Goals, Resolutions, and Commitments

Recently, I read the book The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin in which she spends a year trying to increase her overall happiness level.  Although Rubin makes the point that her book is about being happy in everyday life, not treating something serious like clinical depression, as a therapist reading the book, I could not help but draw parallels between her experiences and interventions, approaches, or issues that often come up in therapy.  One interesting point that comes up for Rubin is the idea of goals versus resolutions.  Each month during the project, she tackles a certain aspect of life (e.g., work or friendship) and sets resolutions for the month that are intended to help her to be more happy.  As the year progresses, Rubin continues to live by the resolutions from all the previous months, while adding new ones.  And in order to hold herself accountable--and give herself credit--she keeps a chart of these resolutions and self-evaluates each evening on whether she kept her resolutions that day.

Rubin discusses that for her, a goal is something that you are trying to reach and achieve--once you have met a goal you are done with it.  However, a resolution is something that you never achieve because you are always working on it.  It seems to me, that goals and resolutions can often go hand in hand.  In order to live by our resolutions, it can be helpful to set concrete goals.  For example, as an art therapist, it is important to me to make time for art making, but I often let other responsibilities or distractions get in the way.  To change this, I can resolve to make more art, but it could also be helpful to set myself a goal, such as to make art at least three times a week.

Rubin's discussion of goals and resolutions was a reminder to me of the importance of setting and monitoring goals in therapy.  Defining goals with a client at the beginning of therapy is not just a necessary step in treatment planning, it can also be a powerful factor in the change process.  Identifying goals can help a client to begin seeing that things can be different in their life and to begin visualizing what that difference could look like.  Goals can also help keep clients on track and motivated in the therapy process.  Making progress toward these goals can be very gratifying and help build hope and a sense of accomplishment in clients.  Rubin found that keeping her daily chart of her resolutions was very rewarding and one of the most important things in the success of her project.  I have also learned in my clinical experience that there is real value to setting specific goals.  Many therapist will be familiar with the idea of S.M.A.R.T. goals--creating client goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time bound.  While this format is often followed out of the requirements of managed-care or agency policies, there is real clinical benefit to SMART goals.  As an example, a common goal for children in therapy is to "decrease anger."  If this is the extent of our goal, the client and parent may come back every week and report little progress if there is any anger demonstrated at all.  However, if the goal is specific and measurable, the child may feel a real sense of success and motivation when they are able to report that they decreased yelling from 5 times a day to only 1 time per day.  And by being mindful to ask the client at each session about their progress, the therapist is able to provide reinforcement for progress, help the client identify what is working to achieve their goals, and where the problems still lie.

The concept of resolutions can be helpful in therapy to remind clients that living the life one wants requires constant effort.  One does not simply achieve a goal in therapy and then stop working on it; one must resolve to live a certain way everyday.  And it is important to remind clients that no one is perfect in carrying out their resolutions.  The value of resolutions is that even when you fall short one day, you continue to try again the next day to live out your resolution.  And resolutions do not simply disappear when therapy ends.  In the example of a child who is working on anger, they may achieve their specific goal to decrease yelling to only one time per day and then end therapy.  However, to continue to be successful they will need to continue some resolutions to manage their anger, resolutions like "take a break when upset," or "be forgiving of others."  This can be an important conversation to have with a client, helping them to identify the resolutions that they will continue to live by after having reached their goals.

Another valuable and related concept in therapy and change can be the idea of commitments.  In the treatment model Seeking Safety, clients are asked to make a commitment each week, something that they will do before the next session.  This commitment can be any action that will carry them toward their goal.  I love this idea because it puts the power with the client.  The therapist is not assigning "homework," that the client might forget about or resist.  Instead, encouraging a client to make a commitment not only requires that the client take some responsibility for making changes, but also allows the client to be the expert on themselves and what they need.  And a commitment is not something that has to achieved like a goal; a commitment is simply something that they client will try out.

I realize that many people will come to these words--goal, resolution, commitment--with their own preferences, experiences, and understanding.  (And I would be interested to hear how others view the differences).  However, what is most important is discussing this with our clients.  Do they see a difference between resolutions, goals, and commitments?  If so, what difference does it make for them in how they make changes and notice progress?  If they have set a resolution that feels vague or unattainable, can we help them to break it down into small, achievable goals or commitments?

Art Therapy intervention for goals and resolutions:  Collage can be a great medium for exploring resolutions and goals.  Early in therapy, creating a collage about the future or one's goals can help clients to begin considering the changes they want to make and begin to see some hope.  Towards the end of treatment, a collage about goals could help a client to consider future goals after therapy is done.  A collage about resolutions can help a client to focus on the important things they have learned in therapy and what to continue after therapy so that they can live a full and satisfied life.  The client can take home their collage of resolutions to have as a tangible reminder of how they are trying to live.

Art Therapy Intervention: Resolutions Collage

On a related note, as part of my personal and ongoing resolution to make time for art-making, I will begin my next 6 Degrees of Creativity workshop--Mindful Studio Practice by Hannah Klaus Hunter--and hope to share about my experience.

Carolyn Mehlomakulu, LMFT, ATR is a psychotherapist in Austin, Texas who works with children, adolescents, and families.  For more information about individual therapy, child counseling, family therapy, and art therapy services, please visit www.therapywithcarolyn.com. 

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