The purpose of most therapies is to heal, or alleviate, symptoms of a concerning issue or condition. Medical professions create treatment plans that outline the professional’s approach and interventions used to achieve a certain goal. In mental health therapy, this is generally created collaboratively with input from both the person in therapy and the therapist. In some cases, it may be wise to include input from other professionals, such as a primary care physician, psychiatrist, or school counselor, perhaps even parents or caregivers.
When it comes to creating a treatment plan for a physical condition, it is often a bit more straightforward because such conditions tend to be visible or otherwise apparent. For example, the goal of a fractured wrist would be to heal the wrist. The treatment plan would perhaps consist of wearing a cast for several weeks, taking medication as prescribed, and resting.
I have found that some people have a difficult time setting goals for their counseling treatment plans because healing an emotional condition can be more complex. It can be hard to know where to start. It is even common for people to have difficulty explaining why they are seeking counseling in the first place.
Everyone has struggles in their lives, and everyone has the ability to cope with stress. You would not have made it to this point in life without some helpful strategies and problem-solving for difficult times.
Asking yourself what is happening now for you, or in your life, that is compelling you to seek counseling is an important first step. One common reason may be that your usual coping strategies aren’t working as well as they used to. Perhaps there is a lot of change occurring in your life, and things feel out of your control. You may be noticing an impact on your thinking, feeling, or relationships that you’re not satisfied with. Try to dig deep and describe what is happening that’s making you consider counseling at this specific time.
Get Behaviorally Specific
Contrary to some people’s perceptions, therapists can’t “fix” everything—and what does get resolved happens largely as a result of the work the person in therapy does outside of session, using tools and strategies learned in therapy.
Your therapist will ask you to describe your symptoms. It is helpful to use common language rather than “psychobabble” so both you and your therapist are clear on what you are describing. For example, you may self-describe as having depression, meaning you feel sad most of the time. However, your therapist may interpret this as you having been diagnosed in the past with a condition called major depression, which is used to describe a specific set of symptoms. However, your feeling sad most of the time may be related to a recent breakup, which may be normative and not a symptom of a depressive condition.
Through proper and thorough assessment, your therapist should be able to make an accurate diagnosis to describe your symptoms accurately. Being behaviorally specific also allows you and your therapist to be clear on what you actually want to address and change with the help of counseling.
Let Yourself Dream
Contrary to some people’s perceptions, therapists can’t “fix” everything—and what does get resolved happens largely as a result of the work the person in therapy does outside of session, using tools and strategies learned in therapy. Therapists don’t possess a magic wand.
However, as part of the goal-setting process, imagine a magic wand that could change your life overnight does exist. Allowing yourself to imagine using this wand, and noticing what would be different, can help you and your therapist clarify what areas of your life you’d like to change.
When setting goals, make sure they are realistic. Setting a goal for feeling happy 100% of the time is unrealistic because we all experience a variety of moods throughout the day. It is reasonable to expect you will have difficult days that may be filled with uncomfortable emotions, as well as happier days. Rewording the idea of being happier into a more realistic goal may mean focusing on how you can create more happiness in your life—perhaps by learning how to manage or cope with difficult emotions, or making some other change.
Be Kind and Patient
Therapy is hard work! It can feel horribly uncomfortable and exhausting to go through the process of examining and talking about the difficult things we experience.
Much in the same way you need to feel fatigue in your muscles to build strength, the same is true for mental health therapy. Be sure to take care of yourself and be kind along the way. If you knew what to do already, you wouldn’t ask for help. And the truth is no therapist has all the answers. Simply showing up, making the effort, and being honest along the way are some of the key ingredients to successful therapy.
© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mallory Grimste, LCSW, therapist in Woodbridge, Connecticut
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