Reality therapy

Written by Emily Whitton
Emily Whitton
Counselling Directory Content Team

Last updated 7th November 2022 | Next update due 6th November 2025

Reality therapy is a person-centred approach that focuses on the here and now rather than issues from the past. It is used to help people take control of their behaviour, as well as the world around them.

Ultimately, reality therapists take the view that changing what we do is key to changing how we feel and getting what we want.

What is reality therapy?

Developed by William Glasser in the 1960s, reality therapy (also known as choice therapy) promotes problem-solving and making better choices in order to achieve specific goals. 

Central to reality therapy is the idea that mental distress is not the result of a mental illness, but rather due to a person's behaviours. Instead, psychological symptoms are the result of a socially universal human condition that occurs when an individual has not had their basic psychological needs met. 

These basic needs are:   

  • love and belonging
  • power and achievement
  • survival (nourishment and shelter etc.)
  • freedom and independence
  • fun (enjoyment and pleasure)

According to Glasser, whether we are aware of it or not, we are all the time acting to meet these needs. While we may struggle to choose our feelings and physiology, we are able to directly choose our thoughts and actions. Sometimes, however, we don’t act effectively, and this can have negative repercussions for our health and well-being. It argues that our needs should, therefore, be met through our chosen actions and behaviours, not external factors. 

Reality therapy is designed to find ways of meeting a person's basic needs, whilst facilitating clients to become aware of, and change, negative thoughts and actions.

It is important to note that reality therapy is controversial as it rejects the diagnosis of mental health conditions, saying people choose to have negative emotions. It states that psychological distress is not caused by mental health problems but, rather, when basic needs are unfulfilled. 

How does reality therapy work? 

Reality therapy is a collaborative process between therapist and client, and it is unique in the sense that it is ongoing. This means that if one plan of action fails, new ones will continuously be devised until the therapist and client are both confident that positive results are taking place, or are a near possibility. 

The practice of reality therapy depends on several key components:

The counsellor-client connection

A reality therapy counsellor must create and nurture a trusting environment and authentic relationship to ensure their client(s) feels connected and comfortable about sharing his or her issues. Providing a setting in which individuals can relate in an open way is considered the foundation of, and the most important step in the practice of reality therapy.

Choice theory 

The successful application of reality therapy also depends heavily on the counsellor's knowledge of Glasser's choice theory - that human behaviour is chosen and driven by our five basic needs. By asking questions such as "What do you want?" or "What are you doing to get what you want?" counsellors can help individuals to explore what needs are not being met and how to go about developing realistic goals to remedy the issues. 

Present behaviour 

Reality therapy is focused on the here and now and dealing with present behaviour rather than reasons for it. This heavy focus on the present can add to its controversy. Excuses are believed to stand directly in the way of progress and change, therefore clients are discouraged from discussing any problems, complaints, or symptoms. Instead, emphasis is placed primarily on the actions and thoughts that are within the individual's control, rather than blaming or trying to control others. 

Value judgement 

A reality therapy counsellor will typically conduct an honest evaluation of the client's current choices and behaviours to determine what (if any) change is needed to help them achieve their goals. Once the individual judges that their present behaviour is unacceptable, the counsellor can help them to devise a plan of action, setting realistic goals and outlining the steps that need to be taken to make these solutions a reality. 

Plan of action 

A plan of action in reality therapy enables the individual to take control of their lives in constructive ways whilst they fulfil their wants and needs. It involves their absolute commitment and they must take responsibility for their actions if they do not fulfil this. The counsellor will evaluate the client's progress throughout therapy and may suggest amendments where necessary. A plan is always open to revision or rejection by the client.   

Benefits of reality therapy 

The strengths of reality therapy lie in its focus on solution-building - particularly on changing thoughts and actions. It provides individuals with a self-help tool to gain more effective control over their lives and their relationships - helping to boost their confidence and self-esteem and enabling them to better cope with adversity and grow personally. 

This approach can prove useful in treating highly sensitive problems such as racial issues, sexual identity issues and cultural clashes. These can all cause division and tension, but reality therapy can help bridge the gap between intolerance and ignorance - helping individuals to recognise how their behaviour is negative and promoting equality. 

Additionally, reality therapy has proven successful at helping colleagues, families and other individuals in specific relationships to better understand difficult situations - such as if someone they love is diagnosed with AIDS or has admitted to an addiction.

What can reality therapy help with?

Key areas that reality therapy can help with are relationships and helping children through difficulties in school. Other areas include:

  • wanting to strengthen communication
  • looking to improve mood
  • learning coping strategies
  • recognising and addressing negative behaviours 

Reality therapy provides an empathetic and understanding environment for individuals to open up without feeling shame, regret or embarrassment. This makes it especially valuable for big groups as everyone can express their needs and desires in order to lay the foundation for a plan of action that will help foster closer bonds, better understanding and improved conflict resolution.   

If you're looking to try this approach to therapy, you can browse our reality therapy counsellors on Counselling Directory. We recommend reaching out to a few to find one that best suits you. 

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