Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Jane Bolton Psy.D., M.F.T.,
Jane Bolton Psy.D., M.F.T.,

How Reality Checking Can Save Your Life and Your Dreams

You can easily avoid one sure way to suffer

Introduction: My personal discovery of the need for reality checking

We've all heard the saying that when we assume, we make an ASS of U and ME. And when we feel like an ass we may feel shame, embarrassment and lowered self esteem. Then again, if when we're thinking someone else is an ass we can feel resentment, anger, disgust.

It may seem so obvious, but the truth is that at earlier points in my life, I didn't even know I was making any assumptions. I'll share with you about how I began to learn to reality check instead of "mind read."

When I was in my late twenties, I was living in a loft in the Mission District in San Francisco with my sculptor boyfriend. I had quit my job as gallery assistant director, agreed to let my two boys go on an extended visit with their father and his new wife, and had moved into the loft. All of this was to be able to build a sculpture concept I had in mind. My plan was to fabricate a ‘garden' of about twenty 8' high translucent plastic plants. I wanted the imagined viewers to have a dizzy, delighted sort of Alice-In-Wonderland feeling. But after all the changes I had made to be able to work full-force, I was not actually working at all.

So I was depressed and confused about my non-productivity: I had never been unable to produce before. I thought I was Ms. Productivity USA. I didn't know what was happening to me, but I knew I needed help to get back to my Producer Self. Since I ever-so-luckily come from a family that considers people who go into therapy as the cream-of-the-crop (Thank you, Mom), I went to a therapist.

The first lesson I learned about myself in therapy was that I was always trying to control myself. If I started to cry in session about missing my kids, I'd tilt my head back and widen my eyes in an attempt to keep the tears within the pockets of my eyelids. But if I couldn't control that, and a tear drooled over the edge, I would open up a Kleenex as far as I could and hide my face with it. I would also hold my breath in while simultaneously trying to push out. Whew! All this contortion to suppress any outward expression of sadness.

The next lesson I learned in therapy is how important it is to do "reality checking." The definition of 'reality check' from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary is: something that clarifies or serves as a reminder of reality, often by correcting a misconception. In fact some people consider reality checking a matter of "clarification."

From my current vantage point, it's hard to believe that at one time I didn't know there was such a thing as a reality check. When I first heard that phrase, I thought it meant someone was having hallucinations and needed to stop it. But, to validate myself, if you grow up in a family with the unspoken rules, "Do not think, do not feel, and certainly do not speak about your thoughts or feelings," you would not even conceive of sharing a feeling, thought, or belief about another person. Much less ask if it is really true.

As I explored my non-productivity and depression in therapy, I realized that I had made an assumption that, because my boyfriend was an artist, he would support my artistic ambitions. I had never asked him how he felt about my ambitions.

The Night of the Necklace changed that assumption. I love making unusual ornaments to wear to openings and other art functions. On The Night we are preparing to attend a museum opening. I happily put on my newly finished flashing silver Mylar necklace bedecked with silver vacuum-formed rat skulls and wispy fluttering feathers. (We artists dress outrageously so that the San Francisco Chronicle art reporters and photographers will want to shoot us.) As I put on my final makeup touches, I catch my boyfriend's angry eyes in the mirror. He asks me to take off the necklace. He says he does not want anything to detract from his getting attention. I am shocked. I comply - after all, his career is certainly more important than mine. (Yes, yes, it was many years ago.)

Now I am alerted. I begin to ask more questions about his desires. Lo and behold, I find that his vision of a perfect relationship is with someone who wants to cook and have more children with him, and not do any art work at all - ever. I soon leave my sculptor boyfriend and the loft. And my unproductiveness and depression leave me at the same time.

Never again would I not ask about what kind of a relationship another person wants before I actually enter one. I had learned the painful results of not doing a reality check.

Using the learnings of reality checking

I next experience the pleasurable results of reality checking. I've learned enough in my therapy to know that I need to learn respect for my feelings, and learning acting seems like a good way to learn that. I am now studying acting at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. A fellow classmate and friend, Abby, and I talk about getting an apartment near the company theatre.

A few weeks later, Abby and Sally (another actor friend) are visiting me. Abby mentions that she and Sally have looked at an apartment. Immediately, I assume that that means that Abby no longer wants to room with me. I am crushed. I want to keep quiet, pretend nothing is the matter. I also want to cry because I am so hurt at being left out and at the same time I want to make sure they don't know I am hurt. Being hurt means to me that I was admitting weakness. It means that I will be scorned by anyone who knows. Also, if I show my hurt they will feel guilty and I don't want them to feel bad.

With the painful lessons of past assumptions vibrating in me now, I breathe deeply, several times, and gather my courage to say something like, "Gee, does that mean that you no longer want to room with me?" I am (of course) looking at the floor, too scared to see the faces of derision I know will be there if I look up. "Oh, no", Alice blurts, "I was hoping that we could all room together so that the rent would be less." Luckily, I really like Sally and think it would be fun for the three of us to share a place. We end up spending two more fun and growth-filled years as we train.

Here's another example of how reality checking saves. Years later - okay, decades later - I am just starting to date a man I later married. He calls to ask if I have gotten an email he had sent: I hadn't. A few minutes later I get an email from him saying, "I don't know why you didn't get it. I resent it." Oh my God, I think. I wonder if he has an anger problem. I better check this out. (By this time, I had become a Gold Medal reality checker.) I very kindly ask, "What do you resent about my not getting your email?" He burst out laughing, "Re-sent. I meant I sent it to you again!"

Doing reality checks also has become terrifically important in my work as a psychotherapist. So many of our upsets with other people come from the tendency for us to think we know the meaning of what others say. But we are so often unable to see beyond the meaning that we ourselves have given to what they have said. So an excruciatingly important part of the making love through Deep Listening is practicing the reality check.

What reality checking looks like: "Did I get that right?"

The way reality checking appears is in saying an equivalent of "It seems to me that what you are saying is (fill in the blank - this is the mirroring part) and then, the reality check magic phrase: "Did I get that right?" Other examples of the reality check are: "Did I understand you?" or "Is this what you mean?" Then you wait for their answer.

Though you probably already know whether you got it 'right.' You can usually tell by the expression on their face. If you got it right they are pleased. If they are angry and/or hurt, you might notice their face softening. They often nod their head up and down as you are talking. If you didn't get it right (and there are so many reasons for this) you can tell that too. They usually get even more upset as they see how you are stating your misinterpretation of them, rather than what they meant. We humans so long to be understood, to be recognized for who we are. So having our feelings, or intentions, or our reasons misunderstood can be terribly painful.

Avoiding the waste of not reality checking our assumptions

The idea of - or the fact of - wasting our potential makes me very sad. And not using reality checking can contribute to a terrible throwing away of the love and joy that is available to us.

Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh in his book True Love: A Practice for Awaking the Heart provides an instructive story of the devastation that can occur when we omit reality checking. In the story, a man has to leave his pregnant wife to go to war. Two years later he returns home and tries to get his toddler son to call him Daddy. The little boy refuses saying, "You are not my Daddy. My Daddy is somebody else. He visits us every night and my mommy talks to him every night and very often she cries with him. And every time my mommy sits down, he sits down too. Every time she lies down, he lies down too." As he listens, the man's heart turns to stone; he starts staying out nights drinking and returning only in the wee hours.

The young woman's suffering is so great that she throws herself in the river and drowns. When the husband hears of this he returns home. That night he lights the night time lamp. When his son sees the light, he excitedly points to the shadow of his father on the wall. "Mister, mister, it's my Daddy: he's come back." All along his wife had been crying to her husband in her imagination, "You must come back home soon." And when she would sit down, the shadow would sit. When she would sit down lie down, the shadow would lie down. The man's misperceptions were cleared up, but it was too late.


I agree with Thick Nhat Hanh as he remarks, "I do not want you to make the same mistake in your everyday life. We are subject to misperceptions every day, so we have to pay attention. . . . You must always check things out by going to the person in question."

I am dedicated to helping all people live life to the fullest. And we can't do that without reality checking.

Artist's Way Groups Website:

About the Author
Jane Bolton Psy.D., M.F.T.,

Jane Bolton, Psy.D., M.F.T., is a supervising and training analyst and adjunct professor at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles.