What is reality testing and why is it important?

Reality testing is a concept initially devised by Sigmund Freud which is used by some therapists to assist clients in distinguishing their internal thoughts, feelings and ideas from the events, which are based within reality.


In other words, it is the ability to see a situation for what it really is, rather than what one hopes or fears it might be. However the need for reality testing extends beyond a therapeutic setting and the need to appropriately distinguish our inner world from reality is something, which occurs in everyday life.

Examples of reality testing

Example - “I just said good morning to Jane in the hall this morning, but she didn’t answer. She must be mad at me for something I have done.”

Reality - There may be many other explanations for this. She didn’t see you, she was deep in thought or she is grumpy today and has a lot on her mind.

Example - I just failed my first exam of the year. This must mean that I am now bound to fail the rest of my exams as well.”

Reality - Failing at something initially, does not equate to a pattern of failure, and does not mean that things cannot improve or change in the future.

What is the purpose of reality testing?

The purpose of reality testing is to help see a situation as it really is, rather than to see what you hope or fear it might be. 

Why is reality testing important?

We all have thoughts and ideas, which can at points feel dominating, controlling or overwhelming and it can be easy for us to imagine the worst-case scenario. During times when we experience feelings and worries at a heightened level, we can begin to think negatively. Below I have listed some of the reasons that reality testing is important in our everyday lives.

  • It allows us to distinguish between what is real and what isn’t.
  • It allows us to judge situations appropriately.
  • Allows us to notice our own feelings and what they mean.
  • Gives us a basis of comparison.
  • Allows us to improve how we react to situations.

How do I reality test?

The ability to reality test in everyday situations can be learnt, and it is entirely possible to gain a new way of understanding our thought processes. Below are some ways in which we can reality test.

Be objective

  • See a situation from as many angles as possible.
  • Take time to make a judgement about a situation, avoid rushing in with immediate thoughts.
  • Remember that other people have their own thoughts and feelings regarding situations, and it is entirely possible you have misread the situation.

Think and then react

  • Consider how you emotionally react to a situation.
  • Are you reacting too greatly or not enough?
  • Think about how much emotion or feeling each situation truly requires.
  • Notice themes and patterns in your life, and work toward adjusting how you react.

Seek external perspectives

  • If a situation occurs, and you are unsure which feeling to attribute to it - ask a friend for their perspective.
  • Take a moment to consider the possible outcomes or meanings before coming to a conclusion.
  • Remember, that you do not need to react right away and that sometimes silence or time to reflect can be beneficial.

What happens if I don’t reality test?

If we do not give ourselves time to fact-check our thoughts we allow the negative and damaging thoughts to seep in, and do not give ourselves the chance to check whether or not they are true, have validity or more importantly, whether they actually matter. Some difficulties which can arise in not reality testing are below.

  • Increased belief in a negative thought about ourselves.
  • Become overwhelmed by thoughts.
  • Convince ourselves we may be to blame for another person's actions.
  • Getting caught up in the dynamics of another person's thoughts.
  • We may decide to act differently due to how we perceive other people's reactions to us.

What are the benefits of paying attention to how we react?

It is true to say that the more we think of a situation or experience the bigger and more dominant it can become. Therefore, being mindful of our thoughts, ideas and reactions to situations can be useful in assisting us in determining the validity of a situation or how much time or energy we should be giving to it. Listed below are some of the benefits of paying attention to how we react.

  • We gain a deeper awareness of our own minds and our true thoughts and experiences.
  • We dwell on immediate problems less and can apply this to future situations.
  • We are able to negotiate more appropriately the situations which we know cause us irritation or distress.
  • We are empowered to see wider possibilities and remove ourselves from situations that can be drawn out and unhelpful.
  • We can notice what we are focusing on and refocus our attention elsewhere if necessary.

If you find that any of the above resonates with you personally, and you can at times be overwhelmed by difficult thoughts or feelings that you are unsure how to change or avoid, then you could benefit from speaking with a qualified therapist or counsellor. The therapeutic space will allow you to explore your reactions to situations, and your thought processes and give you the tools you need to better understand how to react appropriately to situations.

We will inevitably experience difficulties in our lives, and find ourselves in situations we do not fully understand, or find overwhelming. However, by taking a moment to consider our reactions, and placing our thoughts and feelings firmly in reality, we are able to distinguish our internal thoughts from the real world. 

To find out more about reality testing and how it can benefit you when you're feeling confused or overwhelmed, use our advanced search to find a therapist. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London N6 & NW5
Written by Joshua Miles, BA, MSc, BPC, BACP Accredited Psychodynamic Psychotherapist
London N6 & NW5

Joshua's an experienced Integrative Therapist with an individual approach, who's worked with people to explore their internal thoughts & assisted them in distinguishing between what is real and what isn't. He has helped people become more in touch with their thought processes, thoughts & feelings & worked with them to change patterns in their lives

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