Created by Dr. William Glasser, reality therapy and its theoretical underpinning of choice theory provide a wonderful lens through which to help clients evaluate their needs. Individuals are thought to have five basic needs that their behaviors seek to satisfy in order for them to be happy and fulfilled. These are: survival or self-preservation; love and belonging; achievement; independence or freedom; and fun. All behavior is believed to be an attempt to meet these needs—even when the behavior is unhealthy or harmful (Glasser).
Having children and adults evaluate their needs has multiple benefits. It immediately shows the therapist or counselor what is in abundance in these five areas of the client’s world and what is lacking. It provokes client awareness and a highly relevant dialogue, and is empowering for clients in that it helps them to see they are usually the catalyst of any hoped-for change.
In working with children, I utilize a graphing utility, designed by Arlin Peterson, called Pete’s Pathogram (Peterson). The five basic needs are depicted on the “X” axis, and the “Y” axis shows the degree to which the need is being met with a range from 0 (not met) to 10 (totally met). Children “score” their needs with me on the paper graph. Inner-city schoolchildren will often score themselves with a 3 or 4 on the “survival” need.
When asked a series of question that seek to provoke self-reflection, a conversation will usually ensue about the dangerous neighborhood in which they live, fears of gangs, shootings, violence in the home, and sometimes shortages of food. Counselor/therapist and children can process these very real fears and discuss if there is a way to improve the degree to which a need is being met. For instance, asking a child why that score is low and what it would take to make that survival need score a 5 might encourage a conversation about a move to a different neighborhood, their being alone less frequently in the home, providing them an additional meal at school, or having their parents come in for counseling. One by one, clients score each need.
Utilization of this exercise provides an opportunity for immediate insight into the client’s life at a profound level. As counselor/therapist and client reflect on the degree to which a need is being met, the balance or imbalance of the five basic needs in the client’s life becomes apparent. This exercise works extremely well with adults also. The workaholic will score himself/herself a 10 on the achievement need, but he or she will most likely rate low for love and belonging, fun, and freedom.
The evaluative, self-reflective, and internalizing elements of this exercise are extremely rich, in my opinion. Clients are supported to identify ways they can create change for the better. As with the creation of one’s quality world through the use of pictures and words (explained in my first blog), the client’s active role in examining the five basic needs with the therapist can rapidly provide rich content with which to work.
- Peterson, Arlin V. (2008). Pete’s Pathogram. Action Printing, U.S.
- Glasser, William (1998). Choice Theory. A New Psychology of Personal Freedom. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., N.Y.
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