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Why goals are important and how to set them using the MRI approach

The MRI (Mental Research Institute) approach to therapy comes from a strand of therapeutic models called the “Strategic Models”. My background in volleyball and coaching really appreciates this strand, especially because it has the word strategy as a part of it! It’s typically more short term, and the therapist acts as a “coach.” That is, they are a bit more directive and there is a technique in this strand that really makes me smile. They use paradoxical interventions, which basically means you tell your client to do the thing you don’t actually want them to do. Truthfully, I don’t really use this intervention much. It’s like telling your toddler, “don’t you dare drink that milk!” (when you actually want them to finish their milk before leaving the dinner table).

Let me get into where we are going with this post. As the title states, we are trying to set some goals. In every initial session I have with clients, I try to clarify the goal. Do you want to be happier in life? Do you want to reduce worry and stress? Do you want to figure out if a relationship is right for you? What’s your goal if you were to start therapy today. Even if you’re in therapy, re-visiting your goal can be helpful.

So step 1 is to define you goal. What do you really want?

Next I want to talk about getting a bit deeper into specifics about the goal. What I’m talking about is recognizing the difference between first order change and second order change. Here’s a big secret. Often times people come to me wanting to focus on first order change. This is about symptom management. Example: “I want to relieve my depression.” Who doesn’t want to go to therapy to feel better? Of course, it makes sense! But yet we need to also talk about second order change, which is to alter the rules of the system the person is in. This might take a little more time to reach a healthier level of systemic functioning.

This takes us to step 2 and 3. Differentiate your first and second order change.

Example for first order change: “I want to feel less stressed. I will know things are better when stress is reduced and I feel a bit more at peace.”

Example for second order change: “We create a family calendar to help everyone be on the same page. We implement a couples’ devotional each Saturday morning for a point of connection. I start asking for help when I need it, knowing I am justified in asking for what I need. This leads to more shared responsibility around the house.”

You can see that first order change is more specific to symptoms, whereas the second order changes the process of the system. There is more shared responsibility.

One final tip. At the very beginning I mentioned paradoxical interventions. The one type of paradoxical intervention I use every so often is to “prescribe the symptom.” This means a therapist directs a client to take part in the activity that continues the problem. Sounds nutty, doesn’t it? Again, I really haven’t taken to this all that often in my “homework” I assign, but I can give an example of when it has been helpful. I had a client who worried a lot. She lost a parent suddenly and was always worried. I assigned her to worry for a set amount of time, say 15 minutes, with her other caregiver. This gave her the grace to know it’s ok to worry sometimes. But it also helped her learn she can have a container for the worry. As she had that time and space to worry, the worry dissipated a bit. It also helped her form a closer attachment to her caregiver.

The truth behind this intervention is that the client is supposed to rebel in a way against their therapist and not do the prescribed assignment. Decide for yourself if you find that helpful! I have never felt like it's necessary to "trick" a client into changing, but it can be a great way to shake things up to really say, "wait, no I really don't want to do that!" The biggest takeaway from this post is to identify your goal, then check out if you've gained clarity on your first and second order steps to the process. What pieces need to shift around in order to have less symptoms? If you can answer that, you're on your way to newness and freedom in your life! Happy rooting, everyone!

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