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Reality Therapy and Pagans


Turning Freudian Psychoanalysis on its head, reality therapy asks the question “what if we control ourselves? What if we could change ourselves?” Built on control and choice therapy, reality therapists work with clients in a teacher/student relationship to determine the wants of an individual, and how their behavior is getting them closer or further away from their true desires. An action-oriented, rather than insight-oriented approach, reality therapy avoids diagnosis, dwelling on the past, and the unconscious. Rather the approach helps clients identify what they can change and how they might go about doing it.

Salvador Dali

The Historical Context

With the onset of post-modernism, traditional modes of therapy were re-evaluated for effectiveness. People began to understand themselves as influencing the world around them, rather than being products of their biology or psychology. The sixties saw a rise in individualism, which the old establishment saw as the end of the world. With the focus on the individual’s experience came the idea that individuals exerted choice and determined their own destiny. This coincided with the rise in feminism as women began making new choices, rather than accepting traditional roles.

The Major Contributors

  • William Glasser: Born in 1925, Glasser studied chemical engineering before he turned to psychology. He rejected the Freudian model after seeing psychoanalysts at work, who held people responsible for their behavior. By 1962, he had the basics for his own reality therapy, which was an expansion of control therapy (Corey).
  • Robert Wubbolding: He worked to make choice theory practical and useable by counselors, and has implemented a system for teaching reality therapy (Corey).

Key Concepts

  • Reality therapists believe the underlying problem of most clients is their pursuit of genetically encoded needs: survival, love and belonging, power or achievement, freedom or independence, and fun. Most important is the pursuit of love and belonging in relationships.
  • Choice theory says that we are not blank slates waiting to be written on: it is based on the premise that we choose things that feel good and help us get what we want.
  • Clients are motivated to change when their present behavior is not getting them what they want and when they believe that they can choose other behaviors to get them closer to what they want (Corey).
  • Quality world: a file of storage in our brains of people, places, activities, beliefs, possessions and situations that fulfill our needs. A therapist should help clients define this quality world and create a relationship in which they are a part of it.
  • We choose all of our behavior, including “paining” behaviors because they serve our needs at the time and help us get what we want. Glasser suggests that saying we are anxious, have a headache or are angry “implies passivity and lack of personal responsibility, and it is inaccurate.” Because we choose these, we are more accurately “anxietying”, “headaching” or “angrying” (Corey).
  • The focus is on the present and the things we can change, such as our ideas and behaviors. They are modified to get to those basic needs. Therapists deal with clients “as if” they have choices, and focus on those areas in which they do. The therapist is firm and confronting, but gentle. They act as mentors and teachers.
  • Reality therapists avoid focusing on diagnosis or symptoms, and challenge the traditional view of mental illness.
  • Therapists utilize the WDEP system of reality therapy.

o   Wants: exploring wants, needs, and perceptions. All wants are related to the five basic needs. Together, clients and therapists explore the quality world of clients, and how their behavior moves them closer to their inner wants.

o   Direction and Doing: focuses on what clients are actively doing now in their lives, and the overall direction of their lives. Talk of feelings and emotion is only useful if it relates to what they are doing.

o   Evaluation: asking clients to self-evaluate. The client examines their direction, actions, wants, perceptions and plans. Counselors encourage clients to look at the quality of their actions and help them make effective choices. During the course of therapy, clients will learn to make decisions with less and less help from the counselor.

o   Planning and Action: helping clients identify specific ways to fulfill their wants and needs. This occurs after clients are ready to change. They explore behavior options and come up with an action plan. These plans can be modified if needed. Clients still must accept the consequences of their actions and choices. Plans should be simple, attainable, measurable, immediate, controlled by the planner, committed to, and continuously done.

  • Therapists express concern about client’s level of commitment to encourage clients to take control of their lives. Non-committed clients should explore their fear of failing. Ultimately, the therapist supports the client in making better choices, even if they are not always successful in completing their plans.

Evaluation of the Theory from My Religious Perspective

As a Wiccan, I highly value many of the concepts in this theory. Spell work is a major component of Wiccan practice. Esbats encourage practitioners to identify their wants and needs and how they are getting there, and the spells allow them to make plans and implement change (all spells have a practical side, in which you actually go out and be the change you wish to see). The mantra of personal responsibility is important to Wiccans and reality therapists alike. This is the kind of therapy that Wiccans already do for each other, but they include other aspects such as catharsis, dream interpretation, and an exploration of the inner landscape (or quality world, I suppose). Reality therapy ignores the spiritual component of people, which I think is a mistake, but perhaps it is included in the basic needs. One’s relationship with their chosen divinity is important, and the nature of it may cause problems that can be addressed in light of this therapy.


Corey, G; Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy. 8th edition. Thompson Books. 2009.

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