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Why do I need a therapy session goal?
November 22, 2020 at 12:00 AM
by Anne Lindyberg
and Connection Is LLC
What are your goals in life?

Do you sometimes feel challenged to think of a goal when you are getting ready to start your therapy session? Well you’re not alone. Not all therapists have the expectation that their clients will have a session goal, but Satir therapists do.

When I began my journey to becoming a Satir-inspired counselor/therapist, I experienced a surprising amount of challenge when it came to bringing a goal to my sessions with my own therapist. In hindsight, the idea of truly directing my own life was so foreign to me that I think I was months into the process before I registered that bringing my own goal was expected of me! And then--I distinctly remember--I argued with my therapist about it. I did. I was a pretty difficult client at times.

Because of my own experience, I do my best to communicate my expectations to my clients as clearly as possible. Counseling--which includes what we think of as therapy, psychotherapy, mental health counseling and even coaching--involves cultivating a trusting alliance between the client and counselor where the client feels safe to be their true Self, including being vulnerable and taking risks.  The client should expect that at times the counselor will confront them, but also that she will not betray or abandon them, even when there are misunderstandings or differences of opinion between them. This level of trust requires, among other things, clear communication around expectations, not only on the part of the counselor but on the part of the client. 

Why is a session goal important? Sometimes clients say “I told you what my goals were on the intake and now I have treatment goals.  Why can’t you just work from those?”

It’s a reasonable question. Not because it’s reasonable at its core--I don’t believe it is--but largely because that is the way many counselors and therapists work (and with good reason, but that’s another post). And since so many of my clients are people who have had therapy in the past, it’s important for me to understand that their expectations and mine might not match up right away.

The main problem with using the client’s stated goal at the beginning of therapy, or the long-term goal from the treatment plan to guide each session, is that those goals were formulated by someone who is/was, in fact, different from from the person who comes in for each session. I’m not saying that they are different people--although on some days that is very nearly the truth. What I’m saying is that from day to day, even from moment to moment sometimes, our hopes, wishes, desires and priorities change. And this is normal and natural.

To get used to the idea of being the active, creative force in our own lives, we must allow our connection with our Self--the Self as conceptualized by Satir using her Iceberg--to weigh in on our decisions in each moment. 

This is why a shorter term goal for the session is needed. Ideally it will be a goal that is compatible with the long term goal for the counseling work--the session goal will contribute to that larger goal, even as it has a more immediate and distinct purpose. 

I hear from some clients that it can be a heavy lift to conceptualize long term and session goals, and even more challenging to see how they fit together. It’s okay if this is happening: the most important thing is to recognize that it is. The therapist can help the client to develop their goals if the client needs and would like that level of support. And the therapist can give feedback to the client on whether she thinks the client’s session goals relate to the longer term goals. What the therapist should not be doing is deciding--alone--what the goals are. That takes the reason for therapy away from the client.

And this can happen far too easily, even with the best of intentions. When the reason for therapy migrates from client to therapist, what happens? The client starts to feel like therapy is being “done to” them. They might worry about pleasing the therapist. Sometimes a client who was perfectly willing and even excited to begin, starts to feel like therapy has been court ordered. Ugh! And unfortunately, this feeling can creep in when clients feel the perfectly natural challenge of not knowing what they want to work on in a particular session.

So what’s a client to do? Let me start by telling you what your therapist is going to do. 

First of all, the therapist is going to assure you that she is here for you no matter what. She’s not going to be angry with you or blame you (because blame is toxic and therapists don’t blame their clients) because you’re feeling challenged by developing a session goal.

If you can’t think of a goal, the therapist can support you in developing one during the first part of your session. A particularly effective way of doing this is by going inside yourself and taking a read of how you are feeling, physically and emotionally. Your therapist can help you do this by holding space for you, acting as a sounding board, even using a technique to support you in looking and feeling inward. Your therapist will be patient: this time is yours, and using it to be with yourself fully is highly appropriate.

Once you have established self-connection, wander around your Iceberg a bit. Allow yourself the indulgence of Self-curiosity. What feelings am I having? How do I feel about them? What do I believe about myself right now? About my life since we last met? Has my life been going the way I wanted it to? Do I have a deeper need that I hadn’t been connecting with that is coming to the surface? Are people in my life behaving as I expect them to? Am I behaving as I expect myself to? Has anyone expressed disappointment in me in a context that troubled me? What have I been spending my time doing? How do I feel about that? Have at least some of my actions been the result of inspiration or excitement, or have I taken action largely based on meeting the expectations of others? How connected do I feel to my life force?

Sometimes when people can’t think of session goals, they think it’s time to stop therapy. And sometimes it is. If that’s the case, the client will typically feel their life is on track in a relaxed and synchronous way, things going according to plan. A feeling of relaxed happiness or exciting and productive energy characterizes the client’s day to day life. They are symptom free. Challenges arise and are met with excitement, resolved with a sense of accomplishment and joy. This stable situation will last at least 6-12 weeks. A client who believes this describes their own circumstances might look into reducing frequency of therapy before stopping altogether.

Sometimes when a client can’t think of a session goal, however, it’s a sign that their life has become a bit overwhelming without their noticing. They’ve stopped having their own goals and begun living in response to the expectations of others. Even if there’s joy in that--and sometimes there is--would that really be the time to stop therapy? It wouldn’t for me.

So if you’re feeling a sense of challenge around developing a session goal, sit down and ask yourself some of the questions above. And if that doesn’t work, tell your therapist and ask for her support. After all, supporting clients is what therapists love to do.

Do you find writing exercises helpful? Here's a Google Docs template just for helping you develop your therapy session goal: