• How to Set Good Goals in Therapy
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    How to Set Good Goals in Therapy

    Many people go to therapy to seek help for a problem they cannot navigate alone. Sometimes it is regarding issues surrounding their childhood or family of origin like parental neglect, abandonment or abuse. Sometimes it’s to help navigate relationships with a loved one or spouse. There may also be issues of trauma or grief that need to be worked through. Whatever the reason is, you need to recognize what you believe is the problem.

    Often, we are not aware of the exact problem we need to address. Once we know the problem we are seeking help to work through, it is easier to set some goals with ourselves and the therapist.

    Recognizing the Problem

    Telling a therapist about your problems will sometimes give you both a great place to start. The very beginning of therapy may not always be a realistic time to identify problems because they might be buried under long periods of dysfunctional operating in all areas of your life.

    It is important to identify why you need help navigating this area or these areas, if there is more than one. Talking about it will help bring these problems to the surface. Sometimes we can do this with a friend or a loved one but other times it may take a few sessions of therapy to help.

    Identifying the Goals

    Let’s say the reason we go to therapy is to work through parental neglect and emotional abuse. The next step is to discuss what the therapist can do to help you work through this problem area. If they have a plan that seems doable to you, ask for a timeframe to completion along with guidelines for what will be expected of you.

    Recognize that therapy is not about getting someone to tell you the problem and the solution. These things are going to be agreed upon and must be worked towards together. Most therapy involves a great deal of behavior and attitude change. Your part is to understand what that looks like and how they apply to changes you want to make in your life.

    A Therapeutic Relationship

    Therapy is teamwork. Make sure the therapist has a plan to accomplish what it is that you are looking for. Be sure to ask questions and pinpoint details that are pertinent to you. Do not allow therapy to become an open-ended, long term relationship that floats along, willy-nilly. Make certain that you and the therapist understand what is being sought and what you are hoping to achieve in this process. If they are unable to give you a workable plan of action, it may be time to find another therapist.

    Therapy should be directed by both members of the team. When you hit a brick wall of resistance, either within yourself or with the therapist, it is important for both to address this problem. If there is no way to navigate these waters, perhaps it is time to stop for some time.

    When to Stop

    A good stopping point is when you have either achieved a point of comfort with your outlined goals or you have reached a point where you can now navigate without feedback and assistance from the therapist. This should be discussed in therapy and decided between both parties. If there is disagreement about progress, perhaps it is time to revisit the goals set at the beginning. These are goals you identified as the purpose of therapy.

    When you have reached the point that was decided upon at the beginning of therapy, you will know it is time to stop. It may be beneficial to revisit this therapist (or another) at some point in the future if the problems begin again or you feel a need to fine tune the changes that you have made in therapy. There is no reason you cannot maintain a long-term relationship with your therapist, but it is not often that anyone requires long-term therapy. Be sure that you have an end goal and time set to avoid excess expense and time spent not working on your recognized goals.

    Kelly McClanahan has an MSW/ASW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 25 years, she has a CATC-IV credential. She is also a lecturer and workshop provider for meditation, mindfulness and issues arising in long-term recovery. Kelly is currently writing a book about the spiritual principles in 12-Step recovery.


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