Founded by American psychiatrist William Glasser, reality therapy is a nondirective solution-focused approach to mental health and well-being
Instead of dwelling on the past and complaining about what might or might not happen, clients are encouraged to focus on the ‘here and now’.
Derived from Choice Theory and built around three fundamental principles called ‘the three R’s,’ reality therapy offers a simple and straightforward model that clients can apply to their everyday decisions.
Let’s take a closer look at what are the three R’s of reality therapy and how this approach helps you take charge of your life and mental health.
Table of Contents
What are the key concepts of reality therapy?
According to William Glasser, people end up feeling depressed, anxious, or stressed out to avoid more painful experiences or to (indirectly) ask for help from those around them.
In most cases, their current emotional or behavioral problems result from interpersonal difficulties or the lack of meaningful relationships.
The fundamental principle of reality therapy is that problems do not come from the outside but from within. The way you choose to look at the world and your decisions will influence your mental health and well-being.
Reality therapy is a present-centered approach that places a strong emphasis on the client’s present situation – the things he/she can or can’t change – and pays little attention to the past.
Clients who go through this process learn to take responsibility for their actions and behaviors, as opposed to blaming others for their discomfort or trying to change the environment in such a way as to match their expectations.
Current scientific evidence suggests that reality therapy proves useful for a wide range of behavioral and emotional problems like academic procrastination , Internet gaming disorder , and social anxiety .
One of the major priorities of any psychologist who applies Glasser’s therapeutic approach is to help clients master the three R’s of reality therapy.
So, what are the three Rs of reality therapy?
Personal responsibility is at the core of reality therapy. Regardless of the context in which we live our daily lives, each one of us is responsible for the decisions we make and the actions we take.
People can’t make you feel a certain way if you don’t let them. And since we’re on the subject of relationships, the problem isn’t that you attract toxic or emotionally unavailable people but that you let them stay in your life.
Long story short, the quality of your relationships, and your life eventually comes down to the decisions you make.
It may be a hard truth, but it can also be an empowering truth.
Reality therapy is a solution-focused approach that requires commitment on your part. The capacity to overcome adversity, change your mindset, and adopt healthier habits is within your control.
But to achieve these outcomes, you need to set precise, achievable, and reasonable goals. Sometimes, a realistic perspective means giving up on dreams that might be out of your reach. Other times, it means ending relationships that do you more harm than good.
In short, realism involves a commitment to personal growth, accountability, and tough decisions.
- Right-and Wrong
Each person has its own set of values, beliefs, and principles. These mental constructs represent the filter through which we interpret reality.
Since each person has its own ‘filter’, the notion of ‘right and wrong’ differs from one individual to another and from one culture to another.
Although it’s essential to prioritize your needs and desires, you must also be mindful of other people’s needs, especially those you love and care about. In other words, there are times when your needs might clash with those of others.
Reality therapy isn’t about getting your way all the time but learning to compromise and accept other people’s version of ‘right and wrong’, even if it’s different from yours.
What are the techniques of reality therapy?
In essence, reality therapy is part of the cognitive-behavioral approach, which means counselors and therapists who practice it will focus primarily on the thought-emotion-behavior triad.
Once you understand how your subjective interpretations contribute to emotional distress and poor decision-making, you can focus on reframing reality and adopting healthier behaviors.
As in any other therapeutic approach, the first step is to develop the self-awareness you need to explore the core of your emotional or behavioral problems.
But instead of spending session after session talking about childhood issues and family history, you will focus primarily on current issues and what actions you can take to overcome them.
Through open-ended questions, you will discover the nature of your self-sabotaging behaviors and decide which goals can help you achieve the life you want.
By not spoon-feeding answers or providing suggestions, your counselor will encourage you to take responsibility for the choices you make and the life you wish to achieve for yourself.
Planning and goal setting
Being a solution-focused approach, reality therapy involves a clear plan comprised of specific goals that will help you reach your desired outcome.
Change doesn’t happen overnight; it’s the result of small actions and decisions you make every day.
That’s why it’s essential to begin the therapeutic process with a set of clear, specific, simple, attainable, reasonable, and results-oriented goals.
Each goal will address a specific problem that you encounter. For example, if you’re struggling to lose a few extra pounds, one goal/action that you can set is 10 minutes of exercise a day. Later, you can add more goals to help you reach your desired weight.
In short, reality therapy helps you achieve well-being, one small habit at a time.
Behind every poor decision or problematic behavior is a belief (or more) that sabotages your attempts to satisfy your fundamental needs healthily and effectively.
If you wish to cultivate healthy behaviors and make decisions that bring you closer to your ideal life, you need to start by changing your mindset.
With the help of a licensed counselor or therapist, you can uncover the irrational or self-sabotaging beliefs that drive you to engage in problematic behaviors.
Reality therapy encourages you to change your life by changing how you see yourself, others, and the world.
Effective decision making
The cause for some of the adversities and unpleasant circumstances that you experience in the present can be traced back to a decision that might not have been in your best interest.
But instead of wallowing in self-pity and regret, a better alternative would be to sharpen your decision-making skills. In other words, to make conscious decisions based on your needs and priorities while being fully aware of how your decisions might impact others.
In short, reality therapy is not just about making decisions that get you out of the comfort zone but making smart decisions that take you closer to your ideal life.
What is Choice Theory and Reality Therapy?
In essence, the therapeutic process aims to help you find better ways to fulfill your basic needs and forge meaningful relationships with your loved ones (friends, children, life partners, colleagues).
Choice Theory represents the theoretical background of reality therapy. It is based on the idea that while you may not have control over others’ interpretations and reactions, you definitely have full control over your thoughts, emotions, decisions, and behaviors.
The notion that you have full control over yourself is empowering and allows you to take responsibility for your happiness, health, and overall sense of well-being.
According to this theory, human behavior is motivated by five fundamental needs. 
- Survival or self-preservation
- Power or achievement
- Freedom or independence
- Fun or enjoyment
In theory, these needs should be met in interpersonal relationships. For instance, you experience a sense of belonging when you’re part of a group. But being part of a group may require some effort and compromise on your part.
William Glassed believed that failed relationships or the lack of meaningful human interactions are the primary sources of unhappiness and emotional problems.
Even though you cannot control others or constrain them to meet your fundamental needs, you can improve your odds by changing the way you behave. Furthermore, suppose nothing you do can change the dysfunctional dynamics of a relationship. In that case, the only aspect you can control (and change) is the amount of time and energy you wish to dedicate to this relationship.
The problem with control
Human beings fulfill their fundamental needs by exercising control over themselves, others, and their surrounding environment.
Some people seek to gain control through money or social status while others exercise control by setting strict personal boundaries. Some choose to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors because this path gives them control over their financial situation and satisfies their need for freedom. In contrast, others climb the corporate ladder to meet their need for power and achievement.
But control is a fragile construct and a source of frustration, especially when we engage in unhealthy behaviors that create a false sense of control or when we hopelessly try to convince others that our version is the right version.
The main conclusion that we can draw from Glasser’s Choice theory is that the only person you can control is you.
Even if you bend over backward to help others, there is no guarantee you’ll enjoy a meaningful relationship where all your needs are met.
On top of that, life will occasionally throw you a curveball, and even though you might not be responsible for the ripples such events can cause in your reality, it is within your control to adapt and make the best with what you have.
Paradoxically, the moment you stop controlling the uncontrollable is the moment when you genuinely feel like you have control over your life.
And that can be quite liberating.
What is the focus of reality therapy?
The three R’s of reality therapy represent the guiding principles around which therapists with experience and training in reality therapy build their intervention.
But other key focus points characterize this approach as well.
The client-therapist relationship
In reality therapy, the client-therapist relationship serves as a model for how good relationships should unfold.
By helping the client focus on the present (instead of the past) and the things he/she can control (rather than how others might react), the therapist cultivates personal responsibility and gradually encourages the client to take charge of his/her life.
The therapist or counselor does not judge, evaluate, or suggest options but positions himself/herself as a mentor or educator.
Overall, psychologists who practice reality therapy will carry out the process in a way that empowers clients to focus on present problems, set achievable goals, and pursue their ideal life with devotion.
The present is all that matters
Although every problematic emotion or behavior that you’re struggling with right now might have a root somewhere in your past, William Glasser believed that finding the cause doesn’t necessarily fix the problem.
Instead of digging into your past, hoping to find an answer that will somehow help you overcome current difficulties, a more practical approach would be to focus on finding a solution, right here and right now.
The past and future are well outside of your control, whereas the present still holds opportunities for change.
Decide, act, decide, act
If you think about it, life is, for the most part, a stream of decisions and actions. Every choice you make prompts you to do something, and everything you do gives rise to different options from which you choose the one you believe is right for you.
Unfortunately, there are times when you postpone decisions or choose inaction out of fear and uncertainty. As a result, you become reactive and gradually lose control over your life.
Instead of being the main character of your story, you choose to be a spectator.
But even postponing a decision is still a decision, one that robs you of any shred of power or control you might have over your situation.
To enjoy a healthy and fulfilling life, you must start making decisions and taking actions that will get you there.
A fundamental principle of reality therapy is that nobody can give you the life you want, except YOU.
Now that you have a better understanding of the three R’s of reality therapy and how this approach can help you achieve the life you want, all that’s left to do is set up an appointment.
If you think this approach is right for you, consult a cognitive-behavioral therapist or a psychologist with extensive training in reality therapy, who can help you implement the principles and strategies we discussed in this article.
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