Taking Charge of Your Life

Why Reality Therapy Changed the World, Mine Anyway

Updated 7 weeks ago David Stone
William Glasser
William Glasser
Photo Credit: Brother Bulldog / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Do you have an idea about how to live that you trust enough to count on it to clarify and strengthen your choices as you go through the day, decision after decision?

It's personal, but I'll share. I'm guided what I learned from William Glasser’s Reality Therapy many years ago.


Reality Therapy: The Gift of Taking Responsibility

William Glasser's mold-crashing Reality Therapy, based on the idea that our decisions influence what happens in our lives more than than fate, divine intervention, accidents or anything else, hovers in the back of my mind like a wise uncle, always there, a reliable reminder.

The announcement of Glasser's death in August, 2013, reminded me how much I gained from reading his groundbreaking, but instantly common sensical ideas when I was still young and pliable enough to absorb them as a daily practice.

In the long brooding shadow of Freud, stretching darkly into the second half of the Twentieth Century, nobody talked back to the Austrian Prince of Phobias like William Glasser did.

I must have been ready for it.  Reality Therapy: A New Approach to Psychiatry was an antidote for the virus of Freudian analysis that influenced the way my friends, especially those hooked on their “problems,” looked at their lives.

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 what was then called "a difficult childhood" and adjusting to growing into the tumultuous 1960s, I found Freud's characterization of unhappy people as victims of their pasts, not fully responsible for themselves as adults, too easy and a crutch guaranteed to keep them injured for life.

But Glasser's,"Good or bad, whatever we do is our best choice at that moment,” scored with me.

It threw the past away in favor tackling today immediately as we found it.

In Reality Therapy, everyone is responsible for his or her own happiness. You've got nobody to blame. It’s a kind of empowerment not everyone really wants.

Reality Therapy and Choice Theory

Reality Therapy evolved over the years 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 might not be for everybody — and Glasser was always outside the mainstream, fighting the Freudian tide of victimization — but it resonates with me.

Blazing a Trail

Born in 1925, when Freud's theories about our inner lives, our ids, egos and superegos were revolutionizing the way people understood themselves and 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 quickly learned the profession was not for him. He was not happy in it, and so, he did what any smart reality therapist would do.

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

Developing his then radical ideas during his residency at a Veterans Administration hospital, he argued in favor of personal responsibility and became grounded as a passionate anti-Freudian.

The result:

"I was thrown off the staff,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1984.

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

Reality Therapy, The Book - Taking 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, his theories were well-developed enough that he was able to pull them together in his first book. I read it a few years later.

Taking responsibility for my life excited me. It bugged me to think my fate was in anyone else's hands - or in some rendition of a remembered past.

It was thrill to find a teacher, even at the distance of a book, who made sense of my own intuition and learning about how to live.

Although writing stories had been my dream since I was old enough to put together a grown up vision for myself, I even thought about becoming a psychotherapist.

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

Nothing conventional was in my future, but what I learned from Glasser and Reality Therapy guided me from then on.

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With a Guide in My Pocket

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

His method was simple and clear.

You can not 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 was being allowed to infect the present.

Realty Therapy and Life Lessons

There was more, of course.

Once the idea that you were in charge of your own happiness was understood, reality therapists counseled on how to make wise decisions toward the future, never forgetting that 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 was 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. I deserved it.

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."

It's 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.

When you've got a problem, 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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