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Reality therapy is a client-centered form of cognitive behavioral psychotherapy that focuses on improving present relationships and circumstances, while avoiding discussion of past events. This approach is based on the idea that our most important need is to be loved, to feel that we belong, and that all other basic needs can be satisfied only by building strong connections with others. Reality therapy teaches that while we cannot control how we feel, we can control how we think and behave. The goal of reality therapy is to help people take control of improving their own lives by learning to make better choices.

When It's Used

The principles of reality therapy can be applied to individual, parent-child, and family counseling. Studies have proven the effectiveness of reality therapy in treating addiction and other behavioral problems. It is also an approach that works with people in leadership positions in education, coaching, administration, and management, where problem solving, instilling motivation, and a focus on achievement play essential roles in their connection to others.

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What to Expect

Reality therapy focuses on present issues and current behavior as they affect you now and will affect your future. Little or no time is spent delving into the past. Since reality therapy is solution-oriented, you will examine how your behavior is interfering with your ability to form stronger relationships and figure out what kind of changes you can make in your behavior to get what you want out of life. You can learn how to reconnect with people from whom you have become disconnected and how to make new connections. If you try to make excuses or blame someone else for your behavior, the therapist will show you how that kind of thinking results in behavior that prevents you from improving relationships and reaching your goals. You have the opportunity to learn and practice new behavior and techniques in the privacy of the therapist’s office before you employ them in your life outside of therapy.

How It Works

Based on the work of psychiatrist William Glaser in the mid-1960s, reality therapy is founded on the idea that everyone is seeking to fulfill five basic needs, and mental health issues arise when any of these needs are not being met. The five basic needs are:

1) Power, or a sense of self-worth and achievement

2) Love and belonging, or being part of a family or community of loved ones

3) Freedom, or independence

4) Fun, which includes a sense of satisfaction or pleasure

5) Survival, or the comfort of knowing that one’s basic needs—food, shelter, and sex—are met.

When one or more of these needs go unfilled, the resulting problems occur in present time and in current relationships, so it makes sense to act and think in the present time. Reality therapy is also based on choice theory, the principle that humans choose to behave in certain ways and that these choices can help or hamper your ability to satisfy essential needs and reach individual goals. You cannot change or control others, so the only sensible approach to solving problems is to control yourself and your own behavior by making choices that help you achieve your life goals.

What to Look for in a Reality Therapist

Look for a licensed mental health professional, a cognitive behavioral therapist, or a counselor with training and experience in reality therapy and choice theory. In addition to checking credentials, it is important to find a reality therapist with whom you feel comfortable working.

Grant, Sheila K. Reality Therapy.(Powerpoint). California State University Northridge.  
William Glaser Institute website.  
Wubbolding RE, Brickell J, Imhof L, Kim RI, Lojk L, Al-Rashidi B. Reality therapy: A global perspective. September 2004;26(3):219-228 [Abstract]
Law FM, Guo GJ. Who is in charge of your recovery? The effectives of reality therapy for female drug offenders in Taiwan. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. 2014;58(6). First published online Feb 6, 2013.