Quick Tips for Therapists

What to Do When a Client Becomes Fixated on a Goal

By Anna Kress, PsyD

We want our clients to have goals, but fears related to uncertainty and scarce opportunities can quickly lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with a successful outcome. Therapists often see this type of anxiety with teens (or their parents) around college admissions time, or with single people trying to navigate online dating. Waiting to be chosen can quickly lead to doubts about the future. No one wants to feel left behind or like they didn’t do everything they could to fulfill their potential. But what if your client’s best never feels like enough? How do you help them trust the process, stay open to different options, and have a sense of agency?

When working with clients who become fixated on a goal, consider the following:

1. Physical feelings of safety make it easier to trust and stay open to new possibilities. Provide your client with basic information about the nervous system and teach them regulation strategies. You can even do this in session by helping them notice when their anxiety rises as they talk about their goal, and inviting them to try grounding techniques with you.

2. Help your client understand why their goal is so important to them. Is their self-worth tied to a certain outcome? Are they trying to fill an unmet need from childhood? If so, help them process feelings around not feeling seen, heard, secure, or safe in the past. Once they can put words to these past experiences and connect them to the present, they’re more likely to consider a wider range of positive future outcomes.

3. Assist your client in exploring different sources of agency and self-efficacy. Perhaps they feel confident and in control when they’re working on a hobby or a task they’ve already mastered. These activities can help reduce feelings of helplessness and provide a renewed sense of hope.

Anna Kress, PsyD, is a Princeton University-trained clinical psychologist with more than twenty years of experience helping people heal past wounds and manifest the life they’ve always wanted. Her work has been featured in a variety of popular media, and her private practice is based in Princeton, NJ. For more, visit www.drannakress.com.

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Quick Tips for Therapists