The more I study various psychology theories and therapies, the more I am inclined toward William Glasser’s Reality Therapy/Choice Theory and Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), also known simply as Cognitive Behavior Theory (CBT). I think that the reason I can understand and relate to these two theories is because they have played a role in my own emotional recovery over the last ten years. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back I can see how my counselor, my pastor, even my Mother utilized aspects of these two theories in relating to me.
Case in point, about 5 years ago Bill and I were charter members in a marriage class with our pastor and his wife, Doug and Sandy. Part of the class involved sharing with one another what it was that we felt would make us happy. I remember in one of our discussions that included Doug and Sandy, Bill and myself, I said that I thought I had a somewhat “fairy tale” kind of expectation of life- that I would marry, have children and live happily ever after, maybe along the lines of “the Cleaver family” of Leave it to Beaver TV fame. Doug immediately chimed in that he thought that that is exactly the world that I envisioned. Then we talked briefly about how reality seldom achieves that kind of imagined perfection and how unrealistic it is to hold such expectations of life and others.
Glasser’s reality theory identifies our “quality world” as the imagined world that we hold in our mind in which all of our personal felt needs are met. He says that when we feel that some aspect of our reality, our perceived world, is not lining up with that “quality world” we envision and desire, then, if we are sufficiently pained by the discord between the two, we will take action in an attempt to correct the discord. The problem is that most of us, in taking action to bring our perceived world into alignment with our “quality world” image, will seek to control external things in our environment- seeking to change our spouses, our children, or others to conform to our “quality world” desires. That usually leads only to frustration and failure. It may take several attempts at remedying the discord by these external means for us to get to the place that we are ready to see the truth, that the only thing over which we have control and the power to change is ourselves and how we perceive the reality that exists or how we construct our “quality world” image. Many of us then will begin to take a healthier approach in learning what it is that is “non-negotiable” in our quality world image and what is, in fact, more flexible and adaptable. We learn to broaden our definition of “acceptable” quality in our environment, relationships, etc. And we learn to work on our perceptions of our reality. What may look like a hopeless, doom and gloom scenario, may, in fact, be more of an annoyance and may even have the kernel of an opportunity hidden within it, if we can simply have the resilience and creativity to look at it from another perspective.
My counselor helped me time and time again rethink perceptions that I held and helped me see that it was possible that my view of them might not be altogether valid. She did it gently and kindly and non-threateningly. I was able to turn loose of some old paradigms and think differently about some relationships in my life and about some aspects of my view of myself. What freedom!
My Mother, too, had gone through a very difficult time in her late 40’s and 50’s during which my sister in law, with whom my Mother had often been in conflict, died. Mother struggled with seeing my brother so pained by her illness and death. Mother suffered painful physical sequelae from the emotional stress and was almost dysfunctional at times, having to retire from her job because of her inability to continue day to day. Her own Mother died during that time, too, and she and her older sister had recurring conflict. At one point she and I were sitting in a grocery store parking lot and she was reiterating the litany of problems, yet again, and how she couldn’t cope with them. Finally, having had enough of it all and exasperated from the way she was turning to me for me to “fix it”, another habit of hers for many years, I said to her, essentially, “Mother, it is time to get over this, put it behind you and move on. I can’t do anything about it and I want my Mother back.” From that point on, it seemed, things slowly began to improve. One thing that she began to say after that was something that she’d heard her own grandmother say when confronted with the difficulties of life- her own or someone else’s- ” Well, Sugar, I just can’t help it.” We all have to learn that there are things that we just can’t help. It is what it is, as my husband says.
Acceptance of the reality of life is a pathway to peace and joy. That is something I saw modeled in the life of my Mother’s mother, who was, it seemed to me, the most serenely content and accepting person I ever knew. I suspect, however, that the serenity I observed in her in her 70’s and 80’s did not come without some trials and effort. Her husband had been an alcoholic- not a brawling, abusing, wanton alcoholic- but a quiet, lovable, apologetic, I-can’t-help-myself alcoholic- who spent money they didn’t have on alcohol and who eventually died of stomach cancer from the habit, combined with the smoking that he also couldn’t resist. As a small child I vaguely recall seeing her and my Mother anquishing over Daddy Green’s latest alcoholic episode and hospitalization for the recurring bleeding ulcers and liver damage. They never changed him, but they did learn to let it go, I think however that was only after his death.