Over the centuries many theorists have attempted to explain human behaviors and also to propose methods of helping others. The reality therapy model is just one such example of a theory that establishes a framework for helping guide people in the best way possible through their troubles, based on what we know about human behavior and cognition. First conceptualized by William Glasser in 1965, reality therapy is a theoretical framework for counseling and psychotherapy (Eilders, 2014). With the goal of helping clients take responsibility for their actions, reality therapy uses eight specific steps to build rapport and make progress with the client (Eilders, 2014). There are several key assumptions made by the reality therapy model that make it an effective and highly cognitive psychotherapy model that is still used by therapists today.
Like other forms of therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and social learning theory, reality therapy helps clients find healthier ways of expressing themselves in their behavior and meet their needs more effectively (Eilders, 2014). According to William Glasser, people are motivated to act in order to have basic needs of belonging, power, freedom, fun, and survival met (Eilders, 2014). This is a key assumption of reality therapy and without it the theory would crumble. Glasser asserted that individuals lose perspective in terms of what behaviors are acceptable and what behaviors are problematic, which causes them to fall into self-destructive patterns (Eilders, 2014). The purpose of reality therapy, then, is to teach clients how to behave appropriately so that their needs will be met in a healthy – rather than maladaptive – way.
There are six key assumptions made by reality therapy that set the foundation for the specific interventions and methods that reality therapists use in their work with clients. The first is that there is no such thing as mental illness, so formal diagnoses are not necessary (Eilders, 2014). This assumption is bold and goes against the grain within the mental health and psychological community. However, it is an important point that illustrates the weight that reality therapists place on behaviors and coping skills. If an individual is suffering from anxiety or depression symptoms, for example, then it is because he or she is not behaving in a way that is healthy, productive, and getting those individual needs met. It should be noted however, that this theory is not widely accepted, especially in cases of severe mental illness such as schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. Yet, despite the concern that reality therapy does not take into account the lack of influence willpower has over severe organic psychosis, studies have found evidence that shows that reality therapy is indeed effective in treating schizophrenia (Bradley, 2014; Wubbolding, 2015). Though reality therapy makes so bold assumptions, its applications have been empirically supported.
The second assumption made by reality therapy is that it works in the present and dismisses events that happen in the past (Eilders, 2014). According to reality therapy, no matter what traumas or frustrations were experienced in the past, it is one’s behaviors in the present that dictate how one feels, thinks, and perceives the world. Therefore, even if someone was abused as a child, lashing out at the world or engaging in self-destructive behaviors such as drug abuse are not going to erase the abuse or heal the person. Instead, it is crucial that the individual learn how to behave in a healthy way so as to take care of him/herself. The third assumption is that the concept of transference is false (Eilders, 2014). Reality therapists do not believe that clients view therapists as an authority figure or that past emotions can be projected onto the therapist.
The fourth assumption of reality therapy is completely contrary to Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis. Reality theorists reject the idea that the unconscious mind (or Freud’s id) is responsible for conscious behaviors (Eilders, 2014). Rather, reality theorists put the responsibility entirely on the client’s waking mind and conscious decisions, desires, thoughts, and emotions. The fifth assumption of reality therapy is that the morality of one’s behavioral decisions is extremely important (Eilders, 2014). By helping clients discover what their own moral values are, reality therapists go a long way to establishing a concrete and lasting behavior pattern that will provide the client with healthy, happy results in life. Because morality is an internal motivator, it is one of the most powerful motivators of healthy behavior. Additionally, helping a client to discover his or her own morality is another way to help the individual discover and satisfy his or her intrinsic needs and wants in life. Finding moral connectedness within oneself is a powerful desire that only afflicts human beings. Clients must get in touch with the basic premises that make them uniquely human in order to satisfy all of their needs and desires. The final assumption of reality therapy is that “reality therapy teaches individuals better ways to fulfill their needs and more appropriate (and more successful) ways to deal with the world” (Eilders, 2014). This is perhaps the most important assumption, because it places such a heavy emphasis on the fact that anything that a client is facing and perceiving as a challenge in life can be overcome just by the individual making specific changes for the better.
Many people have elaborated on or further developed the practice of reality therapy over the years. For instance, Wubbolding developed the WDEP system “to help facilitate the ability of the clients to identify their needs and wants, thereby enabling them to meet their therapeutic goals” (Bhargava, 2013, p. 389). The WDEP system goes through four stages: want, doing, evaluate, and plan (Bhargava, 2013). This essentially means that the therapist guides the client through a process of first identifying what it is specifically that the client wants at the present moment, followed by identifying what the client is doing to achieve that desire (Bhargava, 2013). Next the client and therapist perform an evaluation of whether what the client is doing is working (Bhargava, 2013). If it is not, then the client and therapist generate a plan that will help the client meet his or her needs and desires with healthy, self-supporting behaviors (Bhargava, 2013). The WDEP procedure has been found to be successful with a number of different types of clients.
In fact, in a recent study, researchers found that the WDEP method is an excellent method of intervention that can be used successfully with couples in order to improve their communication skills (Mahaffey & Wubbolding, 2016). Mahaffey and Wubbolding have recently combined the tenets of reality therapy with the communication model in order to develop an intervention methodology for marriage and family therapists to use with couples. The researchers found that the technique was useful in helping couples with “establishing alliances, processing insights, and maintaining a therapeutic environment” so that information could be processed in a healthy fashion in therapy (Mahaffey & Wubbolding, 2016, p. 38). This therapeutic technique takes into account all of the assumptions of reality therapy while also providing a systematic procedure for helping a client through a problem. Though reality therapy makes some bold and somewhat radical assumptions compared with other theoretical models, it has been shown to be quite effective with a variety of populations. Together, the basic assumptions and clear procedures for conducting reality therapy establish a precise framework for the model and allow for any license therapist to easily adopt and implement the theory.
- Bhargava, R. (2013). The use of reality therapy with a depressed deaf adult. Clinical Case Studies, 12(5), 388-396.
- Bradley, E. L. (2014). Choice theory and reality therapy: An overview. International Journal of Choice Theory and Reality Therapy, 24(1), 6-13.
- Eilders, T. (2014). Reality therapy. Salem Press Encyclopedia of Health. Ipswich, MA: Salem Press.
- Mahaffey, B. A. & Wubbolding, R. (2016). Applying reality therapy’s WDEP tenets to assist couples in creating new communication strategies. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 24(1), 38-43.
- Wubbolding, R. E. (2015). The voice of William Glasser: Accessing the continuing evolution of reality therapy. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 37(3), 189-205.