How To Set (Actually Helpful) Goals For Therapy
Is Therapy Working For You?
When I went to my first online therapy session, I only had the goal of “feeling better.” I didn’t have the vocabulary for what I was experiencing—all I knew was that I was crying in my bathroom after a long weekend for no clear reason.
When my therapist sent along a goals worksheet before our first therapy session, I don’t know why I was surprised. I had always imagined therapy to be a “show up, cry to a professional, feel better” kind of deal. Instead, I was getting homework. Wasn’t I paying someone else to do that for me?
But I did the assignment, and I’m glad I did.
It’s often difficult to pinpoint exactly where I’m at and where I’m going when it comes to my mental health and overall well-being. It’s always easier to take a look at where I was. But setting goals within the experience of therapy can support us in our everyday growth. Dr. Ruth L. Varkovitzky, a board-certified clinical psychologist, encourages taking this step, even if it doesn’t feel intuitive.
“Creating a plan for change, which can include goal setting, isn’t a skill that we are born with…it’s a skill we need to learn and practice,” she explains. “The process of articulating what we are feeling and putting words to our intentions can help us build our own motivation and take meaningful steps towards the life we want.”
Goals, specifically the ones we set with professionals if we are able to work with them, can help us understand how (and why) we’re spending time and money on our personal development. Think of it this way: Our therapists are the personal trainers who offer meaningful feedback and support while we exercise our goal-setting muscles. If we can practice our goal setting in therapy, we’ll be better equipped to set goals outside of it, too.
Your therapist should help prompt you to discuss your goals for therapy, but you can begin the conversation as well as early as your first meeting. Erin Miller, a psychotherapist, explains that she asks her clients in their initial session, “If therapy ‘worked’ for you, what would that look like?” This helps focus on the optimal outcome of therapy—which is to journey a little closer to our best selves. Setting up a roadmap for your time with your therapist also offers structure and sets the foundation for measuring how far you’ve come.
“When I work with clients, I like to have them articulate their goals, and we put them in writing together,” says Varkovitzky. “We also try to identify how we would know if things were getting better, and how we want to measure progress.” That means you’re not just in charge of setting the goals but also having conversations about what progress and “success” truly looks like for you.
Additionally, Varkovitzky notes that you can support your evaluations with well-researched and validated questionnaires and measures; these make it easier to chart your progress over time.
Your goals might even feel like they need to change—let them change! Clients will frequently come in with one area of focus in mind, says Miller, and “through their work, they understand new goals and challenges that would be meaningful to conquer in therapy. Therapy is a journey, and throughout your work, your goals should be ever-evolving as you grow.”
This can be the same for your approach, too—maybe you thought you needed help solving an immediate problem but instead discover that it’s more worthwhile to explore the roots of why you’re experiencing it in the first place. Varkovitzky puts it succinctly and without a twinge of judgment: “Sometimes life presents us with situations that change our priorities.”
If you’re feeling stuck on exactly where you need to focus your attention (like I am right now), evaluate what made you pick up the phone or sign up for therapy in the first place. I imagine it a little like I’m running my hand over the surface of my life, appreciating the smooth places and recognizing the rough patches.
Maybe you come across something in your life that feels like a pinch in your gut or a clenching in your chest; these bumps and ridges are where you can start your work. (Have I written categories of my life onto paper and literally run my hand over them to see what feels most confronting? Yes. Yes, I have.)
From there, consider ways you can hone these intentions into SMART goals—that means they are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Your therapist is your accountability guide, so don’t hesitate to loop them in on the process.
If you’re still not quite sure where to start, here are some common therapy goals that have been suggested by both therapists I spoke to as well as others online.
Developing coping skills for anxiety or overwhelming emotions
Reducing the intensity of symptoms related to anxiety and depression
Increasing self-esteem and reducing negative self-talk
Improving sleep quality and prioritizing restfulness
Learning new communication strategies for complex relationships or family dynamics
Processing thoughts and feelings about past trauma
Inviting more mindfulness and presence into everyday life
Changing harmful or unhelpful behaviors
Sharpening your decision-making and boundary-setting skills
Discovering more about who you are, what you want, and where your values lie
When I look back at my own goals and early worksheets, I can see clearly the path my therapist and I took to smooth out those areas of my life. But it wasn’t always clear when I was in the thick of it—I’ve learned that mental well-being is a process, not a product.
And now that those goals feel addressed, I’ve moved on to new goals that run a little deeper, like self-accountability and honest communication about my boundaries. For me, growing out of goals has revealed my progress, and now I know that those worksheets weren’t just busywork or part of a day-one icebreaker with my therapist.
Therapy is a challenging process (and unfortunately, often expensive) that gives only as much as you do. The process of being honest with someone else is only one step towards facing the final boss: yourself.
But you’re not alone in it, no matter how much your mind tries to convince yourself that you are. And setting goals with a professional can help you hold yourself accountable to your own growth. Because, after all, our growth is nobody else’s job but our own.
Sometimes we just need a little help.
Looking to start therapy? Here are a few tips for finding a therapist and our favorite online therapy options. Additionally, here are our favorite online couples therapy options.
Emily Torres is the Editorial Director at The Good Trade. Born and raised in Indiana, she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her in her colorful Los Angeles apartment journaling, caring for her rabbits, or gaming.