DBT Skills to Know - Setting Goals

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) was originally created for the treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder by Marsha Linehan in the 1970’s. This structured variation on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy consists of what is often a year-long process of walking through the four main modules, and usually involves both group therapy, individual therapy, and even on-call phone consultations to mitigate crisis situations in the patient’s life as they may arise. 

While the initial phase of DBT involves treatment for high-risk behaviors and concerns (such as suicidality, self-harm, and substance abuse), once the patient moves beyond the initial period and then subsequently through the skills training, the final phase of DBT involves strategic goal-setting so the patient can not only stabilize and minimize symptoms through better coping skills, but additionally supplement their quality of life by purposefully chasing improvements. 

The Importance of Goal Setting

When patients avoid setting goals and objectives, their lives can become chaotic and unregulated. Setting goals purposefully is a healthy habit, and can help bring purpose and fulfillment to every individual. 

What is SMART Goal Setting?

The acronym most commonly used in the final period of DBT therapy is “SMART.” SMART goal setting means avoiding vague resolutions in favor of structured, trackable paths with key milestones and clear objectives. Goals of all kinds can be made “SMART” through a realistic path to achievement. 

The SMART acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. Each of these words are broken down into concepts in order to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of goal setting. 


When setting a goal, think about what you want to achieve, and be exact. Try writing it down. The more specific you can be in describing your goal, the more likely it is you’ll achieve it. SMART goal setting, for instance, helps make the difference clear between “I want to be financially stable” and “I want to make $4500 a month.”

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you set specific goals: 

  • What am I trying to achieve?
  • How, When, Where, With whom? 
  • What conditions and limitations exist? 
  • Why am I chasing this goal? 
  • What other ways could I achieve it?


Measurable goals implies being able to clearly identify what you want to hear, feel, see, and experience when you reach that goal. For instance don’t just wish to be healthier… if your goal is getting healthier, make the qualifiers for healthier living clear. I.e. stopping smoking, eating more veggies, walking every morning, meditating before bed. 


It can be easy to get swept up in idealism when we set goals, without considering if those goals are actually achievable. When setting a goal, consider the cost to get there, both from a money and time perspective. Are you aware of the sacrifices you may have to make? What priorities could get in the way of achieving your goal? Don’t give up easily, but don’t set unrealistic goals for yourself. Plan with purpose so you can succeed. 


Be careful not to set goals that may be irrelevant to you and your lifestyle. Are you setting too many goals? Do your goals make sense for you? For instance, maybe you want to be a famous mountain biker, but the closest mountain bike park is 6 hours from you. When setting goals you’ll need to decide whether you have the time, personality, social circle, etc. for that goal. Just because someone else did it, doesn’t mean its relevant for you and your situation. 


Goal setting includes a “workback schedule” of sorts, where you plan each milestone with purpose and timing in mind. Remember that time is money! Ensure your time is well-spent, and set healthy deadlines to keep you actively pursuing your goal. Stay realistic and flexible, but motivated. 

The majority of human life is geared toward setting and achieving goals, and the fulfillment and enrichment that comes from these actions is a critical part of happiness. Goal setting is a way of putting intention behind your day to day living, rather than drifting, which can often lead to detachment, listlessness, and even depression. Goals are an everyday part of life, and can be set in relationships, work environments, leisure activities and hobbies, health and so much more. As you consider setting goals, it’s important to take into account what achievements make you feel good, and how you’re utilizing your spare time. Think about which priorities matter most, and avoid slipping into aimless living. 

Last but not least, stay positive. What you focus on will grow. So ensure that you are focusing on opportunities and successes. 


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