Reality therapy is a problem solving approach focused on the here and now of the client, and does not place lengthy focus or emphasis on the past. It is based on the principles of choice theory, which states how we act, what we think, and what we feel both emotionally and psychologically are behaviors. Choice theory states that our actions (behaviors) are not driven by past history or the external environment, but by own set of universal human needs and wants.
According to reality therapy, actions, cognitions (thoughts,) emotions (feelings) and physiological functions are viewed as behaviors. The causes of these behaviors are attempts at satisfying unfulfilled wants. Thoughts and feelings do not cause actions, they are actions themselves. Reality rests heavily on the concept that as human beings we need some form of control over our lives. Interventions focus on client's creating a sense of inner control, and adopts the perspective that all people have and need choices, even within limited circumstances. At the core of the theory is that the only person anyone can really ever control is themselves.
Self evaluation of behaviors is crucial in reality therapy. Therapists help clients evaluate their wants, their level of commitment to achieving their wants, and their plans for achieving them. The theory believes that levels of behavior happen at different levels of consciousness, with physiological behavior being the least conscious, ascending in consciousness by emotions, cognitions, and actions. The more conscious a behavior is, the more it can be consciously chosen. There, reality therapy tends to focus on changing the behaviors of actions first, then cognitions (self talk,) and then emotions. Reality therapy focus on making decisions, and client's taking control of their own lives. It acknowledges that we are products of our past, but not victims to our future.
In addition, the delivery of reality therapy is focused on two parts. The first is to establish the therapeutic environment by engaging in tonic behaviors (healthy,) and avoid toxic behaviors. A positive therapeutic relationship is very important in reality based interventions, as the therapist represents a positive person in the client's life that undoubtedly believes change is possible. Once a productive working relationship is established, the therapist teaches the client about choice theory, and its application to the client's life.
Problems are caused for the clients when they try to control things that are outside of their control. Over time clients have adopted ineffective behaviors that are rooted in an attempt to fulfill unmet wants to create their quality world. Some of these behaviors can be attempts to gain control over other people, or use substances to give them a false sense of control. Problems are maintained by clients assuming the victim role and consistently choosing ineffective behaviors that do not meet their wants, thus reinforcing their sense of lack of control.
Reality therapy uses the WDEP system as an intervention. This system is a set of procedures based in choice theory, and is designed to empower the client to increase their inner locus of control.
It is critical that the therapist have faith in the client's ability to have a more satisfying life and convey a sense of hope to him. A strong therapeutic working alliance must be established by clarifying the therapist role, and using a myriad of tonic behaviors. Examples of tonic behaviors include appropriate use of empathy (both non-verbal and verbal,) framing negatives as positives (reframing past experiences, ) focusing on client strengths, and acknowledging client's difficulties and past without making them the focus of therapy. Toxic behaviors, such as arguing, blaming, criticizing, demeaning, finding fault with or giving on clients are to be avoided at all costs.