The purpose of therapy is to treat or heal an existing condition, so therapeutic goals usually exist to track or mark a patient’s progress as they progress. However, although goal-keeping has clear benefits for use in therapy, it’s gone used and unused in differing amounts over time. In this article, we’ll explore why therapeutic goals are useful, when and how they should be used, and how they help the patient.
Should You Seek Therapy?
Today, there are therapeutic options available for a wide variety of ailments, issues, and feelings. They can be small things, like a fear of spiders that you’d like to get over, or they can be more significant, such as relationship issues with a spouse or significant other. Since there will always be a need for these services, they will always be available for you to take advantage of.
However, whether or not you need to seek therapy is not always clear. In the vast majority of cases, the person in question could receive benefit from treatment, but whether it’s necessary or not is more of a grey area. Would the person be able to find the same relief by performing self-therapy with help from online resources? Of course, self-therapy is still a form of therapy, but it can’t be regulated like professional therapy can.
A good rule of thumb is that if your issue affects your life in a profound, negative way, such as preventing you from doing important things or activities you might enjoy, it may be a good idea to seek therapy. If you regularly work around the issue and it doesn’t impact your life, then it may not be necessary to find a therapeutic solution now. If it becomes worse, you can always search for solutions down the road.
Of course, whether a patient seeks therapy or not isn’t always up to them. A parent sending a child to therapy, for example, often leaves little choice for the child, and a court decree might require treatment for a person for them to stay in good legal standing with the court or another entity.
Unfortunately, one of the determining factors of whether a person decides to pursue therapy or not is price. While some treatments and doctors are covered by settlements or by insurance, the cost for time with a therapist can be prohibitive otherwise. However, with so many practitioners and types of therapy available, it’s not something to be afraid of. In fact, it can benefit you in many different ways.
There are many different types of therapy, all of which come with varying styles of treatment for different ailments and issues. Some of them include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an intensive form of therapy where a therapist attempts to change a client’s thought patterns to alter how they react to trigger situations
- Hypnotherapy, as its name suggests, is a guided hypnosis-based therapy meant to turn the patient’s focus inward to help find solutions to problems
- Marriage and Family Therapy addresses relational issues between family members and married couples with the help of a therapist
- Play Therapy is a type of therapy commonly used for children (and occasionally adults) to help the patient express their own thoughts and emotions without restrictions
There are many types of therapy available already, but more are being invented all the time as we develop new theories and technologies to assist us. As such, there are new, cutting-edge therapies available out there, but they don’t often have the same years of success and evidence backing them up as traditional treatments do.
In the same way, off-the-wall or unconventional therapies are cropping up just as much, and many of them rely on holistic medicine or anecdotal evidence. New and uncommon therapies should always be treated with a bit of suspicion; after all, a therapist is meant to be someone who works with your brain and your emotions. If a new type of therapy isn’t what it’s advertised to be, you don’t want to suffer adverse effects.
Regardless of the type of therapy, they share one thing in common: they’re designed to heal or treat the patient with the help of a skilled therapist. Predictably, the strategies used in each type of therapy tend to differ, but all of them, regardless of age, gender, ailment, or timeframe, can benefit from a goal-oriented system.
Creating a treatment plan is essential. It wouldn’t be a good idea to throw different medications at someone until one of them worked, right? It’s better to sit down and plan beforehand and figure out how each issue needs to be addressed. Some problems might be able to be solved with behavioral changes, and some might benefit more from prescription medication.
To compound the issue, what works for one patient might be entirely unreasonable for another. Consider two patients that have the same problem and are being treated by the same therapist. One patient might see great success from a particular type of medication, but the other patient might experience adverse side effects from the same pill. As such, the therapist might need to develop a different treatment plan for the second patient.
A “treatment plan” is essentially psychology’s word for a goal-oriented system, even if it’s not explicitly stated. Essentially, a treatment plan is a set of instructions, usually written, that detail what the therapist and patient are going to do to address the patient’s issue(s). A treatment plan is similar to a “road map” that you might see with other goal strategies.
A treatment plan will do the following things, typically in this order:
- Define the problems with the patient that needs to be fixed
- Describe the treatment recommended by the patient’s therapist or doctor
- Outline a timeline that shows the development of progress
- Point out significant goals in the patient’s treatment
- Make a special note of particularly important objectives
When creating a treatment plan, a savvy therapist will make sure to take the patient’s therapeutic goals into account, too. While it’s true that some patients will not know where and when to set goals and may require the guidance of the therapist, some will have definite ideas of what they want to accomplish and when.
Of course, it’s important not to make these goals too ambitious – they must still be achievable – but the patient’s preferences should be taken into account whenever possible.
Some clients know that they need to visit a therapist, but they find it hard to pin down why or to what extent. After all, if a patient has been living and dealing with an issue for years, they may have forgotten how it feels not to have to work around that issue. In this case, you should always ask yourself, “What’s different?”
Look back through your happy memories, and try to isolate things from then that are not a part of your life now. Specifically, try to find behavioral quirks or life events that made you happy that are no longer a part of your life. Perhaps you were a sunny, happy person before meeting an abusive significant other, and now you keep your thoughts and opinions locked inside instead.
Even though you’ve become used to keeping to yourself since being with the abusive party, and you might not view that as a necessarily bad thing, you were undoubtedly happier before the ordeal happened. As such, a therapist would likely prescribe a treatment to help change this part of you back to how it was before.
Sometimes, it might not be so easy to identify what’s different. In some cases, patients have been so deeply conditioned or they’ve been living with an issue for such a long time that they no longer remember how things were before. These issues may take longer to unearth, but with proper collaboration with your therapist, they will eventually come to light.
Another crucial question to ask yourself is why you’re looking for therapy in the first place. If you’re actively seeking out a therapist to help you, then some part of you knows that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Following that instinct and line of thought might help you isolate what needs fixing in your life, and isolating the issue can only help your therapist treat it better.
We touched on this briefly above, but it’s essential to be realistic in your therapeutic goals, even before you see a therapist. Therapists and counselors are not miracle workers, just as doctors aren’t. Consider the following unrealistic therapeutic goals:
- I want to be happy 100% of the time
- I never want to fight with my significant other again
- I want to feel completely better without trying any medications
However, the above unrealistic goals can be quickly and easily turned into realistic ones that you and your therapist can handle. With just a few word changes, the above turn into:
- I want to be happier
- I want to learn how to resolve arguments peacefully with my significant other
- I want to feel better with minimal medications
If you’re not realistic with your goals, you will inevitably be disappointed by what your therapist recommends and by what you’re able to achieve in therapy. While some cases can see 100% improvement in their problem area, whether this is possible depends on what the issue is and how much effort you’re willing to put in.
If you’re not willing to put in the effort to do what’s recommended by your therapist, you should also adjust your expectations accordingly. You may have a goal of feeling better, but a therapist can’t just wave a magic wand and pronounce you better. Your therapist will have homework for you to do, in addition to the work you do during your appointments.
If you can’t commit to the work your therapist needs you to do, don’t expect miraculous results, if any. Your therapist can do everything within their power to help you, but if you don’t take their advice and do what they say, neither of you will see results.
That being said, if you feel uncomfortable with what your therapist asks of you or if you think that they’ve overstepped your boundaries, you may wish to tell them so or find a therapist who’s a better fit for you.
Along with being realistic, you’ll have to be patient, too. No therapist has the power to heal you of your ills overnight, and it may take several days or weeks of evaluation to even come up with a treatment plan for you.
This is even the case for physical therapy, which works on the body, not the mind. If you try to rush while rehabilitating a limb during physical therapy, you may cause even more damage than what was originally there. The same is true for psychotherapy, or therapy of the mind.
Be patient with your therapist, as well. Like we said above, no therapist is a miracle worker, and they don’t have all the answers. Even with the best efforts of both parties, the first treatment plan or diagnosis that you and your therapist reach together may not be the best one. Give it time to see what treatments work for you and which don’t, and don’t be afraid to revise your goals along the way.
Consider this analogy: there is a burglar alarm in your house that wakes you up at night, every night, and you hire a therapist to help you fix the problem. You have three options: disable the burglar alarm, make it so you can’t hear it, or take care of the burglar. What should you do?
Well, let’s assume that this analogy is talking about sleep issues since those are mentioned in it. Taking care of the burglar, of course, would be the best option, but what if that isn’t possible? Let’s assume the burglar is the underlying issue of yours that’s causing you to awaken at night. It could be a medical issue, such as sleep apnea or acid reflux, or it could be nightmares or insomnia that keep you from sleeping.
Of course, sleep apnea and acid reflux are issues for a doctor, not a therapist, but a therapist might be able to help you sort out what your nightmares are about. Maybe you suffer from PTSD from a traumatic event in your life and have nightmares as a result. This is something that your therapist could help you address.
However, there is often no cure for insomnia, so we can’t take care of the burglar itself in that scenario. If this is the case, you may need to move on to disabling the burglar alarm. We wouldn’t be touching the underlying issue, but we could treat sleeplessness, the symptom. Sleep aids like medications and behavioral conditioning with good sleep hygiene can help make insomnia less of a problem.
Let’s imagine, though, that you can’t take sleeping pills for some reason, and behavioral therapy hasn’t worked for you. Perhaps you need to operate heavy machinery at your job and can’t risk drowsiness at work. In this case, we’d need to move onto the third scenario: wearing earplugs. In this scenario, we’re not taking care of the burglar alarm or the burglar, but we’re making it so we can’t hear the alarm most nights.
To block out the sound of the alarm, your therapist might look for ways to help prevent or deal with your insomnia. For example, getting plenty of exercise during the day might be enough to lower your number of sleepless nights.
While this isn’t a complete solution to the problem, it’s a step in the right direction, and it’s better than doing nothing at all. Additionally, you could take up a side job or late-night hobby to keep yourself occupied and happy during those sleepless nights, rather than lying awake.
You may need to try many different strategies, like the ones we mentioned above, while you work towards your therapeutic goals. In the meantime, make sure to take care of yourself mentally and physically, and try not to get frustrated if your first approach doesn’t work. Be patient!
When you’re talking with your therapist about your symptoms and how you feel, make sure that you’re being honest. Even if you feel embarrassed or fearful about something, it’s vital that you talk about the issue in its entirety with your therapist. If you fudge on the details or don’t give the whole story, you could give your therapist the wrong idea, and this could affect your treatment plan.
Make sure you use honest terms when talking with your therapist, too. Some things that you mention to your therapist might mean different things to them than they do to you, like the following:
- “I have depression”
- “I have anxiety”
- Claiming you “are” or “have” anything without being properly diagnosed
In the instances of the above, your therapist might assume that, when you say you have depression, you’ve been diagnosed with major depressive disorder by a doctor in the past. Being diagnosed with a mental health disorder and believing you have one are two very different things, and they can alter the path of your treatment plan significantly.
Instead, use common language such as “I’ve been feeling sad since the breakup” or “I haven’t felt the same since my father died.” Avoid psychobabble, the professional terms used for mental health issues and the like.
Describe how you’re feeling in plain, easy terms to your therapist so that you can foster mutual understanding. After all, if you do have a diagnosable mental health disorder, that will inevitably come up during the proceedings anyway.
You’ll need to be honest with your therapist about how things are proceeding, as well. Your therapist is required to keep your secrets unless they believe you’ve become a danger to yourself or others. If your therapy isn’t working for you as it should, don’t keep it a secret to spare your therapist’s feelings, or you’ll end up continuing to do the same unhelpful things.
Look to the Future
When you’re working with your therapist on how to proceed with your treatment plans, you should always be looking to the future. How would you like your future to be? Do you want it to be free of fears about a certain someone or something? Do you want to take up an activity again that you stopped doing because of how you were feeling? Take all of these wishes into account when you’re formulating your treatment plans.
Don’t be afraid to conjure up the best-case scenario of what you’d like to receive from therapy, regardless of how impossible it might seem. Although you should keep in mind that it may not be achievable, dreaming big can help you and your therapist isolate what the most critical parts of your therapy might be.
Looking to the future can sometimes even unearth issues you didn’t know you were struggling with. Perhaps, in the future, you want to have children one day, but you’re terrified of commitment. Of course, these commitment issues will be a big priority for you and your therapist in the future, and one of your therapeutic goals should be to mitigate or get over these issues.
The more you’re able to discover about yourself and share with your therapist, the more effective the treatment plan the two of you come up with will be. As such, one of your therapeutic goals should be to share as much of your future hopes and dreams with your therapist as you feel comfortable with. If you can push those boundaries a bit, that can only be more helpful, too.
See the Connections
Over the course of your therapeutic experience, it’s very important that you learn to see the connections between your issues, your hopes and dreams, and your goals. Once you start seeing these connections, you’ll get better at identifying what your therapist needs to know to help you get better and progress with your therapy.
When you make a connection between an issue and a goal, it means you’re identifying what’s impeding you from achieving those goals. There are worksheets and goals checklists available for your use to help identify these goals and find out what’s stopping you from achieving them. Your therapist might request that you fill out one of these, or you can find one to do proactively on your own.
Your therapist can usually see what issues usually stop a patient from achieving their goals, but this can differ from patient to patient. For your therapist to get a good idea of how to help you, make sure to tell them about your therapeutic goals in addition to any issues you think might be the source. You may want to tell them about other unrelated issues, too, as these can sometimes contribute in ways you might not realize.
Consider some of the following examples of connections:
- Fear of bees connected with a patient’s inability to go outside
- A patient’s cheating habit that’s preventing them from starting a family
- Abusive family members that can trigger a patient to abuse drugs
- Social shyness that discourages a patient from the dating scene
The above examples are pretty standard and easy to figure out, but the connections between issues and goals aren’t always that clear. It’s your therapist’s job to do their utmost to figure out those connections; helping them in any way you can only makes their job faster and easier.
Through it all, your therapeutic experience will likely be challenging and, at times, taxing. It’s essential to keep positive throughout the experience and look to the good that will come out of it. If you keep at it long enough and follow the tips in this guide, you’ll eventually find your way to some solution to your issue!
Think about a patient who is convinced that their therapist can’t do anything for them. This patient won’t put the necessary amount of effort into the homework that their therapist gives them, won’t take time to set therapeutic goals, and won’t listen to the recommendations of their therapist. As a result, their therapist won’t be able to do anything for them, after all! This creates a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t shop around for a therapist, however. Just as some patients don’t get along with their doctors, some patients will feel unsettled with some therapists. Don’t take too long to find one, as you’ll be losing valuable treatment time, but it will be easier on both you and your therapist if the two of you feel comfortable together.
If you do genuinely believe that your therapist will be able to help you find relief and even closure, you will eventually find it! Therapists can do amazing things, but in order to do their jobs, they need your willingness and cooperation. Once you’ve found a therapist that works well for you, help them help you!