Last updated:

January 22, 2023


 min read

The Importance Of Setting Goals In Therapy

How is mental health related to goal setting? What do goals have to do in therapy? Let’s find out.

Reviewed by
Reyana D’Souza
Written by
Ipsa Khurana

What is goal setting in therapy?

Therapy requires a lot of willingness on your part to make a change. Your therapist can not fix you; they can only help you make the changes you want to improve your quality of life. By setting goals, you take responsibility for the process and track progress. They are different for every individual, making this a very individualised process. 

Therapy may seem like a magic answer. But it is a journey that can get uncomfortable sometimes. It requires vulnerability and inner work. The way in which a therapist helps you handle those emotions is an art. However, there is also a scientific component to therapy. There is a structure in the treatment process and a systematic approach that your therapist will use in the course of helping you. Setting goals helps you and your therapist stay on the same page about your treatment process. 

Consider making resolutions at the beginning of the year, for example. They help you embark on a journey to make positive changes while providing guidelines along which to work. Like you would make personal and professional goals – similarly, you could make therapy goals. It enables you to imagine and define outcomes, so your counsellor can help you develop strategies to reach those desired results. It is an integral part of therapy through which the counsellor can understand the client's expectations.

Why set goals? How does it help?

Having some direction in any aspect of life makes reaching a better outcome much easier. It helps you envision a future and then guides you towards it. You're better prepared for what to expect and the challenges you might face in getting there. Goal setting also reduces stress and helps you prioritise and concentrate on important things. It helps you filter out your thoughts and brings positive affirmations. 

How goal-setting helps mental health

As we already stated, setting reasonable goals helps give direction to treatment. Setting challenging but achievable motivates you to make changes. It helps build better communication, empathy, time management and emotional regulation. Depending on specific goals, these goals can provide many benefits. Some of them could help you develop healthy habits, change certain behaviours or reactions, develop functional coping mechanisms, confront fears, heal from trauma, find relief from stress and identify life goals. 

These therapy goals can be set in coordination with your therapist, according to which they can approach treatment. Again, there is subjectivity as these goals are case-specific, but some general goals, for instance, could be to 

  1. Help the client make behavioural changes
  2. Help them establish and maintain healthy relationships 
  3. Enhance coping skills 
  4. General development and betterment 

How to set therapy goals-a few tips

Identify broad motives

The broad-to-specific approach is helpful while planning and envisioning your goals. Think of the broad dreams, intentions and hopes. The first thing your therapist would ask you would most likely be around, "What brings you to therapy". The answers to this question tend to be vague, mainly along the lines of "I feel like shit" or "my days have been so difficult lately", which is totally cool, but these only serve as a starting point. From here, we start to envision what we want to improve upon in the future – here is where a positive mindset of growth can begin. Prompts such as "What are some things in your life that you're tired of?" or "Was there a specific problem that brought you to therapy? How and when did it start?" can be a good starting point. 

Narrow down to specific goals

Once we have a broad idea, it becomes easier to narrow down specific themes along which we can build the next steps. It is best to pick a theme and handle that for a while before moving to the next task to prevent overwhelm. 

Many people may walk into therapy feeling like their entire life is falling apart. They could be dealing with financial trouble, relationship issues, job stress, etc. Tackling all these issues together is hard, and even though they might be happening at the same time, narrowing the themes allows you to prioritise the issues.


While setting goals, it is good to keep in mind the features of the goal. This can be done by setting "SMART goals". The acronym SMART is short for: 

S - Specific or Significant

M - Measurable or Meaningful

A - Attainable or Action-Oriented

R - Relevant or Rewarding

T - Trackable or Time-bound

These characteristics ensure that our expectations align with our reality. Many people aren't able to stick to their goals because they don't match any of the SMART characteristics. 

For example, if your goal is "to lose weight", it is not specific enough to tell you how to get there. Or if your goal is to read two books a week when you have never been a reader, it is not attainable. In both cases, you wouldn't stick to your goal. However, specifying that you would like to lose 5 kgs in two months would mean that you satisfy the characteristics without overwhelming yourself. Or specifying that you would finish one chapter every two days, to start with, would help you become a more avid reader. 

Create action plan 

Goals can only be functional with an action plan to support them. In therapy, your counsellor can help out with how to approach this. A chief component of Cognitive Behaviour therapy is "homework", which helps you to take actionable steps towards a set goal. 


Another acronym that helps with goal setting is GROW.

G – Goal

R – Reality

O – Options

W – Way Forward

  • Goal stands for all the characteristics mentioned above in SMART goals. 
  • Reality ensures that the goal is rooted in reality and not wishful thinking. It also means that you track your progress in real-time. 
  • Options means that you explore all the options available to approach a goal. Getting stuck in a certain way may not always help you achieve what you set out to do. 
  • Way forward means keeping in touch with your vision of the goal and how it will impact your life. You take small steps towards achieving the SMART goal daily and keep looking forward.