Reality Therapy: Embrace change and find peace


One of the most influential therapists in history, William Glasser developed Reality Therapy to help people get unstuck and make meaningful changes. His theory on choice is that we have three choices when faced with a situation: resistance (where you want nothing), accommodation (changing what’s happening) or integration into life’s structure – which means letting go so it can be lived fully as part of your story.

by David Stone

Assorted Ideas, Large & Small

Reality Therapy: A Gift for Taking Responsibility

William Glasser’s mold-crashing Reality Therapy hovers in the back of my mind like a wise uncle, always there. Decisions influence our lives more than fate, accidents or anything else.

Glasser’s death, in August, 2013, reminded me how much I gained from reading his groundbreaking ideas. I was still young and pliable enough to absorb them as a daily practice.

The long shadow of Freud stretched into the second half of the Twentieth Century. Nobody talked back to the Austrian Prince of Phobias like William Glasser did.

William Glasser, the man who pushed back against Freudians.

Other assorted ideas: Big Things We Don’t Know

Getting Into William Glasser’s Reality Therapy

I must have been ready for William Glasser Reality Therapy.

 Reality Therapy: A New Approach to Psychiatry was an antidote for the virus of Freudian analysis. Talk therapy, digging up memories, was a magic cure.

Everyone knew what a “Freudian slip” was, and wouldn’t you love to have a penny for every time somebody claimed (erroneously) that Freud said, “There are no accidents?”

Glasser Versus Freud

After finding my way through “a difficult childhood,” adjusting to growing up in the 1960s, I found Freud’s characterization of unhappy people as victims of their pasts too easy. It reopened wounds and prevented healing.

Good or bad, whatever we do is our best choice at that moment.

William Glasser

It threw the past away and tackled today as we found it.

In Reality Therapy, everyone is responsible for his or her own happiness. You have no one to blame. It’s empowerment not everyone really wants.

William Glasser Reality Therapy and Choice Theory

Reality Therapy evolved into Choice Theory (See Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom), based on the idea that we almost always have choices and the choices we make, not our circumstances, result in our being happy or unhappy.

It wasn’t for everybody. Glasser was always outside the mainstream, fighting the Freudian tide of victimization, but it resonated with me.

Blazing a Trail

Born in 1925, when Freud’s theories about our inner lives, our ids, egos and superegos revolutionized how people understood themselves, their families, friends and all those others filling up the planet, Glasser’s first career choice was chemical engineer.

But after getting his degree in 1945, he learned the profession was not for him. He was not happy in it, and he did what any smart reality therapist would do.

He returned to the same school, Case Western, and earned a degree in clinical psychiatry, four years later.

Developing his ideas during a residency at a Veterans Administration hospital, he argued in favor of personal responsibility. It established him as a passionate anti-Freudian.

“I was thrown off the staff.”

William Glasser, Los Angeles Times. 1984

 Freud was God, and Glasser a blasphemer, nothing rational about it.

Reality Therapy, The Book Takes A Rebel Stand

When Glasser published Reality Therapy, Freudian analysis was the law of the land.

It still is in most places, but Glasser tilted the field in the direction of common sense.

By 1965, he pulled his theories together in his first book. I read it a few years later.

Taking responsibility for my life excited me. Thinking my fate was in anyone else’s hands or in some rendition of a remembered past bugged me.

I was thrilled to find a teacher, even at the distance of a book, who made sense of my own intuition.

Eventually, I took a different track out of the Sixties.

Nothing conventional was in my future, and Glasser’s Reality Therapy guided me from then on.

With a Guide in My Pocket

You don’t have to settle for misery, Glasser taught.

His method was simple and clear.

You cannot change the past, he said. The only thing you can control in the pursuit of happiness is the immediate present.

Ask yourself what you can do, here and now, to make your life better. It’s always a choice.

This didn’t seem like therapy to me. It was common sense.

A valuable insight picked up from his book was that dredging the past to find the roots of unhappiness, as it was and is still being done in talk therapy, did little more than reinforce negative feelings without relieving them.

The past infects the present.

William Glasser Realty Therapy and Choice Theory: Life Lessons

There was more, of course.

Once the idea that you were in charge of your own happiness is understood, reality therapy urges wise decisions toward the future.

The only person you can control in a universe filled with others is you. Trying to find satisfaction by controlling anyone else or external circumstances is a waste of time and energy.

Probably the best lesson I learned about reality therapy and the wise use of choice came not from a counselor but from an executive director for whom I once worked.

John, who’d recruited me and guided my career, called me into his office because a serious conflict between me and another manager had blown up into an angry shouting match.

I expected to get my ass kicked, and I deserved it.

Reality Takes an Unexpected Turn

Instead of warning me about my temper, which certainly needed some work and still does, he told me a story from his own life.

Trapped in domestic turmoil of his own, he tried unsuccessfully to get his wife to go to marriage counseling. 

“I didn’t want to get divorced,” he told me. 

When his wife refused, he drove off to the appointment alone and got an unforgettable insight.

The counselor, a reality therapist to the core, explained, “Your wife’s not going to change, so if you want to stay married, you’ll have to.”

An insight I never forgot, and it made even more clear the wise advice I’d picked up as a teenager from none other than Levi Stubbs, lead singer in the Four Tops.

Stubbs, who may never have heard of Reality Therapy, told a story about his father in a recording from a live concert.

If he wanted change, his father told him, “Levi, you’re going to have to get up off your knees and do something about it.”

That was Reality Therapy, before the book. Better known as common sense and good advice.

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