Effective therapists work with clients to assess circumstances and possibilities, clarify needs, set a course, and collaboratively exploit setbacks in the course of mitigating drift, generating lift, and achieving goals.
On August 6, 2014, the Rosetta space probe arrived at its destination after a nearly eleven-year journey of more than 600 million miles through our galaxy. When it arrived, it spent months carefully orbiting around comet 67P, aka Churyumov-Gerasimenko, in order to study it from afar. Rosetta first had to get a sense of the shapeliness of the mass, understand a bit of its terrain, and strategize where best to send its lander.
Philae, the landing module that Rosetta had brought along, made its careful descent to the comet on November 12, 2014. Unfortunately, despite careful planning, the lander bounced twice on the surface of the comet after anchoring harpoons failed to deploy and a thruster designed to hold the probe to the surface did not fire. When it finally landed in the shadow of a deep crack near the bottom of a towering cliff, it was unable to absorb the sunlight necessary for its battery and the continuity of the mission. Three days later, contact with Philae was lost.
After the mishap, scientists assessed that the immediate non-optimal position of the lander may have an eventual upside—as the comet neared the sun, the lander would find itself again exposed to beams of sunlight necessary to charge itself yet remain shielded enough from its heat to further its mission closer to the sun than planned.
Similarly, as therapists gain preliminary images and positioning during early stages of exploration, we must be skilled in partnering to navigate obstacles and exploit setbacks as we traverse through pummeling, disorienting space dust in order for clients to gain an awesome, sometimes catalyzing, perspective of larger processes governing their lives.
Zig Ziglar said, “When you aim at nothing, you'll hit it every time.” Without goals, clients may enjoy the therapeutic experience, yet it is difficult to say whether success has been achieved in therapy with no consolidated agenda. Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch (1974) offered, “Change can be implemented effectively by focusing on minimal, concrete goals, going slowly, and proceeding step by step, rather than strongly promoting vast and vague targets with whose desirability nobody would take issue, but whose attainability is a different question altogether” (p. 159).
Goals should be clear enough to assess whether or not the client got what they needed. Established goals help you know whether you’re moving in the right direction or stuck; otherwise, you get therapeutic drift.
Inexperienced therapists sometimes confuse treatment goals with treatment focus in the here-and-now. Psychotherapy is not a hard science, and psychotherapists work as catalysts with complex, multi-systemic, circular forces well beyond the bounds of anyone's control. Over the longer haul, therapeutic work needs targets; in the immediate-term, it needs aerodynamic force, so to speak, to help move toward them.
Newton's first law states a body will remain at rest or in uniform, straight motion unless subjected to an external force. If a moving object changes course, this is evidence of force acting on it. Newton's third law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. To generate lift, a wing must do something to the air. For example, what an airplane wing does to the air is the action while lift is the reaction.
For psychotherapy, there must be a convergence of the clinical skill of the therapist with the motivation and openness of the client. These are the two wings that overcome gravity and resistance while propelled on by the twin engines of therapeutic relationship and alliance, generating therapeutic lift.
There are some who believe that goal-drivenness is antithetical to person-centered therapy. To those, I defer to Carl Rogers, a central pioneer of humanistic, person-centered psychotherapy, who wrote the following in Counseling and Psychotherapy:
"Counseling should not be allowed to drag on at great length unless progress is being made... The contacts which run on and on with relatively little change point in general to a counseling failure. It is best in such instances to try to discover the causes of the impasse, and failing in that, to draw the counseling to a close. While such an ending admits the lack of success, it will not generate future conflict nor make it harder for the client to seek help on another occasion." (p. 237)
Skilled therapists are not overly directive, yet they also understand the value of establishing a clear and consolidated set of meaningful goals and the risks of analysis paralysis. As they skillfully navigate unexplored psychological terrain with their clients, the unexpected is sure to happen, and it is then that treatment finds opportunity to go further than it planned. Other times, therapy may not prove helpful and may need to end unsuccessfully, with its own lessons learned.
The European Space Operations Centre briefly reestablished communications on June 14, 2015, seven months after the Philae lander's battery lost sufficient power needed to complete the planned mission. ESOC reported a healthy spacecraft, but communications were lost again soon after. On September 2, 2016, Philae was located in photographs taken by Rosetta. The work completed by Rosetta and Philae was a significant boost to research on comets. Not all missions "succeed" as planned, yet one mission's mishaps often lead to the success of future missions.
Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J, & Fisch, R. (1974). Change: Principles of problem formation and problem resolution. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Beatty, Kelly (2016, September 5). Finally, ESA locates comet lander Philae. Sky & Telescope. Cambridge, MA: American Astronomical Society.
Biever, C., & Gibney, E. (2015, June 14). Philae comet lander wakes up and phones home. Nature. London, UK: Springer Nature.