When thinking about yourself in a therapy session do you imagine that you are able to easily express your thoughts and feelings to your therapist? Or do you see yourself struggling to answer their questions, or explaining that you aren’t sure why you’re there? Both of these scenarios are actually completely legitimate — and even productive ways to spend a therapy session.
Some people arrive at therapy ready to tackle a specific issue, situation, or emotion. Others begin working with a therapist because they know that something isn’t quite right in their lives, but they aren’t sure what. And others work with their therapist to further enhance an already balanced, comfortable life. The thing is, there’s no “right” or “wrong” reason to start therapy. It’s helpful, however, to have an idea about what direction you’d like to go in during your therapy sessions, and that starts with thinking about and setting therapy goals.
Read on to learn more about what to talk about in therapy and how setting therapy goals can help you improve your well-being.
What are therapy goals?
Therapy goals are the objectives set by a client or clients, including individuals, couples, or families, when working with a mental health professional. Therapy goals can be high-level or specific (see therapy goal examples below), and they indicate what you want to focus on in your therapy sessions as you go along your mental health journey. By setting therapy goals, you specify the direction you want to go in your sessions.
How do you determine therapy goals?
To determine your therapy goals, begin by reflecting on why you want to work with a therapist and what in your life has brought you to the decision to do so. While your therapist can help you determine why you wanted to start therapy in the first few sessions, having a general idea of what you would like to work on can jumpstart your conversations. If you aren’t sure why you’re starting therapy, your therapist might ask you about recent or past experiences, your relationships and support systems, or your plans for the future to help you explore your motivations for seeking therapy.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you determine your therapy goals:
- What emotions have I felt recently? Why am I feeling those emotions?
- How have I been coping lately when I’ve been upset or stressed? Are those coping strategies helpful?
- What do I find myself thinking about throughout the day? Are these thoughts helpful or harmful?
- What areas of my life need change? What’s telling me that these areas need to change?
How to answer, “What brings you to therapy?”
You can answer, “What brings you to therapy?”, by being honest with your therapist — whether you have no idea or some idea. When on a consultation call or in your first session with your therapist, being honest when answering this question means that your therapist will know what questions to ask you next and how to shape your first few sessions.
Your reasons for seeing a therapist can change over time. Your therapy goals when you first start therapy might look completely different than your therapy goals six months in. This might happen because you’ve learned more about yourself or uncovered different challenges to prioritize, or because you’ve reached your initial goals. Not only is it natural to change your therapy goals over time, but it shows that you’re making progress and therapy is helping you to make changes in your life.
What are some therapy goals examples?
Some examples of therapy goals might be to better understand past trauma or to reduce stress in your life. Therapy goals can be based on emotions or behaviors you want to either promote or reduce. These goals can be varying sizes and specificity, and all have the potential to be impactful. Many people find that it’s helpful to have SMART goals for their therapy goals, as these give you and your therapist a clear direction for your sessions.
In general, it’s helpful to answer the questions “What does success in reaching my goals look like?” and “How will I know when I’ve reached my goals?” when formulating your therapy goals. Your answers will provide guidance on how to work towards, track, and celebrate progress.
Here are some examples of therapy goals:
- To better understand your emotions. This could mean emotions in general or specific emotions like anxiety, shame, or fear.
- To reduce the symptoms of a mental health condition. You can focus on an overall mental health condition like depression or PTSD or specific symptoms like fatigue or panic attacks.
- To understand how your mental health impacts your social life. This goal could shed light on any masking or avoidance that’s happening for you in social settings. You might also set a goal around making new friends or nurturing old friendships.
- To improve your coping strategies. To reach this goal, you might need to start by exploring what your coping strategies are at baseline, then work with your therapist to implement other ways of coping.
- To become more positive. This could look like changing negative thought patterns or seeking more joy in your daily routines.
- To improve your communication. You might want to focus on communication in general or a specific type of communication. This could mean communication during conflict or communicating your needs.
- To reduce negative emotions or experiences like stress. You might want to find ways to reduce the amount of pressure that you face at home or at work, or to learn how to process through stress with mindfulness.
- To process through past trauma. If you’ve been through painful experiences in the past, therapy can be a great way to overcome the lingering emotions from these memories.
- To overcome barriers to success. If you’re focused on progressing in your career, your therapy goal might be around embracing ambition, cultivating self-esteem and confidence.
- To improve your physical health. There’s a strong link between physical and mental health, so therapy can be a great way to improve sleep habits and more. This might be particularly helpful if you have a chronic illness.
- To find motivation. Your therapy goal might be to increase your motivation, whether that’s motivation at work, to improve your relationships, or to take care of yourself.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there are many more reasons to see a therapist. Even the therapy goal of determining why you need more support could be an initial therapy goal for those who struggle to articulate their internal experiences.
What do I talk about in therapy?
In therapy, your therapy goals, as well as what’s on your mind that day, will determine what you talk about in a therapy session. Many people continue their previous conversation with their therapist from where they left off at the end of their last session. Others, though, prefer talking about what they’re going through emotionally that day or week.
What you talk about in therapy can either be proactive or reactive. Proactively working with a therapist means growing your mental health toolkit so you can handle adverse experiences when they come up. Reactively working with a therapist means processing through emotions and experiences that have already happened,and finding a way to reduce their negative impact on you. Both proactive and reactive work in therapy are beneficial, and which aspect you focus on will depend on your therapy goals.
What happens when I reach my therapy goal?
When you reach your therapy goal, it’s important to pause and celebrate your hard work. Most therapists will check in with you every few weeks about your progress towards your therapy goals, reflecting on the changes they’ve noticed in you and affirming the effort that you’ve put into your well-being and journey.
The question then becomes, what happens when you reach your therapy goals? What do you talk about next in your therapy sessions? For some, another therapy goal will arise, whether it’s related to the previous therapy goal or a new direction. This is a great way to move forward if you’ve already built a strong, trusting relationship with your therapist. For others, however, they might make the decision to begin the termination phase of therapy and to leave feeling satisfied that they reached their therapy goals.
Therapy sessions are a space for exploring, reflecting, and healing. What you talk about each session may change, as will your therapy goals over time. You might go from not being able to describe what you want to work on, to being able to tell the story of how you faced a challenge and overcame it with the support of your therapist.
If you know what you want to work on in therapy, the Zencare therapist directory has many helpful filters that can narrow down your therapist search to those who offer support for specific emotions, situations, or behaviors. And if you aren’t sure what you’re looking for out of therapy, the therapist introductory video on a therapist’s profile is a great place to start, as finding a therapist that you feel comfortable with is the first step towards figuring out where you want to go. Over time, you’ll find the words you need to share with your trusted therapist, what you want to focus on, and where you want to head on your mental health journey.