With an interest in psychology and in lifelong personal development, I was recently introduced to Choice Theory, which is a counselling theory developed by an American Psychologist Dr. William Glasser. Out of the many counselling theories this is practical and really seems to embrace responsible living. I found Glasser’s ‘Counseling With Choice Theory. The New Reality Therapy.’ an interesting and well delivered read in which he demonstrates his developed Choice Theory in action as he counsels clients.
Reality Therapy focuses on client’s responsibility for their own actions, by choosing to act and think more effectively, to better satisfy their five basic needs: love and belonging, power, fun, survival, and freedom. This is the framework of William Glasser’s five basic needs we all have in common.
Glasser insists that we choose essentially everything we do and that the main cause of most symptoms is a lack of satisfying current close relationships or a conflict within one, a need for love and belonging, which according to him is as equal as our need for survival. Although he doesn’t dismiss clients complaints and gives them time to explain how they feel, he will also work towards choosing different, more need-satisfying actions and thoughts. This is the responsible living part for me – every individual being responsible for their thoughts, behaviors and emotions. Asking ourselves during moments of adversity and conflict – are my thoughts helpful or unhelpful in this moment and what decisions am I making as a result of these thoughts and emotions? Glasser notes in the book that one of our most important basic needs – love and belonging – can only be satisfied in the present, so Reality Therapy focuses almost exclusively on the here and now, and that we are not the victims of our past over which we have limited control, unless we presently choose to be. Glasser’s type of counselling is not about digging in the past and he notes that “it was bad enough when it happened”, but adding that questions about the past are justified if they deal with an important present issue or when the focus is on past successes. As this type of therapy focuses on choices, he notes that choosing to feel bad is not a very good choice, and this is another reason he doesn’t talk about the past, where those choices occurred. He is a reality therapist and maintains to remain in reality. The reason clients look for help or end up in therapy is that they have chosen to feel bad and that hasn’t helped them feel better. I like his technique of looking at yesterday: “You chose what you did all day yesterday – did you feel good or bad? How many more days like that do you want?”
Glasser’s Reality Therapy suggests that clients are not sick, but are responsible for their behavior. Clients should not be labeled mentally ill, as it disempowers them and inhibits from helping themselves, as it is seen as something external to them. Instead, the focus is on control over ourselves, our own choices and future.
So, external control psychology is the psychology very widely used to control and manipulate others, our relationships, events, and circumstances. It includes the use of Glasser’s identified seven deadly habits in relationships: criticizing, blaming, complaining, nagging, threatening, punishing, and bribing or rewarding to control. I will come back to the concepts of External Control Psychology, and External Power, in my future blogs, as the use of these have so desperately infested our interactions with people and the world, and is consciously or unconsciously used daily by people in our lives.
Glasser’s total behavior concept is made up of four distinct but inseparable components: acting, thinking, feeling and physiology. He insists that all we can really choose are our actions and thoughts. It seems we have far less control over our feelings than we think, although it is our option to observe and choose our thoughts. Choice Theory suggests that clients end up in therapy mainly because of their feelings and physiology (symptoms). The various symptoms clients choose reduce their pain, as they would suffer more if they didn’t choose them, but with the help of Choice Theory, they can adopt lifelong skills of choosing better thoughts and actions. In Choice Theory, verbs are the only part of speech than should be used to describe symptoms, as they are chosen behaviors, for example obsessing and compulsing, depressing, suiciding, addicting and so on. Symptoms keep us company and are often chosen to avoid dealing with the real problem, which Glasser insists is always a lack of present satisfying relationships. And meaning and disconnection in life, I might add.
A Reality Therapist does not pursue strategies such as exploring of dreams, as it is believed to be wasted time. Therapist does not label clients with diagnoses, as these are descriptions of the behaviors people choose to deal with the pain, that is endemic to unsatisfying present relationships. Current accepted concepts that clients are victims of mental illnesses caused by neurochemical imbalances over which they have no control is a myth – the brain is not defective, and if it was true, no psychotherapy could ever be effective. Our brain chemistry is normal for the behaviors people choose. In therapy, Glasser is honest and direct, he asks well intended and thought through questions that fundamentally shift clients focus to the core of issues for a changing breakthrough in counselling. Therapist can make suggestions and it is a ‘doing method’ which intends to guide people in the direction of actually starting to do something about their problem, exploring action steps they are willing to commit to.
In the current world where counselling and areas such as consulting, life coaching and mentoring seem like a trend, but are now needed more than ever before, I find the approach of Choice Theory very practical and useful. It requires bravery to look deep into yourself, which we really must do more as we have so much to account for. The quality of our relationships and choices determine the quality of our lives.