Reality Therapy

Posted on April 23, 2016 by Robert Ringer


For most of my life, I was a strong believer in conventional psychology, which is based on the teachings of Sigmund Freud. Conventional psychology focuses on finding the psychological roots of an individual’s problems.

The idea is that once a person’s past traumas are brought to the surface and dissected, he is able to change his attitude toward life. It made perfect sense to me. I did not believe in the concept of “behavioral modification,” which is in stark conflict with conventional psychology. Behavioral modification seemed to imply synthetic change, which is why I associated it with the rah-rah slogan “Just fake it till you make it.”

But my attitude toward both traditional psychotherapy and behavioral modification changed when I started learning about “reality therapy,” a psychotherapy method created by the late Dr. William Glasser.

Before discussing reality therapy, I am obliged to point out that it’s a very complex subject, and one in which I claim no professional expertise. My only aim here is to simplify reality therapy in an effort to share some information and insights that might be helpful to you.

With this caveat, I will begin by pointing out that the central focus of reality therapy is fulfillment of an individual’s needs. A reality therapist believes that fulfilling one’s needs is concerned only with an individual’s present life. It has nothing to do with his past, no matter how traumatic his experiences may have been.

Reality therapy, however, does not deny the existence of past problems. Rather, it just views them as unimportant when it comes to fulfilling one’s present needs.

The corollary to the above is that if you learn to fulfill your needs in the present, the past no longer matters. A perfect example of this would be an individual who has experienced a bad first marriage. The sooner such an individual can find happiness in a second marriage, the sooner his/her first marriage will become a distant memory. In fact, reality therapy believes that the most critical factor when it comes to fulfilling one’s needs is intimate involvement with another person.

To the reality therapist, then, it’s a waste of time to sit around and lament what has happened to us in the past and continue to use old traumas as an excuse for our present unhappiness. The only things you can change are your thoughts and actions of today.

So, while it’s true that you are a product of your past, the reality is that you can’t change any of the unpleasantness you may have endured earlier in life. Whatever childhood problems may have caused a person to behave the way he does today, no amount of bringing them to the surface will change his current situation.

Reality therapy teaches that the key to fulfilling our needs in the present is responsible behavior. As Dr. Glasser put it, “Happiness occurs most often when we are willing to take responsibility for our behavior. … Responsible behavior leads to a feeling of self-worth.”

In other words, Dr. Glasser believed that responsible behavior ultimately solves most of our problems. But isn’t “responsible behavior” a subjective term? This question brings to the fore the age-old relativist argument that everything in life is subjective. Millions of clueless kids bought into the lie of relativism in the sixties, only to end up dead or with shattered lives.

But the truth of the matter is that every halfway intelligent, mature adult knows the difference between responsible and irresponsible behavior. I would argue that the vile behavior extolled by millions of viewers every night on television — much of it under the protective shadow of the First Amendment — never leads to happiness.

Civilization cannot exist without a generally accepted code of conduct, and it is the code of conduct of Western culture that has made it the most civilized and prosperous civilization in the history of mankind.

In other words, responsible behavior pretty much coincides with practicing the virtuous traits that are the bedrock of Western life. It is self-evident to all civilized people that responsible behavior is demonstrated through such traits as hard work, saving for the future, civility, loyalty, respect, honesty, temperance, and charity, to name but a few.

Again, we all have bad experiences in our pasts, especially in our childhoods, that have left painful memories. There is, however, nothing we can do about them. History is written in stone.

Nevertheless, we have the capacity to control how we think and act today. This capacity is known as “free will.” We are the only living creatures who have the capacity to change the nature of our existence by altering events.

It is free will that makes behavioral modification possible. For example, I smoked until I was in my late twenties, but stopped — cold turkey — in one day. Based on the medical evidence, I simply faced up to the reality that smoking was a dangerous and irresponsible behavior.

My decision to stop smoking was not based on my gaining a deeper understanding of my past. Through free will, I was able to modify my behavior by accepting reality and employing one of the most important of all responsible traits — self-discipline.

Whatever it is that you don’t like about your present life — business, personal, or otherwise — don’t sit around and blame it on the past. Just as important, don’t feel that you have to get at the deeply rooted, underlying causes of your problems.

I don’t know you personally, but I’m willing to bet you can tell the difference between right and wrong. I would also wager that you can differentiate between responsible and irresponsible behavior. And I have absolutely no doubt that you, as a human being blessed with the awesome faculty of free will, have the capacity to take action — today — to do the right thing.

No matter how smart you may think that loyal pooch lying on the floor next to your chair is, the reality is that he can’t do anything to change his existence. Having no free will, his destiny is to serve his master all his life.

Though I recognize that you may not own a canine, I brought man’s best friend into the picture to graphically remind you of just how fortunate you are to be a human being. To not exploit the unique gift you possess to alter your life for the better is to drastically short-change yourself.

Free will is the gift that keeps on giving. The only question is whether or not the recipient chooses to use it wisely.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.