For most of my life, I was a strong believer in conventional psychology, which is based on the teachings of Sigmund Freud.
Conventional psychology focuses on finding the psychological roots of an individual’s problems. The idea is that once a person’s past traumas are brought to the surface and dissected, he will be able to change his attitude toward life and, in turn, alter his behavior. All of this made perfect sense to me.
At the same time, I was a staunch nonbeliever in the concept of “behavioral modification,” which is in total conflict with conventional psychology. Behavioral modification seemed to imply synthetic change, which is why I associated it with the rah-rah slogan “Just fake it till you make it.”
Today, I am more convinced than ever that most people’s emotional problems have their roots in the past — usually in their childhood experiences. Likewise, I also remain convinced that faking change simply does not work over the long haul. Nevertheless, my attitude toward both traditional psychotherapy and behavioral modification changed when I started learning about “reality therapy,” a psychotherapy method created by Dr. William Glasser.
Before discussing reality therapy, I am obliged to point out that it is a very complex subject, and one in which I claim no professional expertise. My only aim here is to simplify (professionals might argue — perhaps justifiably — oversimplify) reality therapy in an effort to share some information and insights that I believe could be helpful to you in your quest for a better life. With this caveat, I will begin by pointing out that the central focus of reality therapy is fulfillment of an individual’s needs.
A reality therapist believes that fulfilling one’s needs is concerned only with an individual’s present life. It has nothing to do with his past, no matter how traumatic his past experiences may have been. However, it is important to understand that reality therapy does not deny the existence of past problems. Rather, it just views them as unnecessary when it comes to helping someone fulfill his present needs.
The corollary to the above is that if you learn to fulfill your needs in the present, the past no longer matters.
A perfect example would be an individual who has experienced a bad first marriage. The sooner such a person can find happiness in a second marriage, the sooner his/her first marriage will become a distant memory.
In fact, reality therapy believes that the most critical factor when it comes to fulfilling one’s needs is intimate involvement with another person. Therefore, to the reality therapist, it’s a waste of time to sit around and lament what has happened to us in the past and continue to use old traumas as an excuse for our present unhappiness.
The only things you can change are your thoughts and actions of today.
So, while it’s true that you’re a product of your past, the reality is that you can’t change any of the unpleasantness you may have endured. Whatever childhood problems may have caused a person to behave the way he does today, no amount of bringing them to the surface will change his current situation.
Reality therapy teaches that the key to fulfilling our needs is responsible behavior. As Dr. Glasser puts it, “Happiness occurs most often when we are willing to take responsibility for our behavior. . . . Responsible behavior leads to a feeling of self-worth.”
Plain and simple, Dr. Glasser believes that responsible behavior ultimately solves most of our problems. But isn’t “responsible behavior” a subjective term?
This brings to the fore the age-old relativist argument that everything in life is subjective. Millions of clueless kids bought into the lie of relativism in the sixties, only to end up dead or with shattered lives. The truth of the matter is that every halfway intelligent, mature adult knows the difference between responsible and irresponsible behavior.
I would argue that the vile behavior that is extolled every day and night on television — much of it under the protective shadow of the First Amendment — never leads to happiness. Civilization cannot exist without a generally accepted code of conduct. It is the code of conduct of Western culture that has made it the most civilized and prosperous civilization in the history of mankind. In other words, responsible behavior pretty much coincides with practicing the virtuous traits that are the bedrock of Western life. It is obvious to all civilized people that responsible behavior is demonstrated through such traits as hard work, saving for the future, civility, loyalty, respect, honesty, temperance, and charity, to name but a few.
Again, we all have experiences in our past, and especially our childhood, that have left painful memories. There is, however, nothing we can do about them. History is written in stone. But we do have the capacity to control how we think and act today. This capacity is known as “free will.” We are the only living creatures who can change the nature of our existence by altering events. It is free will that makes behavioral modification work. I smoked until I was in my late twenties, but I stopped in one day.Based on the medical evidence, I simply faced up to the reality that smoking was an irresponsible behavior. I was grossly overweight and out of shape until my mid thirties, but in an instant I made a commitment to change my diet, cut back on my calories by 50 percent, and start exercising. As with smoking, I made a conscious decision to acknowledge the medical evidence and face up to the reality that it was irresponsible of me to continue my abominable eating habits.
The point is that these decisions and actions were not based on my gaining a deeper understanding of my past. Through free will, I was able to modify my behavior by accepting reality and employing one of the most important of all responsible traits — self-discipline. Whatever it is that you don’t like about your present life — business, personal, or otherwise — don’t sit around and blame it on the past. Just as important, don’t feel that you have to get at the deeply rooted, underlying causes of your problems. I don’t know you personally, but I’m willing to bet that you can tell the difference between right and wrong. I would also wager that you can differentiate between responsible and irresponsible behavior. And I have absolutely no doubt that you, as a human being blessed with the awesome faculty of free will, have the capacity to take action — TODAY — to do the right thing.
No matter how smart you may think that loyal pooch lying on the floor next to your chair is, the reality is that he can’t do much to change his existence. He’d probably do anything to have your free will, but, alas, he’s doomed to serving his master all his life. I brought man’s best friend into the picture — though I recognize that you may not own a canine — to graphically remind you just how fortunate you are to be a human being. To not exploit the unique power you possess to alter your life for the better is to drastically short-change yourself. Free will is the gift that keeps on giving. The only question is whether or not the recipient chooses to use it wisely.
(Next Saturday, in Part II of this article, I will be discussing two individuals who recently were the subjects of two different television programs on the same night. The dichotomy between the two is absolutely fascinating and will help you to gain an even better understanding of why behavioral modification not only works, but is often a matter of life and death.)