Goal-setting by imagining being “there”

Setting goals is something is an important and early part of the therapy process.  As part of the goal-setting process, I ask questions like these: “How will you know when you are ready to be done in therapy?” “How will things be different in your life?”  “How will you feel about the problems that brought you to therapy?”

Jim, a client who has been struggling for 10 years with depression, might answer these questions by stating his ultimate goal in therapy is to “no longer believe that depression controls my life, and I have the ability to recognize its influence and minimize or eliminate it when it comes up.”  Nice goal Jim! At first, Jim doesn’t really believe it will ever happen, but he can at least imagine what it would be like if it did happen. That’s a fine way to start. When Jim can say this about himself, “I am now where I hoped to get when I started,” he is ready to be done with therapy.

It occurred to me recently that I do this in my regular life, outside of therapy, but with some slight differences that are reflective of the different context (my life instead of therapy). When I was in high school, I didn’t know how to set goals for myself, especially anything longer than a month or two.  I’d ask myself, “what do I need right now that I don’t have?”  I’d answer, “money,” “a car,” “some clothes.” I’d get a job to get money for now.  Fair enough.  But that only “gets you by.” What if you want more?  What if you want growth, evolution, change that will bring you meaning?  What if you want a different job, but not just any old job, or to leave a relationship, or start a new relationship? These longer term goals require at least three things, self-awareness, imagination and continuous follow-through.  Self-awareness is necessary to understand what you might actually want and what you think you can actually accomplish (being realistic and also expansive based on who you are). Imagination is necessary for this (the point of this blog): being able to conceive what it would be like for you to have accomplished the goal. Continuous follow-through is necessary because, with almost any long-term goal, there will be setbacks, distractions, interruptions, and unanticipated barriers that you will need to contend with as you strive toward that goal.

So, here’s why imagination is crucial to setting important long-term goals. Think of any goal, a career goal, a relationship goal, a life goal; in order to make it worth pursuing you have to believe it is at least possible to achieve and that it is worth achieving if you can.  If you can’t imagine yourself having reached the goal, neither of these two things will seem sufficiently real to warrant the pursuit of the goal. I don’t think it is possible to have a meaningful direction without first having at least some kind of destination in mind. A destination requires imagining what it would be like to be there!

I remember being in college and having this vision of being in an office in a tall building with a great view of some downtown in a big city.  I was at a desk, wearing a suit and tie.  I saw me there, at the desk, looking out the window, proud of my accomplishment.  I saw myself as a successful attorney.  I didn’t know where the office was, the kind of lawyer I would be, the city, any of that.  I remember the pride of it, though.  Fast forward 6 years, and there I was, in an office overlooking San Francisco Bay, in office on the 21st floor of a building at Kearney and California Streets practicing employment law.  Would I have pursued the legal career if I hadn’t been able to visualize myself in that office and how it would feel to be there?  Actually, probably not.

I am suggesting it is possible and greatly advantageous to perform the process of goal setting in your life in the same way I do with clients in therapy, not just for therapy-type goals, but for all goals.  Here’s the process.  First, ask yourself, “what kind of (job, relationship, situation) do I want?”  Second, “what would it be like for me to have that (job, relationship, situation)?” Third, “what would it take for me to have that?”  Fourth, “what do I need to do to get from where I am right now to what it would take to have that (job, relationship, situation)?”  Then, chart a course for yourself to go from where you are right now, to where you want to be with that goal.  As you move toward it, keep visualizing the goal, adjusting along the way what you need to do to stay on track toward that goal. 

Like almost everything in life, this is an evolving process, needing change and modification along the way as circumstances change; as the unpredictability of life creeps in, as things get in the way that you need to overcome, remove, resolve. Jim looked back at the goal he stated when he started therapy, several years later (yes, it was a long, but worthwhile process), he remembered not thinking it was possible to rid himself of the negative influences of his depression, and yet because he had the ability to imagine being there, he was able to focus on it through the hard times, the setbacks, the times he felt like giving up.  Remembering all of this during his final therapy session made reaching the goal all the sweeter for Jim. 

If you can keep your “eye on the prize” and stay with the vision that helped you create and believe in the goal at the start, you will stay sufficiently motivated and clear in your direction to stay the course toward meeting the goal.  When you achieve the goal, don’t forget to look back at your original vision and congratulate yourself on how right you were when you thought the goal was worth achieving and might actually be achievable!


Copyright 2013, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.