The first session has passed (here’s what you can expect from it, in case you missed it) and your therapist wants to know what you think the goals of therapy should be. You may think that it’s obvious: to decrease whatever behavior or thoughts you came into therapy for.
Technically, you’re correct. Goals are, in essence, the “end game” of therapy. The purpose of therapeutic goals are to get you to a point where you feel confident that you can live your life the way you want to live it. Treatment goals are a collaboration between you and your therapist. We want you to know that your therapist will want to work on whatever it is you want to work on. There might also be times where your therapist might have ideas of some possibilities to work on. These generally come as a result of sitting with you for prolonged periods and seeking things that you haven’t noticed or realized before. And although you may (or may not) know what it is you want to work on, that may leave you wondering how you’ll get there.
How do I know what my goals should be?
The first thing that’s important in setting up treatment goals is to identify what exactly you want to do. If you are depressed, you may want to feel happier. If you’re fighting with your partner, you may want to figure out how to communicate those feelings. If you feel out of control, you may not recognize that what you want to work on is assertiveness. It may sound simple (it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy). However, sometimes we are not sure what we want and we’re especially not sure how to get specific with setting goals.
This is where your therapist comes in. They’re skilled at helping you in recognizing what it is that will be helpful to work. Also, it’s good to remember that your goals are for you. If you are not diggin’ one of your goals, it’s important to share that with you therapist. They can’t know that you are not fully on board if you don’t tell them!
Anywho, identifying your goals means that you’re honest with your therapist and yourself. It means being open to feedback that other significant people around you may have. It also means that you may have to spend some time inspecting what it is that you really want or need from therapy.
How do I get to my “big” goals?
So you’ve identified what it is that you want to work on in therapy. Let’s stick with our example of you want to feel happier. Great goal! That’s not an uncommon goal in therapy. The question, then, is how do you get there? One thing to do is to break the main goal into smaller goals. For instance, you will not (and should not) think that going to a few sessions will instantly make you feel happier all the time. That would be awesome if it did, but in order to achieve your goal of being happier, you may have to set the goal of finding something practical that makes you happy. Small, achievable, things that make you happy on a daily basis may set an overtone of happiness in your life and add considerably to your overarching goal in therapy. As easy as it sounds, you’ll spend more time than you think you will talking this out with your therapist in order to identify how you can make small, measurable goals to achieve your big goal.
An important factor in making small goals is that they must be realistic. For a person who is seeking happiness in their life, feeling happy all the time may not be realistic. Happiness is appropriate for happy times. If a person who is dealing with the death of a loved one expects to be happy all the time, they may be disappointed when they do feel sadness. Realistic goals are goals that are actually attainable. Not only is that helpful for feeling better (actually able to achieve your goals), but even more, being unrealistic is a good way to make yourself feel bad if you don’t meet your goal.
Another important component of goal setting is celebrating the small steps towards the big goal. Sometimes in our journey, healing may seem endless. The big picture may seem impossible and there may be a lot of small goals. Both the big picture goal and the small goals may feel overwhelming. It’s important to celebrate the small successes because that means you are one step closer towards the life that you want to live!
How will I know if I am getting anywhere?
You’ve been working hard in therapy, but is it really working? Some days it feels like it, others it doesn’t. In order to tell if you’re making progress, goals must be evaluated. You won’t know how you’re doing if you don’t step back and review your work. Evaluation may look different for different people. It may also look different depending on what your goal is. Some individuals may look at their progress and need tangible evidence, such as, a count of how many times they did a certain behavior in a day. Other’s may seek feedback from important individuals they may be struggling with such as asking a spouse their perception. Yet others may self-reflect. Whatever method you choose, it is important to share your evaluation with your therapist and then shift into maintaining the goals/changes in your life.
What if my goals are not going anywhere?
Your evaluation of your goals should, and will, inform the process of therapy. Something important to remember is that treatment goals are for you. You and your therapist may discover that work you’re doing with your goals isn’t working. If what you’re doing is not working, you can redefine what it is that you want from your goal and how you will get there. It may be as simple as adjusting one of the smaller goals to help your big goal. Some goals may get marked off the list as you progress through therapy, while others may trigger an entirely new goal. It’s also possible (maybe even probable) that goals will evolve with you in a cycle of self-improvement.
How will I know when I am done?
Knowing you are done with a goal might be obvious or subtle. If you and your counselor are evaluating your goals frequently, then it maybe easier to tell when you have reached a goal than if you are not evaluating frequently. It may also be important to remember that sometimes we’re never fully “done.” Goals are great when you can say, “I completed this!” but oftentimes when people are under pressure they may revert to old patterns of behavior or thoughts. That is okay. Really. The beauty of therapy is that your therapist is there to help you if you need them. Just because you may have met a goal once, doesn’t mean it’s a forever change. It means it’s a change that you’ve successfully made and now know you can make when you slip up into old habits. You will likely need to intermittingly practice a goal that has been met once already. That’s expected!
When do I start?
Typically, goals should be set during some of the first few sessions. A general rule of thumb is that goals should be set in writing with a clear process by the third session. However, a lot of therapists will want to know what goals you want to work on by the end of the first session. Goals are a very important part of therapy. Without setting goals, you (and your therapist) are likely to feel lost and unproductive (think of floating in water with no island in mind- where would you even start swimming?!).
A recap of what goals should look like is: they should inform the therapy process; be a collaboration between you and your therapist; have smaller, measurable goals; be frequently evaluated; and, can be modified whenever they are not working. Goals are for you. Our team is just here to help you out along the way! Happy goal setting!
About the Author
Molly Lyons- Counseling Intern
Molly is currently in her final year of the Master of Science in Clinical Counseling at Central Methodist University (CMU) and is a student intern at The Counseling Hub and Boone County Mental Health Coalition, where she will assess and provide mental health interventions and resources for individuals and groups in Boone County schools. She obtained her Bachelor of Science in General Psychology with a minor in Child Development from Central Methodist University directly before enrolling in the counseling program. Prior to pursuing her counseling degree, Molly received an Associates of Science in Early Childhood Education from Moberly Area Community College.
Molly has experience in the Counseling Center at MACC's Columbia campus, providing counseling services for students around the topics of identity crises, school-related stressors, depression issues, and coping with anxiety. Molly has co-facilitated Safe Zone trainings which introduce its members to the LGBTQ+ community terminology and basic information. Molly has also completed on online course in LGBTQ+ Counseling Competencies (College and Career Readiness) through the American Counseling Association (ACA). Molly is an active member of both the ACA and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD).
Molly enjoys working with diverse populations and seeks to always be open to new learning experiences. She works best with individuals who are trying to discover who they are and how they relate to their world, as well as others in their world. Molly believes that a person’s external factors can provide both barriers and resources towards growth and that one must discover these in order to thrive.