Choice Theory and Reality Therapy

What is Counseling with Choice Theory and Reality Therapy?

We’ve come a long way since Sigmund Freud assumed that a goal of therapy was to “transform neurotic misery into common unhappiness.” Similar to all counseling approaches, Choice Theory and Reality Therapy also begin with sets of assumptions (But not Freud's above), which are then used to clarify therapeutic goals that the patient determines.

These initial assumptions seem to come in groups of threes; that is, the goals and obstacles that often propel people into counseling tend to contain three dominant themes that express themselves along a spectrum of importance.

On our home page, you immediately encountered this principle of threes. Ideas of meaning, identity, and purpose are presented as essential facets of our human experience, and it is not uncommon to be frustrated by a lack of them in our lives.

Let’s look at some of these guiding assumptions.

  1. Most people want to lead more effective lives, and most of us encounter three fundamental frustrations: Thwarted Intentions, Unfulfilled Expectations, and Undelivered Communications.
  2. Most people initially come to counseling for one or more of three reasons: The want a witness to their suffering; they seek a fuller understanding of their distress; or, they intend to make specific and measurable changes to their lives.
  3. Counseling with Choice Theory and Reality Therapy holds that our fundamental Basic Needs are often not meaningfully met (most of us don’t even know the names of our needs); that we can easily learn how to more-effectively meet these needs by investigating our perceptions and behavior; and (three), our behavior is almost always purposeful and goal-directed, believed at that moment to be the behavior most likely to satisfy a perception that our needs are being met, or to soothe the distress provoked by our unmet needs.

Think of Choice Theory as the track, and Reality Therapy as the train. Choice Theory is the underlying philosophy and organization of ideas of how we create motivation, meaning, identity, and purpose, and Reality Therapy is the methods and techniques by which Choice Theory is translated into practice  - and our collaborative counseling sessions.

Choice Theory and Reality Therapy fall within the discipline known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Of course, other CBT techniques are continually woven throughout this process, as Choice Theory and Reality Therapy recognize CBT approaches contain many similarities. Key among these similarities are that people share universal, fundamental needs that interact with their environment and their experience; that our “reality” is often a flexible perception; and that we are an extraordinarily creative species, capable of re-inventing our lives.

Psychoeducation – behavioral teaching – is a major component of counseling with Choice Theory and Reality Therapy, and this emphasis upon extending our sessions into a personal classroom is a unique feature of this approach. Let’s create a mini classroom right now. Like many theories, Choice Theory has Axioms – elements of logic held as true.

Here are The Ten Axioms of Choice Theory:

  1. The only person’s behavior I can control is my own.
  2. I am driven by five basic, genetic needs: Survival (Safety), Love and Belonging, Power (Significance), Freedom, and Fun. These needs are the building blocks of my “Quality World.”
  3. I can satisfy these needs only by satisfying a picture or pictures in my Quality World. Of all I know, what I choose to put in my Quality World is most important.
  4. All I can do from birth to death is behave. All behavior is “Total” behavior, comprised of four inseparable and simultaneously active components: Acting, Thinking, Feeling, and Physiology.
  5. All total behavior is designated by verbs: For example, I am choosing to anxiety, or anxietying, instead of I am suffering from anxiety.
  6. All total behavior is chosen, but I have direct control only over the acting (doing) component and my thinking I can only control my feelings and physiology indirectly, through how I choose to think and act.
  7. All I can give or get from people is information. How I deal with that information is my choice.
  8. All long-lasting psychological problems are relationship problems.
  9. The problem relationship is always part of my present life.
  10. What happened in the past that was painful has a great deal to do with who I am today, but continually revisiting this painful past can contribute little or nothing to what I need to do now: Improve or create an important, present relationship.

This can feel like a lot, and you don’t have to agree with everything. Please keep in mind, you get to decide where you wish to begin. With Choice Theory, we learn to trust the process, and make the journey itself the goal.

Reality Therapy at a Glance

Reality Therapy has a four-point approach summarized by a useful acronym, WDEP. Established as a helpful tool for self-evaluation, these four letters are framed as questions:

  • What do you Want?
  • What are you currently Doing to get it?
  • Is what you are doing helping or hurting you get what you want (Self-Evaluation)?
  • What is your Plan? Can you do something differently? How hard are you willing to work for it?

“What do you want” is a difficult question. All wants are related to our basic needs and appear to be genuinely helpful to the person. In the first couple sessions, we begin clarifying our wants – and in the process learn more about ourselves – by being specific.

What Do You Want From? (Is this realistic and attainable?):

  • These sessions together
  • Yourself
  • The world around you
  • Parents, teachers, school
  • Friends, relatives, partner
  • Job, manager, co-workers
  • Acquaintances
  • Religion, spirituality
  • Any institution that impinges on your life

What Do You Want For(Is this realistic and attainable?):

  • Your family and individual members of it
  • Your own personal growth
  • Your career, financial status
  • Your intellectual life
  • Your recreational time
  • Your spiritual discovery

What Do You Want to Avoid? (What is your Plan to do this?)

Motivation: How hard do you want to work to get what you want?

  1. “I want the outcome, but not the effort.” (“I want to be rich, so I bought a lottery ticket”).
  2. I will do my best. (Intentionality).
  3. I will do whatever it takes. (Commitment).

What Are You Doing Now to Get It? Is that working? (Self-Evaluation)

The Big Question
(The “D” of WDEP): “What would you be doing now, if you were doing what you want, getting what you want, and having your needs met?”

WDEP looks simple, but it is a sophisticated inquiry that allows us to begin the process of re-evaluating our choices and our lives. As Dr. William Glasser, the architect of Choice Theory and Reality Therapy gently reminded us, “Unhappy people evaluate others. Happy people evaluate themselves.”

Let’s begin.

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