Emotional Goals v Behavioural Goals

“I just want to be happy.”  Don’t we all.  This is a common and valid response from most people when they present to counselling and are asked about their therapy goals or desired outcomes.

Emotional goals are a good place to start as they lead to discussion about values and motivation for change.  This is the reason people see therapy, to make changes that will improve their situation and enhance their lives. However, wanting to think differently, avoid feelings and be distracted from the emotions that arise, and in most cases serve a purpose, can lead to experiential avoidance – the ongoing attempt to avoid and get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings.  Avoidance strategies that include, isolation from family or friends, avoiding social situations, using alcohol or drugs, negative self-talk, self-harm, may provide short term relief but in the long term, they can be extremely damaging.

In the Acceptance & Commitment Therapy model, the therapy that I practise at Mindful Health Counselling, which is referred to as a behaviour therapy, function of thought is favoured over form of thought. Which means, allowing and acknowledging the inevitable problematic thoughts, feelings and emotions that arise, without focusing on their origin.  Instead, the focus is on the consequence and problematic behaviour/action that follows or supports the thought. This of course takes practice (in and outside of therapy), and it needs to be supported by committed action driven by values. Accepting a thought/feeling/emotion, does not mean that the thought is tolerated and dismissed, it means it is acknowledged, recognised, and allowed (without trying to push it away), making room for other emotions and feelings. Learning and implementing psychological and mindfulness skills that enable us to observe and manage difficult thoughts more effectively, without being hooked/triggered by them, is one of the core pillars of ACT.  Developing and increasing psychological flexibility is the foundation of ACT.

Dr Russ Harris, who is an Acceptance & Commitment Therapy expert trainer, explains “Emotional goals reinforce the agenda of experiential avoidance.  To learn a new skill, is a behavioural goal.  One of the first behavioural goals (in therapy) we teach is to learn new skills to handle these difficult thoughts and feelings more effectively, reframing emotional goals as behavioural ones.” 

Experiencing the full range of complex and sometimes difficult emotions such as anger, loss, shame, joy, disappointment, resentment, fear etc are all part of the human experience and they contribute to leading a fulfilling and meaningful life.

Things happen in life – death of a loved one or pet, family conflict, job loss, relationship breakdown – we cannot change how we feel at these times, in fact the emotions that arise are necessary to heal and cope. Feelings/thoughts/emotions are often beyond our control, but our actions and behaviours are within our control.

Client – “I just want to be happier around my kids, they say I’m a nag and a grump.  I’m always thinking about the past and how I have failed as a mum and wife.”

Therapist – discuss values behind this emotional goal & teach/practice mindfulness skills

Client – “When I am more present with my children, we feel more connected, they feel listened to and nurtured, our relationships deepen and grow, this makes me feel proud and better about myself”.

Therapist – Now we have values of family connection, self-acceptance, love, and openness.

Client behaviour goal – Allocate time during the week (between sessions) to do something meaningful with the children i.e., go to a playground, play games, see a movie, cook, and eat a meal, go for a nature walk, go for a fun drive someone special/different etc,

Now we have an achievable goal driven by values, that is within the client’s control, that brings her closer to achieving the emotional goal of being happier.  This accompanied with the new skills learned and practised from the ACT sessions, another essential behaviour goal implemented in therapy.

Emotional goals are how we want to feel, emotional goals are what we want to do.

*Russ Harris 2017 – ACT for Beginners

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a modern style therapy that is proven to be effective treating people experiencing depression, anxiety, PTSD, grief & loss, relationship problems and anger management.


Principal Counsellor at Mindful Health Counselling. 


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