Reality Therapy

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Reality therapy

A therapeutic approach in which a therapist helps a client understand the reality of the world around them and how to function accordingly.

Reality therapy was developed by William Glasser, who wrote a book of the same name in the 1960s. This type of counseling suggests that all psychiatric subjects have the same basic underlying problem, namely an inability to fulfill their essential needs. Specific problems, like alcoholism or misbehavior in school, are the symptoms and not the problem. Troublesome symptoms occur when a person cannot or will not meet their needs.

Language of reality therapy

Essential needs can be broken down into two categories. One is the need to love and be loved at all times during the course of a lifetime. The other is the need to feel worthwhile to oneself and others. In order to feel worthwhile, one must maintain a satisfactory standard of behavior. In other words, if a person is drinking to avoid facing reality, then he or she is not maintaining a satisfactory standard of behavior and not feeling worthwhile. Everyone has these essential needs but peoples's abilities to fulfill them vary.

The process of fulfilling the essential needs requires, first and foremost, involvement with other people who are in touch with the reality of the world. Without involvement with other people, we try to fulfill the basic needs in unhealthy ways, like overeating or abusing drugs. Not knowing how to fulfill essential needs always leads to pain , either physical or emotional, for the client or those around him or her. Reality therapy holds that any time a person comes to therapy, they are lacking a true involvement with a healthy person. A therapist can be the person who becomes healthily involved with a client. Since fulfilling essential needs is part of person's present life, reality therapy does not concern itself with a client's past. Neither does this type of therapy deal with unconscious mental processes. In these two ways reality therapy is very different from other forms of psychology like psychoanalysis .

Reality therapy tends not to use typical psychology labels, like "neurotic" or "dysfunctional," because these terms tend to stereotype people. Responsibility and irresponsibility are two terms commonly used in reality therapy. Responsibility refers to the ability to fulfill one's needs and to do so in a way that doesn't interfere with someone else fulfilling their needs. Irresponsible people cannot fulfill their own needs, or they fulfill their needs at the cost of negatively affecting someone else. For example, responsible students do their own homework. Irresponsible students look for someone else to do their work. If a parent does the homework for the child, the parent is also being irresponsible. The student who doesn't do their homework is harming his or her learning process and being a burden on those around them. The parent who does the homework is harming the student by not teaching that child responsibility. Reality therapy holds that we learn responsibility through involvement with another responsible person. We can learn and relearn responsibility at any time in life.


The procedure of reality therapy is basically threefold. First, an involvement must be established between the therapist and the client. This means a firm emotional bond must be established fairly quickly through discussing all aspects of a client's current life. This way the client begins to understand that the therapist cares and also that the therapist is a responsible person who can help clarify the reality of the client's world. It has been suggested that through this involvement a client also develops increased self-worth. Once involvement has been established, the therapist begins rejecting the unrealistic or irresponsible behavior of the client. The therapist points out irresponsible behavior. Irresponsible behavior is never justified, nor is it viewed as caused by anyone but the client. The therapist expects and encourages new behavior that is builds confidence in the client. Finally, the therapist acts as a guide or a teacher of responsible behavior. Clients learn that happiness can only be gained by being responsible. A therapist illuminates a client's hopes, helps a person expand a range of interests, and teaches a client to recognize his or her own needs and use new behaviors to fulfill those needs.

Lara Lynn Lane

Further Reading

Collins, Perry L. "The historical development of reality therapy." TCA Journal vol. 25 (2) Fall 1997, 50-57.

Glasser, William, M.D. Reality Therapy: A New Approach to Psychiatry. NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965.

Glasser, William. Reality Therapy in Action. NY, US: Harper-collins Publishers, 2000.

Further Information

William Glasser Institute. 22024 Lassen Street, Suite 118, Chatsworth, CA, USA. 91311, fax: 818-700-0555, 800-899-0688. Email: [email protected].