Reality testing is a concept initially devised by Sigmund Freud which is used by some therapists to assist clients in distinguishing their internal thoughts, feelings and ideas from the events, which are based within reality. In other words, it is the ability to see a situation for what it really is, rather than what one hopes or fears it might be. However the need for reality testing extends beyond a therapeutic setting and the need to appropriately distinguish our inner world from reality is something, which occurs in everyday life. Below are some examples of this.


I just said good morning to Jane in the hall this morningbut she didnt answerShe must be mad at me for something I have done.”


There may be many other explanations for this. She didn’t see you, she was deep in thought or she is grumpy today and has a lot on her mind.


I just failed my first exam of the yearThis must mean that I am now bound to fail the rest of my exams as well.”


Failing at something initially, does not equate to a pattern of failure, and does not mean that things cannot improve or change in the future.


Why is reality testing important?

We all have thoughts and ideas, which can at points feel dominating, controlling or overwhelming and it can be easy for us to imagine the worst-case scenario. During times when we experience feelings and worries at a heightened level, we can begin to think negatively. Here are some reasons that reality testing is important in our everyday lives:

  • It allows us to distinguish between what is real and what isn’t
  • It allows us to judge situations appropriately
  • It allows us to notice our own feelings and what they mean
  • It gives us a basis of comparison
  • It allows us to improve how we react to situations


How to reality test

The ability to reality test in everyday situations can be learnt, and it is entirely possible to gain a new way of understanding our thought processes. 

1) Be objective   

See a situation from as many angles as possible

Take time to make a judgement about a situation, avoid rushing in with immediate thoughts

Remember that other people have their own thoughts and feelings regarding situations, and it is entirely possible you have misread the situation

Think and then react

Consider how you emotionally react to a situation

Are you reacting too greatly or not enough?

Think about how much emotion or feeling each situation truly requires.

Notice themes and patterns in your life, and work toward adjusting how you react

2) Seek external perspectives

If a situation occurs, and you are unsure which feeling to attribute to it - ask a friend for their perspective

Take a moment to consider the possible outcomes or meanings before coming to a conclusion

Remember, that you do not need to react right away, and that sometimes silence or time to reflect can be beneficial


What can happen if we dont reality test?

If we do not give ourselves time to fact check our thoughts we allow the negative and damaging thoughts to seep in, and do not give ourselves the chance to check whether or not they are true, have validity or more importantly, whether they actually matter. Here are some common difficulties which can arise through not reality testing:                   

  • Increased belief in negative thought about ourselves
  • Becoming overwhelmed by thoughts
  • Convincing ourselves we may be to blame for another person's actions
  • Getting caught up in the dynamics of another person's thoughts
  • We may decide to act differently due to how we perceive other people's reactions to us


Benefits of paying attention to how we react

It is true to say that the more we think of a situation or experience the bigger and more dominant it can become. Therefore, being mindful of our thoughts, ideas and reactions to situations can be useful in assisting us in determining the validity of a situation or how much time or energy we should be giving to it. Listed below are some of the benefits of paying attention to how we react.

  • We gain deeper awareness of our own mind and our true thoughts and experiences
  • We dwell on immediate problems less, and can apply this to future situations.
  • We are able to negotiate more appropriately the situations which we know cause us irritation or distress
  • We are empowered to see wider possibilities and remove ourselves from situations which can be drawn out and unhelpful
  • We can notice what we are focusing on, and refocus our attentions elsewhere if necessary


Reality testing in therapy

If you find that any of the above resonates with you personally, and you can at times be overwhelmed by difficult thoughts or feelings that you are unsure how to change or avoid, then you could benefit from speaking with a qualified therapist or counsellor. The therapeutic space will allow you to explore your reactions to situations, your thought processes and give you the tools you need to better understand how to react appropriately to situations.

We will inevitably experience difficulties in our lives, and find ourselves in situations we do not fully understand, or find overwhelming. However, by taking a moment to consider our reactions, and placing our thoughts and feelings firmly in reality, we are able to distinguish our internal thoughts from the real world.

Joshua Miles is a verified therapist in EC2, London

Further reading

Meet the therapist: Joshua Miles

Challenging your thoughts: are they helpful?

Identifying moods and thoughts

Why escapism can be harmful

5 ways to manage overwhelming emotions