What Is Reality Therapy? Techniques and Applications

By Nate Miller

Updated December 17, 2019

Reviewer Melinda Santa

Do you feel lonely or unaccomplished, but don't know how to deal with it? Do you stress about keeping a roof over your head, or feel like it's hard for you to relax and enjoy yourself? Do you appreciate problem solving by finding practical solutions that focus on your choices? If you answered yes to these questions, then Reality Therapy may be a great choice for you.

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Reality therapy focuses on the future rather than the past. It focuses on developing goals and then assessing your current behavior as it relates to achieving, or moving away from, those goals. It ties your motivations to psychological needs that we all have: Survival, Power, Love and Belonging, Freedom, and Fun.

While it isn't perfect for everyone and every problem, it can be a powerful method. In this article, we will explore the origins of reality therapy, its goals, its general techniques, and how to tell if it's the right choice for you.

Origins of Reality Therapy

Reality therapy was first identified as a distinct approach to human psychology by William Glasser in the 1960s. He determined that there are five basic needs every human has:

  • To survive
  • To have power to achieve, do, learn, etc.
  • To love others and feel loved in return/to belong to a group
  • To have the freedom to make independent choices (and take responsibility for that freedom)
  • To be able to have fun and enjoy oneself

The name reality therapy is tied to two core concepts. One, that we all have a tendency to distract ourselves from reality with enjoyable fantasies. Whenever you imagine what you should have said to a coworker or fantasize about going on vacation, you are avoiding reality in favor of pleasant fictions. While they seem harmless, these fantasies can gradually distract us from the consequences of our actions and thus remove motivation to change our lives for the better.

Two, that the goal of centering yourself in reality to make better choices is a good thing. Too often we use the term "reality check" as a negative experience, as though real life is something we must be forced to accept. In the world of reality therapy, staying grounded is how you get what you really want out of life and is ultimately all about self-fulfillment. This can only be attained if we are working with the lives we have.

A Quick Note About Choice Theory

One of the biggest parts of Reality Therapy is the idea called choice theory. It's basically what we've been talking about so far: Each person only has control over the choices he or she makes, and only a little ability to influence others. Some people may use the terms reality therapy and choice theory interchangeably, but it's worth drawing a distinction.

Choice Theory

is the theoretical basis for the actions taken in Reality Therapy, but is just a way of describing/interpreting human behavior. Reality therapy is more than just a way of seeing the world and understanding it. It is designed to take that knowledge and apply it with professional help.

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The Three Rs of Reality Therapy

In developing this theory, Glasser had several principles about human nature and human relationships. While we won't go through all of them, we will highlight the three most fundamental ones: Reality, Responsibility, and Right and Wrong.

Reality: Does the participant see and accept the consequences of their behavior? If you don't understand the outcomes of your choices, it's much more difficult to make better choices.

Responsibility: Does the participant take responsibility for their own actions and the effect they have on their own life without worrying about whether other people's choices are meeting the participant's needs? This one is a little trickier, because reality therapy does encourage the value of relationships in making good choices and achieving success. However, the focus is always on an individual's ability to make progress without relying on others.

Right and Wrong: Does the participant understand what their goals are, and how their choices either move toward or away from those goals? These goals can include material, ethical, and social considerations.

Finding Your Goals for Reality Therapy

It may seem like the goals of reality therapy are clear: Achieve some semblance of success on the five basic needs identified. However, reality therapy approaches these goals in a way that differs strongly from many therapeutic techniques.

Rather than focus on how your past has led you to your current situation, reality therapy focuses entirely on your present and future. Wherever you came from, however you were raised, what matters now is where do you want to go? If you know that, then you can start making thoughtful reality-based choices to get there.

In modern society, most of us have achieved survival. Where we run into trouble is in achieving the other four. According to Glasser, we are all driving towards these goals consciously or unconsciously. Greater happiness and success can be attained by openly seeing these as the objectives and then making good choices to achieve them.

Of course, part of the process of achieving your goals inevitably involves determining what your goals are. When you say you want to be loved, by whom, and what form does that love take? When you say you want the power to learn and accomplish, what do you want to learn, and what do you want to do with that knowledge?

The Main Objective of Reality Therapy

The end point of all this clarification of goals and responsibility-taking is to feel more empowered and in control of your life. By focusing on the things you can change (your behavior, some elements in the environment) you can capitalize on opportunities to make progress without getting held up by other people.

Normally you may feel like life is something that happens to you and around you. It can also feel like your success is entirely dependent on how other people behave. Reality therapy intends to give you the tools to be intentional about how you spend your time and thus feel greater success and confidence as you make progress.

The Eight Steps of Reality Therapy

How you and your therapist execute reality therapy will depend on your specific relationship. Nevertheless, there is a generally agreed upon eight step process for counselors to use when helping someone through reality therapy.

  1. Build a good relationship.
  2. Examine the current behavior.
  3. Evaluate whether the behavior is helpful or not.
  4. Brainstorm alternatives.
  5. Make a commitment to try selected alternatives.
  6. At a later time examine the effectiveness of the commitment - no punishment and no excuses.
  7. Accept the logical and natural consequences of the behavior.
  8. Do not become discouraged

Reality Therapy is About Working Together Positively

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It's worth reemphasizing that the end goal of reality therapy is not to punish, degrade, criticize, or otherwise make the participant feel less than they are. When a reality therapy counselor guides a participant, their goal is to achieve new understanding of where that participant is and where they would like to go. The goals and standards are set by the participant.

What a good counselor does in reality therapy is help keep the participant honest and on track. Whenever someone is trying to make behavior changes, it can get hard very quickly. Even someone wholly committed to a personal transformation will waver from time to time. We make excuses for ourselves, we overlook mistakes, we may even change what we say the goal is to make it easier.

A good counselor will maintain accountability with the participant. They will also serve as a helpful navigator. As stated, reality therapy is about moving forward. When you are trying to change who you are, there is a high risk in getting hung up on who you used to be. Reality therapy can help you avoid those pitfalls.

Reality Therapy Helps You Start Making Better Choices

Everyone has, at one time or another, tried to change the way they behave and learn to make better choices. Sometimes this requires understanding old trauma or identifying psychological diagnoses. But sometimes what it requires is changing our perspective on ourselves, our own power, and the consequences of our behavior.

Reality Therapy is designed to develop that new perspective. It can teach you to develop a feeling of competence as you learn to exercise greater influence over your existence. This work takes time, honesty and focus.

As with any advanced psychological practice, reality therapy is a method that benefits greatly from working with a professional like the ones at ReGain. No matter how good you are at asking tough questions, making incremental progress, and pushing towards your goals, we all need a coach to help us make it all the way.

This is not your usual therapy technique that will investigate your past to determine how your origins led to where you are now. Reality therapy is about the future, backed by a rigorous set of principles that outline human behavior. If you think you are interested in breaking ineffective patterns of behavior and exploring new choices, reality therapy may be right for you.

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