Differentiating Goals


How often have you heard someone ask you “What are your goals?” It’s one of the most common questions asked by a therapist, especially as someone begins treatment. This question is necessary to help the counselor know where to begin and might be highly predictive of the therapy course being felt as successful or productive.

Some of this topic connects to the idea of the therapeutic alliance as it applies to recovery and growth. The two most important predictive factors of effective therapy are:

  1. A sense of trust and collaboration with the treatment provider
  2. A shared goal which is desired through the therapy process

If these are both reached to a reasonable degree, the process of therapy seems to flow quite easily. There still exist everyday conflicts and emotional pain, but the person is ultimately able to hold onto a sense of hope towards a better future, and a sense of security that they are not traveling the journey alone.

Can we delve deeper into the topic of goals? By differentiating goals into what constitute “Life Goals” as compared to “Therapy Goals,” we are able to deepen this discussion. This also can help someone seek out the ideal clinical help, as some clinicians are better equipped to help others reach life goals as opposed to therapy goals, and vice versa.

Life Goals

When most people think of the topic of defining goals, they tend to emphasize life goals. These include areas of employment, relationship status or financial themes. These types of goals often involve developing competence in a certain area. The person is able to feel a sense of efficacy and mastery through accomplishing the goal. Other common examples of life goals include areas of fitness, skills or hobbies.

For instance, a person may be trying to get promoted within a company, and they have a goal of starting the interview process this year. They are able to quantify the goal using some sort of measurement. How long does it usually take to reach the promotion? What makes for a good promotion candidate? Do you have the experience desired by the company to deserve this promotion? All of these would be sensible questions to ask if pursuing a goal such as this.

Many people who engage in life-coaching work will focus on life goals. They will often use structured guidelines to help in the process, such as the use of SMART goals. The mnemonic for SMART goals is as follows:

S pecific
M easurable
A chievable
R elevant
T imely

The SMART goal approach is mainly designed to help someone manage expectations, maintain a good sense of morale and hope, and track progress towards the goal.

Therapy Goals

In contrast to life goals, therapy goals are often more abstract. They tend to focus on the individual self with an emphasis on greater insight. They also tend to not follow the above listed SMART goals structure.

Why would someone consider discussing therapy goals as compared to life goals? In some ways, therapy goals are more intrinsic to a person’s daily functioning. They also can be helpful in how we work with relationships. For many people, improvement in therapy goals will help them reach desired life goals.

An example of a therapy goal might be developing greater awareness of attachment in one’s life. The person would seek to understand patterns of attachment and how current relationships follow such patterns. For a person who is continually setting a life goal of finding a romantic relationship, that person could also benefit from a therapy goal of addressing attachment.

Another example would be appreciating the role of aggression in one’s life. All people hold some degree of aggression and modulate this aggression through areas of fitness, competition or relationships. Those who have a lack of awareness about aggressive tendencies are destined to find themselves in relationship trouble. Once again, this therapy goal could help someone reach a life goal involving relationship progress.

The Role of the Therapist

It is important to know that all therapists are different. Some are better suited, and more comfortable, helping their clients with life goals as compared to therapy goals. Some will strongly focus on therapy goals over life goals based on principles of self-actualization. This means that a well-adjusted and insightful person will find it much easier to reach life goals if they have a good sense of self and security.

There is an important role for both life and therapy goals when engaging in a counseling process. Take some time to reflect on what you both need to achieve and what is necessary. Most people benefit from some of each style of goals. Setting things up well magnifies your treatment process, helping you to grow and reach a better sense of self.

Read more CeDAR Education Articles about Psychotherapy