. I want to paint, sing, or write again."

Keep in mind that these are just examples and that the range of valid therapeutic goals is wide and varied.

One of the most common reasons people seek therapy is that they want to be happy but aren't. Of course, it's not your job to figure out exactly why you're unhappy—therapists wouldn't have much work to do if everyone could figure that out so easily for themselves. But you can start the process by trusting your instincts and saying what you think the problem might be.

You can share suspicions with your therapist that you've been afraid to share with anyone else. When you confess fears like "I think I might be unhappy because I'm in the wrong line of work," or "I'm not sure I want to be with my partner," your relationship with your therapist and your work with each other will deepen. Even being able to say, "I don't know what I want" can help.

4. Make your goals concrete, measurable, and SMART.

The idea of SMART goals comes from corporate management but is a good frame of reference for any process of goal formation. SMART goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

For a goal to be measurable, it has to be specific. Goals that are both measurable and specific are concrete. You can visualize concrete goals and mark exactly when you've met them. For example, "I want to get up every morning by 7:00 AM" is much more concrete than "I want to stop sleeping late." Saying, "I want to stop binging on Little Debbie and start going to the gym at least twice a week" is more concrete than "I want to be healthier."

Time is an important factor in any goal-setting process. If you're not sure how long it should take to achieve a major therapeutic goal, break it up into smaller goals. For example, instead of saying, "I want to cure my social anxiety completely in one year," you can say, "I want to go to at least two social events in the next month" or "I want to get out of the house at least once a day for the next week." It's okay if you don't achieve your goals right away; part of the process of growth is learning what didn't work and trying again when you don't succeed.

5. Create an action plan to track and achieve your goals.

Once you've identified one or more important goals you want to achieve in therapy, you can work together with your therapist to come up with an action plan. Many therapists are required to do this as part of the treatment planning process for their agencies. In general, a treatment plan includes major goals, smaller objectives you can use to track your progress toward these goals, and the methods you'll use to facilitate change.

Next week's installment of "Making Therapy Successful" will provide detailed steps for creating an action plan and measuring your progress in therapy. You can prepare by taking time this week to brainstorm and identify your therapeutic goals. If you haven't found a therapist yet, you can use the search feature on OpenCounseling to find affordable counseling in your area or sign up for affordable online therapy at BetterHelp (a sponsor). If you can figure out your goals before you even start therapy, you're sure to hit the ground running!

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Stephanie Hairston, MSW
Posted on 06/23/2019 by Stephanie Hairston, MSW

Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a masters-level clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments. She has also worked as a technical writer for a medical software company and as an editor for a company that appeals denials of insurance coverage for behavioral health treatment. As a writer, she is motivated by the same desire to help others that brought her into the field of social work and believes that knowledge is one of the most essential recovery tools. She strongly believes in the mission of OpenCounseling and in making therapy accessible for everyone.