Reality Therapy: Evaluating One’s Needs

adult-talking-to-childCreated 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.


  1. Peterson, Arlin V. (2008). Pete’s Pathogram. Action Printing, U.S.
  2. Glasser, William (1998). Choice Theory. A New Psychology of Personal Freedom. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., N.Y.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sharon Coulter, MA, MFTi, CT/RTC

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • james

    July 1st, 2013 at 1:37 PM

    I think what this odes is it makes us aware of things about us that we know exist but do not think of or simply ignore in our daily lives.

    some of these things may hold the key to a happier us but until and unless that is sought for it is not going to come to the surface.this sounds like a good and quick way to do just that.

  • Sharon Coulter

    July 1st, 2013 at 8:35 PM

    Well said, James. Sometimes we know we need to make changes but we’re not sure where to start. This approach provides a template of sorts for clients to assess the main areas of their lives – the five basic needs that provide human beings a sense of happiness, wellbeing, and balance.

  • Thalia

    July 2nd, 2013 at 4:29 AM

    shouldn’t a little reality therapy have always been in use? I mean, what better way to assess a client’s needs than to hear directly from him or her the things that are the most important?

  • bL@ncA

    July 2nd, 2013 at 2:14 PM

    I think I have enough of the first four metrics.But the fifth?Fun?I don’t even know when I’ve had enough!I mean,how is one to know how much is too much or even enough?Isn’t fun supposed to be the more the better?How does one enhance or feel more content with the FUN part of her life?

  • Sharon Coulter

    July 2nd, 2013 at 9:13 PM

    I agree with you, Thalia. The answers are within the client and ideally they come forth from them, along with the realization that better meeting those needs also requires choice and self direction. It’s a very empowering approach that can be taught to anyone.

  • Sharon Coulter

    July 2nd, 2013 at 9:35 PM

    The need for fun is critical because it involves learning, laughing, allowing, being spontaneous, letting go – things we tended to be very good at as children. Life can be very serious; work can be stressful. So if you’ve identified a deficit of “fun” in your daily living, spend some time thinking about what activities would bring more of the qualities I mentioned above into your life. How that need is met is going to look different for everyone. Rather than viewing it as frivolous, honor that part of you that wants and deserves to play, while balancing responsibilities. You’ll be healthier and happier for it. Enjoy!

  • Velerie Rope

    November 4th, 2013 at 9:59 AM

    You are amazing and I’m kvelling with pride for your professional accomplishments which you consistently pursue and produce. I’m honored that I’ve had a small part in your growth as a therapist. I predict that you will rise to the top of our profession.

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