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Behavioural Goals in Therapy

How identifying behavioural goals can help you achieve emotional goals.

But I just want to feel better!

For most people, going to therapy is about ‘feeling’ better. When I ask a client ‘How will you know this is helping?’, or ‘What would you like to get out of therapy?’, some of the most common answers are, ‘I want to feel like myself again’, ‘I want to feel happier, more content’, ‘I don’t want to be so angry, so frustrated all the time’. And who doesn't want to feel better ? Who doesn't want to stop struggling with sadness, anger, frustration, emptiness, and loneliness? These are natural desires! We want to feel good and stop feeling bad! These are all called emotional goals. They are goals that focus on getting rid of unhelpful and difficult feelings, thoughts, memories and sensations.

Our brain - the overly helpful friend

Our brain wants to protect us, and the best way to do this is to help us avoid difficult thoughts and feelings. But, when we avoid these thoughts and feelings it usually means that we start changing our behaviour in some way to help make that happen. In ACT, we often refer to our brains as ‘an overly helpful friend’, or a ‘bouncer’. If I feel tightness in chest and panicky whenever I go to the grocery store, my brain tells me ‘avoid the grocery store’. So, maybe I go less often, or shop online more. In that way I have successfully avoided the difficult feeling, but I have narrowed my repertoire and my actions - I have taken away something from my life. Now, I’m not suggesting that this is good or bad, right or wrong. That is not for me to tell you!

We all struggle

We cannot remove challenging thoughts and feelings from our lives. Even if we master the art of avoiding, they will still pop up! We cannot delete difficult memories. It is part of the natural human condition to have struggle and to experience a whole spectrum of thoughts and feelings from warm and sunny to dark and cold.

When we set emotional goals in therapy like ‘stop feeling sad’, or ‘stop feeling so badly about myself’ this can be pretty difficult to achieve…..unless we also look at how those feelings impact our behaviours and develop a greater awareness of what we have been avoiding.

Pause and Reflect: What do the difficult thoughts and feelings stop you from doing that you’d like to be doing more of? If you were living the life that you want to be living, being the person you truly want to be, what would you see yourself doing more of?

Behavioural Goals are action oriented

When we let our brains tell us to avoid challenging situations, when we distract ourselves from difficult thoughts we very often start limiting ourselves, making our world smaller, more flat. Often, the things we avoid also connect us to things that feel important, that make life richer and more meaningful. Let's think about relationships here. Deep relationships can bring amazing feelings such as love, joy, and connectedness. But, there is no such thing as a perfect partner, and to experience a deep relationship there will also be conflict and disappointment sooner or later. You can't have one without the other.

What is a behavioural goal?

I don‘t offer a lot of guarantees (in life or therapy), but I feel pretty confident in saying that you are not going to ‘feel happy’ for the rest of your life. If your therapist tells you they can help you with that… away! What I do want to offer is a different way of setting goals for yourself in life and therapy. Instead of emotional Goals such as, 'I want to feel better', 'I want to feel like myself again', 'I want to be less angry', 'I don't want to be sad all the time', let's create some meaningful goals, some committed actions that are driven by your values, inspired by the way you want to be in this world.

I am a big believer in workability - in setting goals that are manageable and achievable. If you have some big dreams, that's okay too. But, what I'm talking about here is setting some meaningful behavioural goals to start the journey. Before we do that I am going to ask you to pause right here.................

Really! I am asking you to sit back, shift around a bit and get comfortable, take a deep breath, slowly exhale and give yourself this moment to think about what really matters to you in life.

  • Think about who you want to be in your relationships with people.

  • Think about the qualities you want to bring to your work/studies.

  • Think about the activities you'd like to be doing in your life (physical, spiritual) or the causes that matter most to you.

  • And think about how you like to play, relax, and be creative.

Getting to know your values

Write down some of the words that come to mind. These 'values' are your guide, they are what make your goals meaningful and workable. You might end up with something that looks like, 'I value being playful, nurturing, and curious'. Hint - There is no right or wrong in values!

A committed action for today

Now that you have a those values in the front of your mind, focus on just one. Ask yourself, 'what is one small step, what is the easiest thing I could do today that connects me with that value?'. Make it specific and make it something that is consistent with the value that you have chosen. It might be, 'I'm going to send a text to my daughter and tell her I love her'. Or it could be, 'I'm going to listen to a new podcast about XYZ on my way home from work'. Or, 'I'm going to walk around the block before I walk through the door after work'. We will call this your immediate behavioural goal - something you can do today to connect with a value. And guess what, we are now working in the realm of behavioural goals!

Doing things that matter most

These behavioural goals are about connecting with what's important to you and finding an action that is consistent with that. But, there is often an emotional pay-off. When we connect with what's important, when we do things that matter - it usually feels pretty good. I want to caution that this is a secondary pay-off. We are not setting these behavioural goals to fill an emotional goal. We are setting behavioural goals to make committed actions that help us connect with our values and with the things that matter so that we can be better at creating a rich and meaningful life even in times when there are struggles and challenges. This is the key - the struggles and challenges aren't going to go away, but we want to find new ways to continue live a rich and meaningful life even though difficult thoughts and feelings arise and we can do this by creating workable committed actions and manageable goals that connect with our values.

How did this go for you?

I would love to know how this went for you. Were you able to pause and answer some of these questions and set an immediate behavioural goal. If you found this helpful and would like to know more or try more - check out an ACT therapist or have a look at the book by Russ Harris called, 'The Happiness Trap'.


About the Author

Brittany Rickett, Bachelor of Education, MA in Counselling Psychology, CCC, LCT-C

Brittany has her Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology from Yorkville University. She worked as a teacher for 13 years before becoming a school counsellor and opening a private practice for virtual and in-person therapy in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. Brittany is passionate about ACT in therapy, and also draws on solution-focused and somatic approaches in her work. Brittany is a certified yoga instructor and Social Emotional Wellness coach offering online workshops and professional development on resilience, mental health, and mind body connection.


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