Working with the future


Many people are likely to come to therapy with some sort of goal in mind as they are going to want to live, to some extent, free of the suffering they’ve felt in the past. Whether they are coming for help with anxiety, depression, stress, they desire to change will be what brings them to therapy in the first place.

It is likely though that the client will not have a clear picture of what they are moving towards, and instead be primarily concerned with moving away from the source of their unease. For example, someone with social anxiety may not know how it is to experience life without their anxiety being a problem, their main desire could be to get away from anxiety but may have no idea what it would be like to be acting conversely and acting embrace social situations and develop relationships.

As therapy begins, we want to focus on the present but towards the end of therapy we need to begin to conclude the therapy itself and look forward to the future of the client after the therapy ends.

Identifying client’s aspirations in relation to their presenting issue

When considering goals and aspirations of the client, we want to elicit the exploration of the client’s potential future. Throughout therapy it’s important to be aware of the client’s hopes for the future so the first thing to do is to determine what the client wishes to achieve. It may be difficult for some clients to look ahead given their state of mind or position at that time, so it’s good to discern the person’s state and respect the place they are in.

We want to take note of any possible future issues the client feels they will face after changes, especially in relationships. Fear of these issues could be preventing the client from facing their presenting issue, so it’s important that they are prepared and aware of the consequences they will incur.

We need to determine the client’s consciousness of their future. Whether they feel optimistic and ready to face their hurdles or they are fearful of what may come. We can explore these fears, whether past or present, as it’s important that the client is ready to move forward to a different future. It’s important for the client to understand what elements of their past and present affect their future self. Some tools for exploration of consciousness of the future include free association and guided visualisation.

The image of the client’s desired future self will be emerging slowly. This is good for the therapeutic relationship as we are both exploring the place we are moving towards. This is resonant with the person-centred concept of the ideal self. Moving towards this ideal self is known as ‘self-actualisation’ or ‘individuation’ in Analytical psychology.

Setting goals and therapeutic aims

Client’s may not have a sense of a future after therapy or even how they want to change and develop, so as therapist we can help the client in exploration of this. We can use several exercises with the client to explore potential areas of development and/or goals. ‘The Wheel of Life’ game can be a good exercise to do throughout therapy to explore areas of where development or where focus could be shared to different areas in their life and being. ‘The Lottery Test’ can be used to test for aspirations and life goals. Exploring a ‘5-year plan’ can be used to determine long term goals with realistic steps. For setting new habits we can use the reward to cycle also by creating a cue, understanding the process of the habit and then knowing the reward or even giving a reward for the behaviour.

Once we have identified goals, it’s important the we prioritise our goals and address the most important goal first. We can also assess each goal and see what each goal will entail and how much time and energy each goal is going to require.

For assessing goals, we can use the SMART model. The goal will be:

  • Specific, – Is the goal specific? What is it exactly we want to focus on?
  • Measurable – Can we observe this change? Can we measure and notice as change is happening, gradually or suddenly?
  • Achievable – Is it?
  • Realistic – Do we think it is?
  • and within a Time frame – How long do we want to be working on this? Do we have a specific time we want to have this goal achieved? Also, what time frame are we going to use to give time to approach this goal?

The way the therapy will concluded should be explored in the early stages of therapy and involved in the contracting. Conclusion could come after the first session or after many and could change as the client explores their self. This is why goals are important in therapy as this way we know what we are working towards and whether we are achieving things or are on the way to achieving things. The achievement of one goal could also lead to another goal being made and it’s good to be flexible to the client’s needs. Whatever happens, it’s good to know where we are going always.

 The therapy is going to end eventually and so achieving closure is important for the therapeutic relationship. Closure can happen in several ways. It can be created by the therapist after determination that goals have been met and that for their own autonomy to kick in, it’s now time to take their goals on with their own volition. It could also be that the therapy leads to more complex issues that the therapist is unequipped to deal with and so refers the client on to a new course of therapy. Of course, the client can also elicit closure at any point either through discussion about their desires to cease therapy with the therapist or by simply deciding to longer attend therapy. It’s important to keep records of closure with client’s so that therapy may continue or if we are to refer.

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