Reality Therapy: A New Approach to Psychiatry
by William Glasser, M.D.
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Reality Therapy (Dr. William Glasser, M.D., 1965), according to Bob Sullo, is a method of counseling based on Choice Theory and aimed at helping individuals gain more effective control over their own lives. Individuals can also use it to improve their own effectiveness. This process has been proven effective in education, parenting, leadership, and management; it lends itself to any situation where people need to learn how to satisfy their needs in responsible ways. Reality Therapy is based on the belief that we all choose what we do with our lives and that we are responsible for our choices. Responsibility is defined as learning to choose behaviors that satisfy our needs and, at the same time, do not deprive others of a chance to do the same.

Practitioners of Reality Therapy seek to persuade individuals to look honestly both at what they want and what they are doing to get what they want. An individual who is frustrated, or is frustrating others, is taught to evaluate what he or she is doing and, from this evaluation, learns about and puts into practice more effective (need-satisfying) behaviors.

Reality Therapy helps people learn to be in effective control of their lives. It is a noncoercive method of communicating that enhances people's ability to make effective, need-fulfilling choices. Reality Therapy is an ongoing process with two major components: (a) the counseling environment and (b) specific procedures that lead to changes in behavior. The art of Reality Therapy is to join these components in ways that lead people to evaluate their lives and decide to move in better directions.

The Counseling Environment

Reality Therapy requires a supportive environment within which individuals can begin to make changes in their lives. Following are guidelines for creating this environment.

  1. Be friendly and listen to the person.

  2. Focus on present events, except as past events relate easily to the present situation.

  3. Discuss feelings andr physiological responses as part of total behavior; always relate feelings and physiology to concurrent actions and thoughts over which the person has more direct control.

  4. Accept no excuses for irresponsible behavior, particularly when a person fails to do what he or she has expressed an intention to do.

  5. Avoid punishing, criticizing, or attempting to protect the person from the reasonable consequences of behavior.

Crucial to the counseling environment is involvement characterized by mutual trust and caring. In the absence of involvement, people will not be willing to risk making changes in their lives.

Procedures Leading to Change

To encourage change through Reality Therapy, the counselor has specific procedures to follow-not necessarily in the order presented here, but rather entwined in a holistic manner appropriate to the person and the circumstance.

  • Focus on the person's total behavior - the way he or she is acting, thinking, and feeling now. Help the person learn the difficult lesson that all total behavior is chosen, however painful and self-destructive it may be.

  • Ask the person what he or she wants now - look at the present pictures of the quality world. Then expand the question to the direction he or she would like to take in life. If the answer is "I don't know," continue to focus on what the person is doing now (total behavior) to reinforce the understanding that the present direction is the result of choice.

  • Ask the person to make the following evaluation: "Does your present behavior have a reasonable chance of getting you what you want now, and will it take you in the direction you want to go?"

  • If the answer is no (meaning that the desired direction is reasonable but the present behavior will not take the person there), help the person plan new behavior.

  • If the answer is no but the person seems unable to get what he or she wants no matter how much effort is made, suggest changing directions. In this case, the focus is more on changing what the person wants than on the behavior itself.

  • If the answer is yes (meaning that the person sees nothing wrong with the present behavior or desired direction), focus on the present behavior and keep repeating the evaluative question in a variety of ways.

  • Agree upon a plan that has a good chance to succeed and ask the person for a commitment to follow through with it. A written plan and commitment are generally most effective.

  • Do not give up on the person's ability to achieve a more responsible life, even if the person makes little effort to follow through on the plan. Giving up tends to confirm the belief that no one cares enough to help.

  • In following the procedures for change, it is important to keep in mind that people choose their total behaviors even though one or more of the individual components may not be chosen. Also, remember as well that, however ineffective or self-destructive a behavior may appear, it is always the best that the person believes he or she can do. In that sense, the behavior is "effective" for the individual. A person will not make a change in behavior until the following two prerequisites are met: (a) using his or her own evaluation, an individual must decide that present behavior will either not attain what is desired or take the person in the desired direction and (b) an individual must believe that he or she has available another behavior that will permit his or her needs to be satisfied reasonably well. Reality Therapy teaches that people can live their lives most successfully when they acknowledge and accept responsibility for their chosen behaviors. The practitioner of Reality Therapy should never doubt that people are able to choose more responsible and effective behaviors. It is up to the practitioner to help the individual avoid excuses and accept this responsibility and to provide opportunities for the individual to learn and test new and more effective behavioral choices.

    Source: The Identity Society, William Glasser

    Nothing on this page is original! I have borrowed from materials developed by others in the Choice Theory community. My intent is to give credit where due, so, if you recognize any of this as someone else's work not already attributed, please notify me by email (webmaster at so I can give proper attribution.

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