Therapy FAQ

Therapy Goals: Why They Matter and How to Choose Them

Most people start therapy to address specific issues or learn more about themselves. Some need guidance with their career decisions, while others want to overcome past trauma, anxiety, or phobias. No matter your reasons for seeing a mental health professional, setting SMART therapy goals is essential.  The acronym “SMART” stands for “Specific,” “Measurable,” “Achievable,” “Relevant,” […]

therapist sean abraham By Sean Abraham, LCSW
Asian woman speaks in therapy.

Updated on Mar 28, 2024

x icon linked-in icon facebook icon instagram icon

Most people start therapy to address specific issues or learn more about themselves. Some need guidance with their career decisions, while others want to overcome past trauma, anxiety, or phobias. No matter your reasons for seeing a mental health professional, setting SMART therapy goals is essential. 

The acronym “SMART” stands for “Specific,” “Measurable,” “Achievable,” “Relevant,” and “Time-Bound.” A good therapist can help you set goals that meet these criteria and align with your needs. Sometimes, breaking down large goals into smaller steps that you tackle individually makes sense.

What are Therapy Goals? 

One of the first things a therapist will ask you is, “What brings you here?”

Perhaps you have a general idea of what you hope to achieve, such as gaining self-confidence or building healthier habits, and that’s a good starting point. From here, you can work with your therapist to establish specific outcomes and create frameworks for measuring therapy progress.

“In some therapeutic approaches, explicit goals are not set, stemming from a belief that the client-therapist relationship itself is healing or that the mind has its re-organizing power and will arrive at healing on its own given time,” notes Alexandra Lascano-Rusu, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Grow Therapy.

“While I don’t disagree with this sentiment, many clients have landed in my practice because they have felt lost and confused coming from open-ended therapy experiences. The more clients like this I’ve worked with, the more I’ve deepened my practice of setting clear goals and determining ways to measure progress,” she added.

Therapy goals can be defined as the outcomes you’d like to achieve. These may include short or long-term goals and can change over time. Not only do they motivate the client, but they also allow therapists to determine what treatment options would be most beneficial, says Jen Warshawsky, a licensed clinical mental health counselor (LCMHC) with Growth Therapy.

The Importance of Goal Setting in Therapy

Imagine starting an exercise routine to fill up your time. You go to the gym on most days for several weeks, and it feels good. But after the initial excitement wears off, you keep finding excuses to skip your workouts. Every minute in the gym feels like a chore, so you eventually quit.

A few months later, you decide to resume your workouts. Now you have a clear goal, such as losing 10 pounds or building arm strength following an injury.

Chances are, you’ll work harder and feel more motivated compared to the last time you started a training program. Your goals keep you moving forward and give you a sense of purpose.

The same happens in therapy. If you have specific goals, you’re more likely to put in the time and effort to achieve them. 

“Goals are an essential piece of the therapeutic process. They allow both the therapist and client to ensure they are actively working toward improving a previously identified challenge or problem,” says Catherine Del Toro, a licensed mental health counselor with Grow Therapy.

According to Williams, goal setting motivates people to achieve tangible results. This process also guides the therapy sessions, ensuring that appropriate interventions are in place to support clients in their journey to mental well-being.

An action plan can make it easier to implement your goals, notes a 2017 review published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. Your therapist can help with both action planning and goal setting. This approach also allows us to identify the habits or behaviors you want to change—and the best ways to go about it.

Clinical research also shows that goal setting in therapy can boost well-being and reduce mental distress. Plus, it may strengthen the connection between patient and therapist, leading to better treatment outcomes.

Some studies even suggest that setting personalized therapy goals is more beneficial than focusing on symptom reduction alone. “Even while practicing holistic methods in therapy, goals provide a structure that often leads to faster progress,” says Lascano-Rusu.

Last but not least, goal setting keeps you accountable and gives your therapeutic experience a sense of direction, notes Williams. “Whether short-term or long-term, goals can help you see your progress over time.”

How to Set Therapy Goals

Del Toro recommends setting therapy goals during the first session or the first few sessions. “This way, we know exactly what we need to work on or develop,” she explains.

Start with the problem you want to address. “For example, a goal may be to improve communication in relationships because we have identified that our lack of communication or poor communication has led to issues in the past,” notes Del Toro.

The most common goals in therapy revolve around processing past trauma, increasing self-esteem, or developing coping strategies. You can also set goals aimed at changing unhealthy habits (e.g., smoking or drinking), reducing symptom intensity (e.g., anxiety), or improving your skills in one or more areas. For instance, some clients want to learn to communicate more effectively.

But, as discussed earlier, it’s important to be strategic with your goals. Consider the changes you’d like to see in your life, the habits you want to embrace, or any issues that keep you from reaching your full potential. After that, work with your therapist to develop an action plan that highlights the steps needed to get where you want to be.

“Clients have the ultimate say in what their goals are, but as a therapist, I also will provide recommendations or feedback if they are uncertain about what they want to work towards or what they should focus on in treatment,” explains Warshawsky.

On a similar note, Lascano-Rusu told us that “It’s beneficial to identify goals together, in the client’s own words and in a way that feels emotionally meaningful.” She also added, “Whatever goals clients start with don’t have to be an end-all be-all target, just a desired and motivating next step.”

With that in mind, here are some steps you can take to define your personal goals.

Consider Your Needs and Wants

Think about what drove you to therapy in the first place. Is there a specific problem you want to address or a behavior you’d like to change? Are you trying to make a decision regarding your personal or professional life?

A helpful exercise in goal setting is to consider your life how it is today and then imagine your life sometime in the future when things are “better”—and ask yourself, “What is different?”

Choose a Focus Area

It’s okay to tell your therapist, “I feel like everything I do is wrong” or “I feel like I’ll never be good enough.” Together, you can identify the issues that hold you back—and find the best ways to overcome them. However, you may be better off choosing a focus area, such as a particular habit or problem that’s causing those issues. 

For example, if you’re trying to be everything to everyone, you may feel like you’ll never be good enough. What you can do is focus on developing self-compassion, practicing self-care, and learning to set healthy boundaries.

Keep it Simple

Once you’ve determined what you want to achieve, choose one or two goals to work toward. Basically, you’ll break down your focus area into small, achievable goals. An example would be, “I want to make time for myself without feeling guilty about it” or “I want to learn to say ‘no.'” 

Make Your Goals SMART

Goals that are impersonal, vague, unrealistic, or overly generalized are unlikely to make a difference in your life. They can actually lead to frustration, low self-esteem, and hopelessness.

SMART goals, on the other hand, serve as a blueprint for your actions, keeping you accountable and focused. This concept is rooted in the corporate world but can be applied in most areas of life.

Let’s say you often feel comfortable in groups because of social anxiety. This issue affects your work and personal life, making it difficult to build connections.

In psychotherapy, a SMART goal could be something like, “I will feel more comfortable in group settings within three months by engaging in two social gatherings per month.”

This kind of goal is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound, as illustrated below:

You can use a similar approach to quit smoking, develop a positive mindset, build healthier habits, or hone your communication skills.

Keep it Positive 

Setting SMART goals is a good strategy, but it’s also a good idea to make sure your goals have positive connotations. 

Positive goals are when we are trying to add something to our lives, whereas negative goals involve removing things from our lives. For example, if we want to improve our eating habits, instead of saying, “I want to stop eating junk food” (negative), we can say, “I want to improve my physical wellness by eating healthier meals” (positive).  

With negative goals, we tend to focus intensely on the thing we are trying to remove. And we can feel like a failure if we have a slip-up or setback. 

When we use positive language to set goals, our mind is focused on progress—and we think less about the thing we are trying to stop doing. Also, if we do have a setback, we can learn from it and not see ourselves as a complete failure. If we eat junk food one day, we can say we have still been working on physical wellness, but we can’t say we haven’t eaten junk food. 

Changing language when creating goals to be more positive instead of negative can give us a needed boost to accomplishing our goals.

Be Open to Change 

“Treatment goals vary from client to client and can be modified or updated as therapy progresses,” says Del Toro. Returning to the above example, you may shift your focus as you become more comfortable in social settings.

For instance, you could go one step further and try to initiate conversions, join a debate club, or give a presentation at work. “Whatever goals you start with don’t have to be an end-all-be-all target, just a desired and motivating next step,” points out Lascano-Rusu.

The goal-setting process will also determine the type of therapy applied.

Let’s say your goal is to decrease the frequency of panic attacks from three times per week to less than once a week within two months. A therapist may suggest cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which aims to change unhelpful or irrational thoughts and behaviors. The intervention may include relaxation techniques, positive affirmations, and other coping strategies meant to help you reduce and manage your fears. 

Now let’s assume you want to understand the underlying emotions and early life experiences contributing to your anxiety. The goal would be to develop more adaptive ways of relating to others within six months. 

In the above scenario, you may use psychodynamic therapy or a similar approach. This evidence-based intervention aims to help people address unconscious processes or past unresolved conflicts that interfere with their lives. It focuses more on exploring the unconscious mind and developing self-awareness than setting specific, measurable goals.

With either approach, the time frame isn’t set in stone. Sometimes simply having a deadline can motivate you to keep going. Plus, it gives a better idea of when to evaluate your goals. 

Work with a Therapist to Achieve Your Goals

Setting therapy goals is an important part of your healing journey. Not only do they give you a sense of purpose, but they can also serve as a catalyst for change and guide the therapeutic process.

The goals you set in therapy may overlap with your personal goals. But there are also cases where they revolve around issues you might not be aware of, such as unconscious fears or the desire to please others. A good therapist can help you set realistic goals that align with your needs and then devise a treatment plan around those goals.

Ready to give it a try? Browse our database to connect with licensed therapists from all over the U.S. Whether you prefer in-person or online therapy, you can find a professional who accepts your insurance and understands the challenges you face.

FAQs

  • Your therapy goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. For example, a mother looking to build a better relationship with her daughter could set a goal like, "I will engage in conversation with my teenage daughter for 20 minutes, three to five days per week. I will actively listen to what she has to say without interrupting or trying to solve what I see as a problem. I will also reflect on what I hear her saying during each 20-minute conversation.”

  • Generally, it's best to set goals during your first therapy session or the first few sessions. You’ll evaluate these goals and the progress you made toward them every three to six months. This allows you and your therapist to see how far you have come and whether or not your old goals are still relevant. Therefore, your goals may change as the therapy progresses. Let's say you're constantly stressed at work. When you start therapy, your goal is to learn coping strategies and relaxation techniques so you can better manage stress. Later on, you realize that your stress stems from a poor work-life balance. With that in mind, you set a new goal, such as making more time for yourself and the things you love.

  • Your therapist can help you set SMART goals that align with your needs and wants. They'll take into account where you are, what you hope to achieve, and the challenges you may face. A good strategy is to define your reasons for seeking therapy, such as "I feel stuck in my job" or "I want to act more confident." After that, you'll set short and long-term goals around the changes you want to make. This process may seem overwhelming, but your therapist will guide you every step of the way.

About the author
therapist sean abraham Sean Abraham, LCSW

Sean Abraham is a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in treating people dealing with addiction, anxiety, depression, grief, communication problems, and other mental health concerns.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

x icon linked-in icon facebook icon instagram icon