Category Archives: Counseling and Psychotherapy Theory and Practice

The Root of (Most) Misery

For years I’ve been teaching counseling students that the cause of most emotional and psychological misery can be boiled down to one word. To inflame their competitive spirits, I tell them this powerful word starts with the letter E, and offer prizes to students if they can guess the correct word.

Sadly, no one ever guesses that I’m talking about “Expectation.”

Expectation is, IMHO, the biggest source of bad, sad, and maladaptive emotions. I suffer from my own expectations all the time. Just this morning, while trying to listen to a podcast on a walk, I became irrationally enraged with all things Apple. Why? Because my iPhone podcasting app didn’t work in an elegant, user-friendly manner. Even worse is that I’m fully aware of how silly it is for me to justify holding such high—or even modest—expectations when it comes to technology. I have repeated lived experiences that should have led me to know how often I (and others) are thwarted by technology. I also happily rely on and use technology for many hours every day, and although it feels otherwise, most of the time technology provides . . . my computer powers up, my emails get sent, my phone dials the right number, and magical things like Zoom conferences happen without adverse incident.

Here’s the irony: My expectations thwart my happiness far more often than technology thwarts my personal plans and goals. Nevertheless, I’m eager to throw a childish fit when an app malfunctions, but I continue to barely question my unrealistic expectations despite their predictable adverse emotional outcomes. Funny that (as the Brits might say). I resist blaming and changing that which I have some control over (my expectations), while I let loose with relentless complaints about that which I have little control over (technology).

The fortune in my fortune cookie from dinner with my father gave me a nudge toward recognizing and managing my expectations. Panda Express—not usually where I look for guidance—provided me with the wisdom I seek.

If I were inclined to use the word “wiring” when referring to neural networks (I’m not), I might question whether there’s a glitch in my wiring. However, because I’m pretty certain I’ve got no wires in my brain, I’m going after the glitch in my attitude. Sure, as I pursue my attitudinal glitch, my brain may undergo physical, chemical, and electrical changes, but I suspect the fix will be ever so much more complicated than clipping a wire here, and reconnecting another one there.

Thanks for reading . . .

Cultural Specificity and Universality: An Indigenous Example

These days mostly we tend to orient toward the culturally specific, and that’s a good thing. Much of intersectionality, cultural competency, and cultural humility is all about drilling down into unique and valuable cultural and individual perspectives.

But these are also the days of Both-And.

In contrast to cultural specificity, some theorists—I’m thinking of William Glasser right now—were more known for their emphasis on cultural universality. Glasser contended that his five basic human needs were culturally universal; those needs included: Survival, belonging, power (recognition), freedom, and fun.

Although Glasser’s ideas may (or may not) have universal punch, he’s a white guy, and pushing universality from positions of white privilege are, at this particular point in history, worth questioning. That’s why I was happy to find an indigenous voice emphasizing universal ideas.

I came across a quotation from a Lakota elder, James Clairmont; he was discussing the concept of resilience, from his particular linguistic perspective:

The closest translation of “resilience” is a sacred word that means “resistance” . . . resisting bad thoughts, bad behaviors. We accept what life gives us, good and bad, as gifts from the Creator. We try to get through hard times, stressful times, with a good heart. The gift [of adversity] is the lesson we learn from overcoming it.

Clairmont’s description of “the sacred word that means resilience” are strikingly similar to several contemporary ideas in counseling and psychotherapy practice.

  • “Resisting bad thoughts, bad behaviors” is closely linked to CBT
  • “We accept what life gives us, good and bad, as gifts from the Creator” fits well with mindfulness
  • “We try to get through hard times, stressful times, with a good heart” is consistent with optimism concepts in positive psychology
  • “The gift [of adversity] is the lesson we learn from overcoming it” and this is a great paraphrase of Bandura’s feedback and feed-forward ideas

In these days of cultural specificity, it makes sense to work from both perspectives. We need to recognize and value our unique differences, while simultaneously noticing our similarities and areas of convergence. Clairmont’s perspectives on resilience make me want to learn more about Lakota ideas, both how they’re similar and different from my own cultural and educational experiences.

Working in the Cognitive Dimension

Today I’ve been putting together my powerpoints for the upcoming Nate Chute Foundation workshop. The NCF workshop is on two consecutive Tuesday evenings, starting this coming Tuesday.

While reviewing content for the ppts, I tried to pull all the intervention strategies from my brain, and failed. My excuse is that there are too many possible interventions for my small brain to memorize. As a consequence, I was forced to check out the “Practitioner Guidance and Key Points to Remember” sections at the end of all the intervention chapters. To give you a taste, here’s a photo of the “summary” page at the end of the cognitive chapter.

The Cognitive Dimension – Chapter Summary

Each of these bulleted items represents a potential method or strategy for intervening in the cognitive dimension with clients or students who are experiencing suicidality. I’m looking forward to talking about these strategies at the Nate Chute workshop, but rather than trying to commit them to memory (like Ebbinghaus would have), I’ll be using my powerpoint slides as a memory aid.

I hope you’re all having a great Sunday night.

John SF

Talking with Clients about Previous Suicide Attempts from a Strengths-Based Perspective

Working with suicidal clients often involves working two sides at the same time. . . as in a dialectic or paradox. For example, it’s crucial to be able to move back and forth between empathic acceptance and active-collaborative problem-solving.

When working from a strengths-based model, clinicians shouldn’t shy away from focusing on pain, sadness, anger, or other aversive emotions and experiences. At the same time, we need to also focus on potential strengths. The following excerpt from our new suicide book illustrates how to explore previous attempts, while also looking for strengths.

Previous Attempts

Previous attempts are often considered the most significant suicide predictor (Brown et al., 2020; Fowler, 2012). You can gather information about previous attempts through your client’s medical or mental health records, from an intake form, or during the clinical interview. During clinical interviews, clients may spontaneously tell you about previous attempts; other times you’ll need to ask directly. Again, using a normalizing frame can be facilitative:

It’s not unusual for people who are feeling very down to have made a suicide attempt. I’m wondering if there have been times when you were so down that you tried to kill yourself?

Once you have knowledge about a client’s previous suicide attempt, you can explore several dimensions of the attempt:

  • What was happening that made you want to end your life?
  • When you discovered that your suicide attempt failed, what thoughts and feelings did you experience?
  • Some people report learning something important from attempting suicide. Did you learn anything important? If so, what did you learn?

Although the preceding questions are important for assessment, once you’re ready to move beyond exploration of a previous attempt, you should ask a therapeutic solution-focused question, similar to the following:

You’ve tried suicide before, but you’re here with me now . . . what has helped? (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017, p. 373).

Asking “What helped?” is central to a strength-based or solution-focused model and sometimes illuminates a path forward toward living. However, if your client is depressed, you may hear,

Nothing helped. Nothing ever helps (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017, p. 373).

In the context of an assessment protocol, the “What helped?” question and its side-kick, “What have you tried?” are important because they assess for two core cognitive problems associated with suicidality: hopelessness and problem-solving impairment. Clients who respond with “nothing ever helps” are communicating hopelessness. Clients who claim, “I’ve tried everything” or “There’s nothing left to do” are communicating hopelessness, plus the narrowing of cognitive problem-solving that Shneidman (1996) called mental constriction. Hopelessness and problem-solving impairments should be integrated into your suicide treatment plan.

You can read more excerpts of our book in other posts on this blog, via Amazon or Google. You can also purchase it as an eBook through Wiley, Amazon, or as a paperback through the American Counseling Association: https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=78174

Free Wiley-Sponsored Webinar

Hi All,

On March 3, the publisher, John Wiley & Sons is offering a free day-long webinar. They’re calling it a “Psychology Thought Leadership Summit.”

Full disclosure, I’m presenting at the 2:30pm-3:15pm (Eastern) time-slot. My presentation is titled: “Interviewing for Happiness: How to Weave Positive Psychology Magic Into the Interview Process.” Here’s my presentation description:

Freud once said that “words were originally magic.” In this interactive presentation, John Sommers-Flanagan will describe how clinical interviewing involves a process of using word magic to shift clients from a locked constructivist state to receptive social constructionism. This presentation focuses on systematically integrating positive psychology (aka happiness interventions) into a standard initial clinical interview protocol. Intentionally and systematically weaving happiness interventions into initial interviews is especially important because many people are being adversely affected by social isolation and challenges associated with the global pandemic.

Some of the other presenters are very notable. For example, Derald Wing Sue is presenting “Microintervention Strategies: Disarming Individual and Systemic Racism and Bias” during the at the 9:45am to 10:45am (Eastern) time slot. Here’s Dr. Sue’s presentation description:

Microinterventions are the everyday words or deeds—whether intentional or unintentional—that communicate the following concepts to targets of microaggressions: 

  • Validation of their experiential reality
  • Value as a person
  • Affirmation of their racial or group identity
  • Support and encouragement
  • Reassurance that they are not alone 

More importantly, they serve to enhance psychological well-being, and provide targets, allies, and bystanders with a sense of control and self-efficacy. 

This session provides participants with the opportunity to learn, practice, and rehearse microintervention strategies and tactics to disarm and neutralize expressions of bias by perpetrators while maintaining a respectful relationship. 

To check out all the specific webinar events throughout the day, click here.

In the following paragraph I’ve pasted the Wiley promo, which includes a link to sign yourself up. . . or just REGISTER HERE. It looks like you’re supposed to register very soon, so check it out.

Wiley     Wiley Psychology Thought Leadership Summit

March 3, 2021            

As one of the world’s leading psychology publishers, Wiley offers trusted and vital resources written by leading subject matter experts in the field.   Join colleagues from across North America for the Wiley Psychology Thought Leadership Summit featuring some of our top authors. Speakers will give inspiring talks and conduct breakout sessions where you’ll gain insight and ideas to bring back to your classroom or practice.   Choose from multiple sessions on March 3, 2021.     Sign Me Up

A Strengths-Based Suicide Assessment and Treatment Model

Bikes Snow 3

Because I’ve been getting plenty of questions about the Strengths-Based Approach as applied to suicide assessment and treatment, I’m re-posting a revised version of this blog from June, 2020.  My apologies for the redundancy. On the other hand, as a friend and mental health professional has repeatedly told me, “Redundancy works.” So . . . I guess his redundancy worked on me.

Below is a short excerpt from chapter 1 of our upcoming book. This excerpt gives you a glimpse at the strengths-based model. You can also check out this link for an alternative description: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2020/12/11/coming-in-january-the-strengths-based-approach-to-suicide-assessment-and-treatment-planning/

If you’re interested, the book is now available through the publisher, as well as through other booksellers: https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=78174

You can get it in eBook format via Amazon.

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Seven Dimensions of Being Human: Where Does It Hurt and How Can I Help?

We began this chapter describing the case of Alina. Mostly likely, what you remember about Alina is that she displayed several frightening suicide risk factors and openly shared her suicidal thoughts. However, Alina is not just a suicidal person—she’s a unique individual who also exhibited a delightful array of idiosyncratic quirks, problems, and strengths. Even her reasons for considering suicide are unique to her.

When working with suicidal clients or students, it’s easy to over-focus on suicidality. Suicide is such a huge issue that it overshadows nearly everything else and consumes your attention. Nevertheless, all clients—suicidal or not—are richly complex and have a fascinating mix of strengths and weaknesses that deserve attention. To help keep practitioners focused on the whole person—and not just on weaknesses or pathology—we’ve developed a seven-dimension model for understanding suicidal clients.

Suicide Treatment Models

In the book, Brief cognitive-behavioral therapy for suicide prevention, Bryan and Rudd (2018) describe three distinct models for working with suicidal clients. The risk factor model emphasizes correlates and predictors of suicidal ideation and behavior. Practitioners following the risk factor model aim their treatments toward reducing known risk factors and increasing protective factors. Unfortunately, a dizzying array of risk factors exist, some are relatively unchangeable, and in a large, 50-year, meta-analytic study, the authors concluded that risk factors, protective factors, and warning signs are largely inaccurate and not useful (Franklin et al., 2017). Consequently, treatments based on the risk factor model are not in favor.

The psychiatric model focuses on treating psychiatric illnesses to reduce or prevent suicidality. The presumption is that clients experiencing suicidality should be treated for the symptoms linked to their diagnosis. Clients with depression should be treated for depression; clients diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder should be treated for trauma; and so on. Bryan and Rudd (2018) note that “accumulating evidence has failed to support the effectiveness of this conceptual framework” (p. 4).

The third model is the functional model. Bryan and Rudd (2018) wrote: “According to this model, suicidal thoughts and behaviors are conceptualized as the outcome of underlying psychopathological processes that specifically precipitate and maintain suicidal thoughts and behaviors over time” (p. 4). The functional model targets suicidal thoughts and behaviors within the context of the individual’s history and present circumstances. Bryan and Rudd (2018) emphasize that the superiority of the functional model is “well established” (p. 5-6).

Our approach differs from the functional model in several ways. Due to our wellness and strength-based orientation, we studiously avoid presuming that suicidality is a “psychopathological process.” Consistent with social constructionist philosophy, we believe that locating psychopathological processes within clients, risks exacerbation and perpetuation of the psychopathology as an internalized phenomenon (Hansen, 2015; Lyddon, 1995). In addition to our wellness, strength-based, social constructionist foundation, we rely on an integration of robust suicide theory (we rely on works from Shneidman, Joiner, Klonsky & May, Linehan, and O’Connor). We also embrace parts of the functional model, especially the emphasis on individualized contextual factors. Overall, our goal is to provide counseling practitioners with a practical and strength-based model for working effectively with suicidal clients and students.

The Seven Dimensions

Thinking about clients using the seven life dimensions can organize and guide your assessment and treatment planning. Many authorities in many disciplines have articulated life dimensions. Some argue for three, others for five, seven, or even nine dimensions. We settled on seven that we believe reflect common sense, science, philosophy, and convenience. Each dimension is multifaceted, overlapping, dynamic, and interactive. Each dimension includes at least three underlying factors that have theoretical and empirical support as drivers of suicide ideation or behavior. The dimensions and their underlying factors are in Table 1.1.

Insert Table 1.1 About Here

Table 1.1: Brief Descriptions of the Seven Dimensions

  • The Emotional Dimension consists of all human emotions ranging from sadness to joy. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the emotional dimension include:
    • Excruciating emotional distress
    • Specific disturbing emotions (i.e., guilt, shame, anger, or sadness)
    • Emotional dysregulation
  • The Cognitive Dimension consists of all forms of human thought. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the cognitive dimension include:
    • Hopelessness
    • Problem-solving impairments
    • Maladaptive thoughts
    • Negative core beliefs and self-hatred
  • The Interpersonal Dimension consists of all human relationships. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the interpersonal dimension include:
    • Social disconnection, alienation, and perceived burdensomeness
    • Interpersonal loss and grief
    • Social skill deficits
    • Repeating dysfunctional relationship patterns
  • The Physical Dimension consists of all human biogenetics and physiology. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the physical dimension include:
    • Biogenetic predispositions and illness
    • Sedentary lifestyle (lack of movement)
    • Agitation, arousal, anxiety
    • Trauma, nightmares, insomnia
  • The Spiritual-Cultural Dimension consists of all religious, spiritual, or cultural values that provide meaning and purpose in life. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the spiritual-cultural dimension include:
    • Religious or spiritual disconnection
    • Cultural disconnection or dislocation
    • Meaninglessness
  • The Behavioral Dimension consists of human action and activity. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the behavioral dimension include:
    • Using substances or cutting for desensitization
    • Suicide planning, intent, and preparation
    • Impulsivity
  • The Contextual Dimension consists of all factors outside of the individual that influence human behavior. Empirically supported suicide-related problems in the contextual dimension include:
    • No connection to place or nature
    • Chronic exposure to unhealthy environmental conditions
    • Socioeconomic oppression or resource scarcity (e.g., Poverty)

End of Table 1.1

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This past week Rita and I submitted the final draft manuscript to the publisher. The next step is a peer review process. While the manuscript is out for review, there’s still time to make changes and so, as usual, please email me with feedback or post your thoughts here.

Thanks for reading!

John S-F

The Long Version of our Theoretical Orientation Test: Which Direction will our Hogwarts Theories Hat Point you?

I keep getting a steady stream of requests for the “long version” of our Theoretical Orientation Test. The TOT-Long is from our Study Guide, pictured here:

And here’s a link to the test:

When taking our TOT-Long, keep some or all of the following in the back (or front) of your mind.

  1. This questionnaire is for self-exploration; it’s not an “assessment” with established psychometrics. What that means–in the spirit of Adler–is that this so-called test is an idiographic assessment process.
  2. I’m not a big fan of counselors and psychotherapists pigeon-holing themselves into strict theoretical positions. Instead, finding a compatible theory can help you align with ways you can transform your ideas into practical ways of being and ways of working with clients. Don’t let your theoretical orientation stop you from flexibly providing clients with the services they need and want.
  3. All theory-based approaches work best from a relational foundation. If you question this basic assumption, try doing cold CBT with ambivalent or reluctant teenagers. . . or just imagining how that would go might be enough.
  4. I hope you enjoy contemplating where our theoretical “sorting hat” sends you. As with all assessments, you’re the final authority of whether the shoe (or hat) fits.

Please let me know what you think of the test and, if you’re so inclined, post your theoretical orientation as a comment here. I look forward to hearing and seeing your reactions and results.

Be well!

John SF

Happy Birthday Alfred Adler

Recently someone mistook me for an Adlerian. This got me thinking, “Maybe I am an Adlerian?” Then again, if you look at the history of counseling and psychotherapy, most of us are Adlerians. At one presentation I attended back when we attended those things, the presenters started with, “In the beginning, there was Adler.”

As a Happy Birthday tribute to Alfred Adler, below is an excerpt from our Adlerian theories chapter. There’s much more, of course, like, for example, what Adlerian theory would have to say about the Super Bowl.

Happy Birthday Dr. Adler.

Historical Context

Freud and Adler met in 1902. According to Mosak and Maniacci (1999), Adler published a strong defense of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and consequently Freud invited Adler over “on a Wednesday evening” for a discussion of psychological issues. “The Wednesday Night Meetings, as they became known, led to the development of the Psychoanalytic Society” (p. 3).

Adler was his own man with his own ideas before he met Freud. Prior to their meeting he’d published his first book, Healthbook for the Tailor’s Trade (Adler, 1898). In contrast to Freud, much of Adler’s medical practice was with the working poor. Early in his career, he worked extensively with tailors and circus performers.

In February 1911, Adler did the unthinkable (Bankart, 1997). As president of Vienna’s Psychoanalytic Society, he read a highly controversial paper, “The Masculine Protest,” at the group’s monthly meeting. It was at odds with Freudian theory. Instead of focusing on biological and psychological factors and their influence on excessively masculine behaviors in males and females, Adler emphasized culture and socialization (Carlson & Englar-Carlson, 2017). He claimed that women occupied a less privileged social and political position because of social coercion, not physical inferiority. Further, he noted that some women who reacted to this cultural situation by choosing to dress and act like men were suffering, not from penis envy, but from a social-psychological condition he referred to as the masculine protest. The masculine protest involved overvaluing masculinity to the point where it drove men and boys to give up and become passive or to engage in excessive aggressive behavior. In extreme cases, males who suffered from the masculine protest began dressing and acting like girls or women.

The Vienna Psychoanalytic Society members’ response to Adler was dramatic. Bankart (1997) described the scene:

After Adler’s address, the members of the society were in an uproar. There were pointed heckling and shouted abuse. Some were even threatening to come to blows. And then, almost majestically, Freud rose from his seat. He surveyed the room with his penetrating eyes. He told them there was no reason to brawl in the streets like uncivilized hooligans. The choice was simple. Either he or Dr. Adler would remain to guide the future of psychoanalysis. The choice was the members’ to make. He trusted them to do the right thing. (p. 130)

Freud likely anticipated the outcome. The group voted for Freud to lead them. Adler left the building quietly, joined by the Society’s vice president, William Stekel, and five other members. They moved their meeting to a local café and established the Society for Free Psychoanalytic Research. The Society soon changed its name to the Society for Individual Psychology. This group believed that social, familial, and cultural forces are dominant in shaping human behavior. Bankart (1997) summarized their perspective: “Their response to human problems was characteristically ethical and practical—an orientation that stood in dramatic contrast to the biological and theoretical focus of psychoanalysis” (p. 130).

Adler’s break from Freud gives an initial glimpse into his theoretical approach. Adler identified with common people. He was a feminist. These leanings reflect the influences of his upbringing and marriage. They reveal his compassion for the sick, oppressed, and downtrodden. Before examining Adlerian theoretical principles, let’s note what he had to say about gender politics well over 90 years ago:

All our institutions, our traditional attitudes, our laws, our morals, our customs, give evidence of the fact that they are determined and maintained by privileged males for the glory of male domination. (Adler, 1927, p. 123)

Raissa Epstein may have had a few discussions with her husband, exerting substantial influence on his thinking (Santiago-Valles, 2009).

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You can take a peek at our Theories text on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Counseling-Psychotherapy-Theories-Context-Practice/dp/1119473314/ref=sr_1_1?crid=LIAVFMJLE5TD&dchild=1&keywords=sommers-flanagan&qid=1612716309&s=books&sprefix=sommers-%2Caps%2C205&sr=1-1

Coming In January: The Strengths-Based Approach to Suicide assessment and treatment Planning

As many of you know, Rita and I have been working on a suicide assessment and treatment planning manuscript to be published by the American Counseling Association. Today, we received a photo of the full (front and back) cover. Although we know you’re not nearly as excited about this book (coming in mid-January!) as we are, below, I’ve pasted the photo of the cover and the first part of the Preface.

Preface

Writing a book about suicide may not have been our best idea ever. Rita made the point more than once that reading and writing about suicide at the depth necessary to write a helpful book can affect one’s mood in a downward direction. She was right, of course. Her rightness inspired us to pay attention to the other side of the coin, so we decided to integrate positive psychology and the happiness literature into this book. As is often the case when grappling with matters of humanity, focusing on suicide led us to a deeper understanding of suicide’s complementary dialectic—a meaningful and fully-lived life–and that has been a very good thing.

Before diving into these pages, please consider the following.

Do the Self-Care Thing

            In the first chapter, we emphasize how important it is to practice self-care when working with clients who are suicidal. Immersing ourselves in the suicide literature required a balancing focus on positive psychology and wellness. While you’re reading this book and exploring suicide, you cannot help but be emotionally impacted, and we cannot overstate the importance of you taking care of yourself throughout this process and into the future. You are the instrument through which you provide care for others . . . and so we highly encourage you to repeatedly do the self-care thing.

What is the Strengths-Based Approach?

            Many people have asked, “What on earth do you mean by a strengths-based approach to suicide assessment and treatment planning?” In response, we usually meander in and out of various bullet points, relational dynamics, assessment procedures, and try to emphasize that the approach is more than just strength-based, it’s also wellness-oriented and holistic. By strengths-based, we mean that we recognize and nurture the existing and potential strengths of our clients. By wellness-oriented we mean that we believe in incorporating wellness activities into counseling and life. By holistic we mean that we focus on emotional, cognitive, interpersonal, physical, cultural-spiritual, behavioral, and contextual dimensions of living.

You will find the following strengths-based, wellness-oriented, and holistic principles woven into every chapter of this book.

  1. Historically, suicide ideation has been socially constructed as sinful, illegal, or a terribly frightening and bad illness. In contrast, we believe suicide ideation is a normal variation on human experience that typically stems from difficult environmental circumstances and excruciating emotional pain. Rather than fear client disclosures of suicidality, we welcome these disclosures because they offer an opportunity to connect deeply with distressed clients and provide therapeutic support.
  2. Although we believe risk factors, warning signs, protective factors, and suicide assessment instruments are important, we value relationship connections with clients over predictive formulae and technical procedures.
  3. We believe trust, empathy, collaboration, and rapport will improve the reliability, validity, and utility of data gathered during assessments. Consequently, we embrace the principles of therapeutic assessment.
  4. We believe that counseling practitioners need to ask directly about and explore suicide ideation using a normalizing frame or other sophisticated and empathic interviewing strategies.
  5. We believe traditional approaches to suicide assessment and treatment are excessively oriented toward psychopathology. To compensate for this pathology-orientation, we explicitly value and ask about clients’ positive experiences, personal strengths, and coping strategies.
  6. We believe the narrow pursuit of psychopathology causes clinicians to neglect a more complete assessment and case formulation of the whole person. To compensate, we use a holistic, seven-dimensional model to create a broader understanding of what’s hurting and what’s helping in each individual client’s life. 
  7. We value the positive emphasis of safety planning and coping skills development over the negative components of no-suicide contracts and efforts to eliminate suicidal thoughts.

Becoming a Reality Therapist: The Reality Therapy Lab

Let’s say you want to practice reality therapy. Maybe more than any other approach, you’ll need to use reality therapy on yourself to become a reality therapist. Here’s what I mean.

You could consider channeling a little William Glasser, because he’s the developer of reality therapy. Then again, you might not want to channel Glasser, because, as Robert Wubbolding has written, to become a reality therapist, “You need not imitate the style of anyone else.”

The point is that you get to do the choosing . . . and a great start is to choose to use Wubbolding’s summary of the delivery system of reality therapy. Wubbolding used the letters, WDEP to summarize reality therapy, and these letters also happen to appear on Wubbolding’s car license plate. If you’re getting the feeling that Wubbolding is committed to reality therapy principles, you would be absolutely right. WDEP stands for Wants, Doing, Evaluation, and Planning. The following four questions capture WDEP:

What do you want?

What are you doing?

Is what you’re doing working? [Evaluation]

Should you make a new plan?

Before enacting reality therapy, you’ll need to adopt a positive, engaged, courteous, enthusiastic, counselor demeanor. You also need to be ready to use your excellent active listening skills. Avoiding toxic relational strategies like arguing, blaming, and criticizing is crucial. Think of yourself as a mentor or coach, and then practice the following strategies to see if they fit for you.

Begin by helping your client (or role-play partner) identify what he/she/they want. You could use any of the following questions:

If we could work on something that feels important to you, what would that be?

What do you want from our meeting today?

This is a big question, but I’m going to ask it anyway: What do you want from life?

If we have a good session and accomplish something that feels good to you, what will we have accomplished?

After you’ve gotten a sense of what your client is wants, you can move onto an inquiry about how your client is currently trying to get those wants. Questions like the following might help:

How are you currently trying to get what you want?

What have you tried?

I imagine you’ve tried various strategies for getting what you want to happen in your life. Tell me about all those things you’ve tried and how they’ve worked.

You can see from this last question, that asking about what clients are doing naturally leads to what Wubbolding considers to be the most important step in reality therapy: Evaluation. Wubbolding hypothesizes that many clients don’t get taught how to self-evaluate and/or may not have much practice at self-evaluation. He uses questions like the following to prompt client self-evaluation.

Is what you’re doing helping or hurting?

Is want you want realistic and attainable?

Does your self-talk help or hinder you in your efforts to get what you want?

Wubbolding has many additional questions about how to help clients self-evaluate in his book, Reality Therapy for the 21st Century. Check it out.

This brings us to the final question: Should you make a new plan? I think one of the most important insights that reality therapy brings to the counseling table is its emphasis on active and smart planning. Although SMART plans originated in the business world, Wubbolding has an extensive guide for how to help clients make effective plans. In my experiences doing counseling and psychotherapy, I’ve been astonished at how often clients go off in search of goals with either no plans or bad plans. For Wubbolding, client plans should be: Simple, Attainable, Measurable, Immediate, Involved, Controlled, Committed, and Continuous (Wubbolding’s acronym for planning is SAMI2C3). For more information on how to create SAMI2C3 plans, see Wubbolding’s book or the chapter in our Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice textbook.

All planning that happens in counseling should be collaborative planning. Your job, as you engage in this important planning step, is to come alongside clients, brainstorm small tweaks or big changes in how clients might attain their goals, and to give them constructive feedback about whether their plan is a smart plan while providing encouragement and collaboratively evaluating the plan’s effectiveness. I have no doubt that reality therapy can be effective, partly because the first three reality therapy questions are so central to human functioning, but also because a good plan is a beautiful thing.

Note: the content of this blog is primarily adapted from the section that Robert Wubbolding wrote for our theories textbook.