Reality Testing Your Actions | Counseling | Therapy

Reality Testing Your Actions

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Many people like to imagine that how they see the world is crystal clear: they see everything in 20/20. However, how many people actually have perfect vision? One can say the same about self-assessment and our actions. It’s easy for people to see themselves as something negative (e.g., lazy, a bad partner, unintelligent), but how objective are you truly being? If you wear glasses or contacts, think back to the first time when you wore them. Though you thought you saw the world clearly, everything became so much clearer and sharper when you actually started to use corrective eyewear. The goal of this article is to help you obtain that same acuity, to have a more accurate assessment of your actions through reality testing.

What Is Reality Testing?

Before explaining reality testing, it is important to discuss Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). A main tenet of CBT is that your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all interconnected. In other words, if you change one, the rest follow suit. Because it is very difficult, if not impossible, to quickly change a feeling (e.g., “Just be happy!” “Just calm down!”), proponents of CBT argue that it is more effective to try to change a behavior or thought. Once again, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all interconnected. Therefore, there are many CBT techniques that focus on the person’s thoughts, also known as their cognition. One of these techniques is reality testing.

Reality testing is just as it sounds. Because people have a hard time being objective on personal matters, reality testing uses concrete, objective data to highlight what’s really going on. For example, let’s look at a common situation where reality testing might be useful: liking someone, and messaging them for the first time. If you haven’t heard back from them in a while, it’s easy to self-deprecate. “I said something creepy and now they’re not responding back,” “I was too forward,” or “They must not like me” are all common thoughts that people have in that situation. However, if you were to incorporate reality testing, you would look at the evidence that supports these claims, and the evidence that does not. It is true that the person has yet to respond back; however, what was the context and tone of your message? Is it truly creepy to say, “Hey, this is Maria from the other night. I was hoping we could get lunch”? How many messages did you send? Is sending one message too aggressive? Have you always responded quickly to messages sent to you? Additionally, what could be all the different reasons for the delay? It’s difficult to be objective on subjective matters, especially when they’re personal. Another tool within reality testing is to substitute yourself with a friend or loved one. What would you say if they were in your position? Would you think that their text message was weird or aggressive? Reality testing is the separating of what we think we see, versus what is actually there. Here is an activity that aids this process.

Reality Testing Your Actions Activity

When you find yourself falling into self-deprecation or anxiety over your actions, take a moment to assess the truth through reality testing. Take out a sheet of paper and grab two pens of a different color. Next, identify the negative statement or label that you are currently placing on yourself (e.g., “I’m an idiot,” “I’m so lazy,” “I’m unlikable”). After you have done that, take one of the pens and write down what the typical lazy, idiotic, unlikable, etc. person looks like. Whatever negative label you’re placing on yourself, write down the traits, behaviors, and thoughts of the person who fully encompasses it. After you have fully fleshed out that quintessential person, take the other pen and write out your actions and traits relevant to the negative label. If you think you are lazy, what did you do today, yesterday, and the previous week? Try to be as objective as you can.

At this point, you should have a section of the paper that describes the embodiment of the negative trait, and a section that describes you. Ask yourself the following questions.

  • How do these two sections overlap, if at all?
  • What differences can I see?
  • How similar am I to the embodiment of the negative trait?
  • What stands out to me?
  • If someone were to read these two descriptions, what would they say about the people?

After asking yourself the above questions, you should have more clarity on what is truly going on. Take some time to truly analyze the similarities and differences between the two sections. There is a high chance that you are not the person whom you fear of being. To make this activity easier to grasp, here is an example.


Negative Label/Statement: “I’m lazy. I don’t work hard enough.”

Quintessential Lazy Person

-Sleeps all day

-Mooches off others


-Always takes the easy way out

-Has no passions

-Stays inside all day

-Asks for help, but never gives it

-No plans for the future

Who I Am

-Worked for 8 hours today

-Went on Netflix for 2 hours

-Took my dog to the dog park twice today

-I helped my friend volunteer at an event last week

-Haven’t called off work in over a year

-Slept in on Saturday

-Exercised three times this week

-I planned my sister’s birthday party last month

-Went out to eat instead cooking dinner last night

-Stayed at work longer than I had to in order to finish a project

-I’ve been promoted since working at my job

In this example, it’s clear that the person is probably harder on themselves than they have to be. Sure, there are moments when they were not being the most productive; however, the ratio between leisure and work strongly favors the latter. They go to work, exercise, and even engage in outside activities. Upon completing the activity, there may be times where our behaviors do match with the quintessential lazy/uncaring/dumb person. That being said, how would you respond if that were the case for your loved one? If they matched with the quintessential lazy person, would you be extremely critical, or would you understand? Maybe you would take into consideration that the loved one just lost a parent, got laid off, or is experiencing chronic physical pain. Whatever reasons we come up with, they simply show that we tend to show more compassion for others than we do. Therefore, even if you share many traits with the quintessential lazy/uncaring/dumb person, this activity still grants clarity on what you can change. However, there’s a high chance that you are not as terrible as you think you are. People can be their own worst critic; after all, you probably wouldn’t call your friends “dumb” or “unlikable.” By practicing reality testing, you can come closer in seeing yourself the same way you see others. You can get closer to having that 20/20 vision.

If you are still having trouble seeing your true self, seeing a therapist could be useful. Make an appointment with The Center for Growth at https://www.therapyinphiladelp...

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