Needs – we all have them, and we all have many different kinds of needs.
Of course, sometimes what we think are needs are actually “wants;” however, depending on the philosophical perspective, the needs category may cover more than you would imagine.
Let’s think of all the basic needs and wants humans have, and put them all in the “wants” category for now. We can move them to the “needs” category when we decide they are actually needs.
What do we really need?
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The usual answer is water, food, and shelter. We’ll move those to the “needs” category.
Although, in modern first world countries, the word “need” is rarely applied to these three basics. Most people in such countries have these needs met, and then some!
Instead of needing water, food, or shelter, we talk about wanting different types of water, more flavorful food, or larger dwellings. If these were our only needs, surely most people in these countries would be satisfied, right? Alas, we know this isn’t the case.
Perhaps we should add sexual fulfillment to the list of needs. We often hear the term “sexual needs” when discussing an emotional problem someone is having, usually due to a long-term lack of such needs being fulfilled. There is a good argument for moving sexual fulfillment can move to the “needs” category.
However, even if we add sexual fulfillment to the list of needs, we might still be missing something. It’s easy to think of a person or a celebrity who has all the water, food, shelter, and sexual fulfillment they could want, but are still not satisfied with their life.
Maybe what we’re missing from our “needs” category is love and satisfying relationships. After all, no man is an island. We are social animals, and we suffer when we have no meaningful relationships with others. Let’s move meaningful relationships to the list of needs.
As you can imagine, this discussion could go on for some time! The point here is that there are dozens, maybe hundreds, perhaps thousands of needs that humans have – not in the sense that we need them to physically survive, but in order to thrive.
Reality therapy is based on the idea that humans have several distinct needs, and that emotional, mental, and behavioral problems arise when one of these needs is not met.
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What is Reality Therapy? A Definition
At its core, reality therapy is a form of therapy that aims to help people with unmet needs, set goals, problem solve, and create more meaningful connections with others.
It recognizes five basic human needs that must be met to allow for healthy functioning and life satisfaction (Good Therapy, 2015a):
- Survival (food, water, shelter, sexual fulfillment)
- Love and Belonging (via family, friendships, community, etc.)
- Power (sense of accomplishment, self-confidence, self-esteem)
- Freedom (independence, sufficient personal space, autonomy)
- Fun (satisfaction, pleasure, and enjoyment)
Reality therapy is intended to help clients identify their unmet needs and guide them through making plans and setting goals to fulfill these unmet needs. It aims to anchor clients in the reality of their world and help them navigate that world through making responsible decisions that bring them closer to their goals (Arnold, n.d.).
William Glasser’s Contributions
Reality therapy may be unfamiliar to you, and there is a good reason for that. It’s not a popular form of therapy today, but it was a relatively novel type of treatment when it first arrived on the psychology scene.
Reality therapy was developed in 1965 by psychiatrist William Glasser (Good Therapy, 2015a).
Dr. Glasser found that many of his clients and people around him seemed profoundly unhappy, despite having their basic needs met. He theorized that there were more human needs than were currently recognized by the psychological community.
In particular, Dr. Glasser noticed that many of the unhappy people struggled with forming and maintaining close relationships with others (Good Therapy, 2015b). He concluded that this was an important human need that had been overlooked in the field of therapy.
In addition to meaningful relationships, Glasser identified the other needs (listed above) that reality therapy recognizes as essential for human survival and flourishing.
This may seem fairly straightforward so far, which might make you wonder why you aren’t more familiar with this type of therapy.
The reason reality therapy is not more common lies in the theory that it was built on: choice theory.
Choice Theory: Underpinnings of Reality Therapy
Choice theory, also developed by Dr. Glasser, holds that all human behavior is driven by the pursuit of fulfilling the five basic needs. According to this theory, all human behavior is the result of choices, and that these choices are the sole responsibility of the chooser.
In this theory, the emphasis is placed on the individual. An underlying assumption of the theory is that we cannot change other people and that the only thing we can control is ourselves.
Again, you may be thinking that this sounds obvious – of course, we can’t change other people!
The controversy surrounding choice theory and reality therapy comes not from the idea that we can’t control other people; rather, it comes from the idea that we are in total control of ourselves.
Choice theory is based on the idea that our lives are the product of the choices we make and nothing more. While no one (in the mainstream) denies that our choices impact our lives, most of the prevailing theories place great importance on other factors as well, such as upbringing, social environment, culture, and biology.
Where most mainstream psychologists refer to addiction as a disease and believe that genetics play a significant role in mental illness, choice theory denies the idea that our problems are based on anything other than our choices.
This controversy over choice theory and its resulting application in reality therapy is likely the reason why reality therapy is not a more common form of treatment today. However, that’s not to say that it is without its merits.
Much of our outcomes are based on our choices, and while you may believe that there are other important factors influencing our choices and the outcomes, you will likely agree that the effort to make better choices is a worthwhile one.
In this vein, let’s dive a little deeper into reality therapy.
Reality Therapy Process and Characteristics
Reality therapy looks different from the most common forms of therapy today.
Modern therapy largely embraces the practice of unconditional positive regard, meaning that the therapist is expected to accept the client as he or she is and show them respect and understanding at all times, no matter what they have done.
Reality therapy shuns the idea of unconditional positive regard, although therapists are still expected to provide a safe and respectful environment for the client (Lane, n.d.). Instead, the therapist acts as a kind of “reality guide” for the client, pointing the client toward the behavior that is not helping them achieve their goals and identifying the kinds of choices that are available to them.
The therapist’s role in reality therapy is to help clients focus on what they can do, and steer them away from focusing on their past instead of the present or their symptoms instead of the cause (William Glasser Institute, 2010).
A client in reality therapy will likely be encouraged to do the following:
- Focus on the present, not the past
- Avoid discussing symptoms
- Focus their energy on changing their thoughts and behavior
- Avoid criticizing, blaming, and/or comparing themselves to others
- Avoid relying on excuses for their behavior, whether they are legitimate or not
- Make specific plans and smart goals (William Glasser Institute, 2010).
Clients may be encouraged to make “SAMIC3” plans, plans that are:
- S – Simple
- A – Attainable
- M – Measurable
- I – Immediate
- C – Consistent
- C – Client-centered
- C – Committed to (Wubbolding, 1991)
Once clients have made plans and set goals with the guidance of the therapist, the therapist will help the client recognize the behavior that is irresponsible or unlikely to help them meet their goals and encourage the clients to engage in behavior that will move them closer to achieving their goals (Lane, n.d.).
With such an emphasis placed on the therapist pointing out problematic behavior, it is extremely vital for the success of this therapy that the therapist and client have a positive and trusting relationship.
Common Techniques and Interventions
There are many different techniques a reality therapist can use and resources that can draw from in their sessions with clients. The exercises and interventions listed below are only a small sample of the resources available, but they are a good place to start.
How to Change 101
Learning, practicing, and applying the skills necessary to implement change is the most basic intervention used in reality therapy.
This handout from psychologist Bill O’Hanlon can help you or your client to improve these skills and make actionable plans to change their thinking and behavior.
O’Hanlon divides the process of initiating change into six steps, each with its own suggestions and sub-steps:
a. Acknowledge other people and their points of view, the concerns you and others have, your problems, and what has worked before
b. Use action talk to avoid labeling or overgeneralizing the problem
- Find and agree on a direction, mission, or vision
a. Paint a vivid picture of the future using action talk
b. Get consensus or a mutual understanding of that future
c. Use possibility talk (open yourself up to the idea of change)
- Acknowledge barriers and identify resources to overcome them
a. Think about what has stopped you in the past, both internal barriers and external barriers
b. Identify the resources available to you to overcome the barriers, drawing from what has worked in the past
c. Identify patterns of thought and action that have not helped your situation change.
- Make an action plan
a. Start small – remember that every journey of 1,000 miles started with one step
b. Set SMART (Small/specific, measurable, achievable/actionable, realistic, and time-oriented) goals.
- Act (“Just do it!”)
a. Take action based on your SMART goals, observe the results, and adjust if needed
b. Attempt to break non-helpful thought and action patterns
c. Persist until your goal is achieved
- Acknowledge and celebrate progress and success
a. Give lots of credit where it is due
b. Plan and engage in rituals, awards, or celebrations to acknowledge milestones achieved and goals met
This set of instructions provides a comprehensive outline for making a plan that can bring about permanent and effective change in your life. It is written in general terms to allow for easy adaptation to any goal you may have, whether it’s changing your thought patterns, stopping a behavior, or starting a behavior.
This basic exercise is an excellent addition to a reality therapist’s toolbox, but it can also be used by anyone who would like some guidance in making important changes to their life.
You can find this handout on page 164 of O’Hanlon’s PDF.
Expectations versus Reality
In reality therapy, it is essential that clients learn to manage their expectations about meeting their goals. It’s great to be ambitious when setting goals, but if the goals are too ambitious, there is a high risk of failure. We all fail at some point or another, but we don’t want to set ourselves up for failure. To give clients the best chance for success, they should be encouraged to set achievable and realistic goals.
This exercise can help clients identify what they want to change, what they can change, how they can affect this change, and how they can set realistic goals to achieve this change.
The exercise consists of four sets of questions to aid clients in this process.
Step 1 – Define Your Current Reality:
What have I done to create my reality?
What has happened to me to create my reality?
How do I experience these things (positively or negatively)?
Step 2 – Changing Your Reality:
What can I change about my situations, relationships, or work?
What are the resources needed to make the changes I want?
What are the things I cannot change?
How can I change my reactions to things I cannot change to support myself better?
Step 3 – Define Your Expectations:
What do I expect of myself, my relationships, and future?
What do I expect of my community?
What are the origins of these expectations?
Are these expectations achievable given my current skills and supports?
Step 4 – Modify My Expectations:
How do I make my expectations meet my reality without making my expectations too low or an unrealistic reality?
What does it mean to have hope versus expectations?
Redefine my expectations of home, work, relationships, myself, etc.?
Answering these questions will provide you or your clients with the information necessary to set realistic, actionable goals that will get you closer to the life you want to live. This process can also help you find the “sweet spot” or balance in expectations: not too high and not too low.
This is an important balance to achieve since low expectations will inhibit real, meaningful change, while expectations that are too high may result in a loss of self-confidence and a negative attitude about future attempts to change.
The WDEP System
The WDEP system is a fundamental system in reality therapy.
“WDEP” stands for:
- W – Wants
- D – Doing (or Direction)
- E – Evaluation
- P – Plan
These four components form the backbone of reality therapy (Center for Reality Therapy, n.d.). This system offers clients a way to discover what they want and identify what they are doing to obtain or achieve what they want. In addition, it facilitates their evaluation of whether what they are doing will contribute to their goals or not, and gives them the tools to plan the achievement of their goals.
You can give this system a try with a worksheet designed to walk you or your clients through the process.
The worksheet is divided into four sections (corresponding to the four components of the system) with space to answer the questions listed below for each component. These questions are as follows:
What do you want?
What do you want instead of the problem?
What is your picture of a quality life, relationship, etc.?
What do your family/friends want for you?
What do you want from counseling?
What are you doing (in terms of acting, thinking, feeling, physiology)?
When you act this way, what are you thinking?
When you think/act this way, how are you feeling?
How do your thoughts/actions affect your health?
Is what you are doing, helping you get what you want?
Is it taking you in the direction you want to go?
Is what you want achievable?
Does it help you to look at it in that way?
How hard are you prepared to work at this?
Is your current level of commitment working in your favor?
Is it a helpful plan?
What are you prepared to do/think differently that will take you in the direction you want to go?
Are you clear about what you are going to do?
Is it achievable?
How will you know you have done it?
Can you start doing it immediately?
Is it in your control? Are you committed to doing it?
The client should consider each question carefully and develop a thoughtful answer. The answers to these questions will help the client identify what they really want and assess whether their current behavior will lead them to what they want.
If the client is not engaged in behavior that will bring them closer to their goals, the answers to these questions can help him or her identify the behaviors they need to change, stop, or begin, and facilitate the planning of how these changes will be undertaken.
Even if you are not personally engaged in reality therapy, completing this worksheet can offer important insight into how you can implement the changes necessary to achieve the kind of life you want.
How Reality Therapy Relates to Positive Psychology
Interestingly, the source of the controversy over reality therapy is also one of the reasons for controversy over positive psychology as well.
Reality therapy places all responsibility on the individual to make the changes necessary for a happy and fulfilling life. Many have argued that positive psychology does the same with its focus on self-improvement and emphasis on the individual’s ability to align him- or herself with the positive.
Both reality therapy and positive psychology have been criticized for the focus on individual behavior and a perceived lack of attention paid to the systemic and societal factors that drive behavior. There has been much debate over this critique of positive psychology, with evidence both for and against.
In the author’s humble opinion, reality therapy and positive psychology are worthwhile and evidence-backed pursuits of knowledge and fulfillment. While they may place too much weight on individual responsibility at times, this is not necessarily a flaw.
Neither is meant to be the sole source of knowledge or fulfillment. Reality therapy is but one type of therapy available, and it is not intended to be applied to every mental, emotional, or behavioral problem that people have. Likewise, positive psychology is a supplement to traditional psychology rather than a replacement for the field.
There should always be space devoted to discussing how societal factors influence our behavior, our thinking, and our perspectives, but we would be remiss if we did not also acknowledge the importance of personal responsibility and individual behavior.
A Take Home Message
In this piece, I provided an overview of reality therapy, including a description of this form of therapy, a discussion of its roots, and a sample of the techniques and exercises that you might find in a typical reality therapy session.
I hope you come away with a better understanding of reality therapy, whether you subscribe to its underlying theories or not.
Let us know in the comments section if you have any thoughts about reality therapy. Have you tried it? Have you administered it? What problems do you think reality therapy is the most effective in treating?
Thanks for reading!
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- Arnold, M. (n.d.). What is reality therapy? CRC Health. Retrieved from http://www.crchealth.com/types-of-therapy/reality-therapy/
- Centre for Reality Therapy. (n.d.). WDEP system. CRT. Retrieved from http://www.realitytherapywub.com/index.php/wdep-system
- Good Therapy. (2014a). Reality therapy. GoodTherapy. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/reality-therapy
- Good Therapy. (2014b). William Glasser. GoodTherapy. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/famous-psychologists/william-glasser.html
- Lane, L. (n.d.). Reality therapy. Psychology Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://psychology.jrank.org/pages/535/Reality-Therapy.html
- William Glasser Institute. (2010). Reality therapy. WGI US. Retrieved from http://www.wglasser.com/the-glasser-approach/reality-therapy
- Wubbolding, R. E. (1991). Understanding reality therapy. New York City, NY, US: Perennial (HarperCollins Publishers).