Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
If you’re going to therapy, chances are, you’re looking to make some life improvements.
Unfortunately, simply walking into a therapist’s office isn’t like waving a magic wand and — poof! — your problems are gone.
Setting realistic goals is a huge part of the equation that many folks tend to skip over.
Coming up with things you want to accomplish in your sessions can also ensure that you get the most out of your mental health therapy experience.
But how do you know what goals to set? And how do you go about actually setting them?
And before you answer those questions, it’s worth understanding a bit more about therapy and learning about how crucial it is to find a therapist you jive with to help you come up with an action plan to accomplish your goals.
Repeat after us: therapy can benefit just about anyone — and it can seriously improve your quality of life.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, therapy can be good for anyone who is navigating stress, isn’t sleeping well, is having trouble focusing, is going through a life change or is consumed by sadness or anxiety.
If you think about it, everyone experiences one or more of those things at some point in life.
Need more proof therapy can help? Research has shown that psychotherapy teaches people life skills that last beyond treatment.
To set and achieve your therapy goals, it’s important to have a therapist you trust. Actually, it’s more than just important — it’s imperative.
According to The American Psychological Association, the connection you have with a mental health care provider is at least as important to a positive outcome as using the right method of treatment.
If you’re in the beginning phases of finding a therapist, think about what will make you feel most comfortable.
Would you feel most comfortable with a male or female provider? Would you feel most at ease talking to someone with the same ethnic background as you? Does age of the provider matter to you?
Once you find someone you suspect you can have a good counseling relationship with, asking some questions can help you further solidify that feeling.
Some questions to consider asking:
Can you go over your training with me? It may feel slightly uncomfortable to ask, but we promise — this isn’t a question your potential therapist hasn’t heard before. And it’s an important one. Hearing their qualifications may lead you to feel more secure in the idea that they have the training necessary to help you.
What would my treatment with you be like? Understanding their methodology, how often you should attend therapy to meet your goals, and what happens in sessions can help you prepare and feel comfortable in the game plan.
How do we determine if I’m making progress? If your goal is to, well, set goals, you need to have a way of quantifying whether you’re achieving them. Hearing how a potential therapist views this will tell you if their sensibility aligns with yours.
These questions are just to get you started. You should feel comfortable asking any other questions that come to mind. Something else to keep in mind is that you can have a touch base at any point with your therapist — not just when you first start seeing them.
If you don’t understand something about your treatment or need a better grasp on treatment protocols or how your therapist is approaching things, you can — and should — ask them.
Again, mental health professionals are used to being asked these questions — it’s part of the therapeutic process.
Wondering how you should figure out what therapy goals to set? These tips may help.
What made you want to get into therapy?
Maybe you have a frustrating relationship with your mother and it was getting to you. Or perhaps work had gotten the best of you and you knew you needed help to prevent it from affecting your everyday life and you needed counseling for stress.
Whatever your reason, it’s a good place to mine for goals.
For example, if a tricky relationship with your mom drove you to therapy, think about what might make you feel better.
Do you want to learn to have more patience with her? Or would a good goal be to learn how to set boundaries?
If there was a trigger that inspired you to start therapy, it’s a natural next step to set therapy goals based on that.
If you set goals of therapy, you want to accomplish it — right? So, it’s important to be fairly realistic and set achievable goals.
Say you want to deal with your anxiety. It’s unrealistic to set the goal of never feeling anxious again. And if you do set that goal, you’re setting yourself up for failure. This, in turn, could cause you to give up completely.
Instead, a better goal would be to say that you’d like to lessen your anxiety around a specific topic.
For example, maybe you want to feel less anxiety about giving presentations at work. Your therapist will be able to hone in and help you develop tools to do just that.
Then, you can tackle another anxiety-provoking scenario — and so on and so forth, until you start noticing a significant change in your anxiety levels.
Research has found that you may be more likely to stick to a goal if there is an incentive involved.
So, as you set your goals, try to think about what good things will occur when you accomplish them.
If your aim is to start dating again after a bad breakup, think about how fun it will be to meet interesting new people.
If you want to eliminate stress around an upcoming holiday, think about how great it will be to have a quiet, peaceful day.
Then, set the goal and go about engaging in counseling for stress with your therapist.
By keeping the positive aspect of accomplishing a goal in mind, you may be more motivated to both set the goal and accomplish it.
Before meeting with your therapist, consider jotting down thoughts on what therapeutic goals you may want to focus on. This can help you gather your thoughts and really think about what goals you’d like to set.
Then, when you show up to your therapy session, you and your provider will be able to dive right in and get to work on coming up with a plan to achieve your goals.
Aside from that, writing your goals down on paper may help keep you accountable and your intentions clear.
Maybe you’re looking to have a healthier marriage or want to lessen the stress you feel around money.
Whatever goal you have, addressing it in therapy may prove useful.
Finding a therapist or therapy online will go a long way to helping you get the most out of therapy. After that, you’ll need to think about the goals you want to set.
To do so, it’s a good idea to be as realistic as possible. Focusing on how great it will be once you accomplish your goals can also inspire you to actually set the goal and go after it. Finally, it may help to write it down.
Once you set your therapy goals, you’ll be able to create an action plan and go through the therapeutic process of working to achieve them.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.