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Outcome Goals vs. Behavioral Goals

Many individuals seeking therapy often come with outcome goals—things they want to achieve or possess. These goals can range from finding a partner, getting a job, to losing weight. While these outcome goals are valuable for motivation and establishing values, it's essential to recognize that we have limited control over outcomes.

Instead, therapy aims to empower clients by shifting the focus to what they can control—their behavior. We all have significant control over our actions, such as what we say and do. However, the outcomes of these behaviors are unpredictable. Therefore, it's crucial to convert outcome goals into behavioral goals as soon as possible.

Behavioral goals are specific actions or steps that individuals can take to move closer to their desired outcomes. For instance, instead of focusing solely on finding a partner, a behavioral goal could be joining social activities or dating apps to meet new people.

By emphasizing behavioral goals, therapy encourages clients to take proactive steps within their control, increasing their agency and resilience. While outcomes may not always align with our expectations, focusing on behavior empowers individuals to navigate challenges effectively and work towards personal growth and fulfillment.

For example, an outcome goal could be wanting to find a partner. A behavioral goal would be wanting to be able to do or say things differently to be able to increase the chance of finding a partner or getting a job.

Insight goals fall under the umbrella of outcome goals. In these instances, clients seek understanding or insight into themselves, expressing desires like "I want to understand why I'm like this" or "I need to figure out why I keep doing this." However, therapy focused solely on developing insight can lead to "analysis paralysis," where clients engage in theoretical discussions without actively developing new skills for mindful, valued living.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), clients naturally gain profound insights into their behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and identity through experiential work rather than lengthy analytical discussions. This insight is not an end but a part of the journey toward mindful, valued living.

To steer therapy toward more practical goals, therapists can emphasize that clients will gain understanding of themselves throughout the process. However, the key is to focus on how this understanding can translate into behavioral change. By shifting the focus to behavioral goals—what clients want to do, emotional goals—how they want to feel, and outcome goals—what they want to achieve, therapy becomes more action-oriented and conducive to meaningful change.

Overt and Covert Behavioral Goals in Therapy

When mapping out a client's challenges and therapy goals, it's essential to consider both overt and covert behaviors. Overt behaviors are observable actions, while covert behaviors are inner psychological processes. For instance, covert "towards" moves might involve focusing, self-compassion, or effective planning, while covert "away" moves could include worrying, ruminating, or obsessing.

Some clients may appear content with their overt behaviors but struggle with covert behaviors that hinder their enjoyment or engagement in life. For example, a client who attends social events but is consumed by worry may find it challenging to fully appreciate these experiences.

In therapy, the focus is often on changing covert behaviors rather than overt actions. For instance, while a client's physical behaviors may remain unchanged, therapy aims to shift their inner psychological processes. In the case of the client consumed by worry, therapy might focus on developing skills to unhook from anxious thoughts and refocus attention on the present moment.

By reframing goals from stopping specific cognitive processes to unhooking from them and refocusing attention, therapy becomes more action-oriented and conducive to meaningful change. This shift allows clients to develop new skills to handle their inner experiences effectively, leading to greater engagement and fulfillment in life.

Skilling Up: Practice Tips for Your Therapy Journey

  1. Getting Comfortable with ACT Language:

    1. Take time to read and rephrase the therapist's dialogues from the sessions you've experienced. This can help you get familiar with the language used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and find your own way of expressing yourself within this framework.

  2. Reflecting on Your Goals:

    1. Think about what directions you want to move towards in your life and what might be holding you back. Consider your values and what's important to you, as well as any obstacles you're facing in pursuing those values.

  3. Shifting Focus to Behavioral Goals:

    1. Start thinking about your therapy goals in terms of specific actions or behaviors you want to change or develop. How do you want to behave differently in order to align more closely with your values and overcome obstacles?

  4. Using Tools like the Choice Point:

    1. If you find it helpful, you can use tools like the choice point to visualize your goals and the choices you can make to move towards them. This can provide clarity and direction in your therapy journey.

Remember, it's okay to make mistakes and take time to learn and grow during therapy. Embrace the process and trust that each step you take brings you closer to living a more fulfilling and meaningful life.


Embrace the process of learning and growth during therapy. Each step you take, no matter how small, brings you closer to living a more fulfilling and meaningful life aligned with your values. Trust in the journey and be patient with yourself as you navigate towards your goals.

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