Sometimes, instead of seeing a situation for what it really is, we interpret it based on our inner hopes and fears, which may not be grounded in reality. For example, if a friend hasn’t replied to your messages yet, that’s probably because they’re just busy and they didn’t see the message. However, if you fear that your friend is angry with you or something bad happened to them, you might have trouble differentiating between the outside world and your inner world.
Reality testing can help you separate the two so that you can correct the errors in thinking, overcome anxiety, and react to events in a healthy way.
What is reality testing?
The concept of reality testing was introduced by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, who used it to determine whether patients could separate the external world from their own thoughts and feelings. Although some of Freud’s theories are no longer accepted by contemporary psychologists, the practice of reality testing has remained an important tool in helping people avoid anxiety and negative thoughts.
Reality testing can also help you overcome cognitive biases that might be holding you back. For example, a person who fails a job interview can imagine that they’ll fail all other job interviews because they’re underqualified and not good enough. Through reality testing, that person can discover that this negative assumption isn’t grounded in reality and that one failure doesn’t mean that they’ll never get a job or that things won’t get better.
Where is reality testing applied?
If you are often overwhelmed by negative thoughts and have heightened emotional reactions to everyday situations, your therapist can use reality testing to help you differentiate between the internal and external world and understand that things aren’t always as bad as you imagine them to be.
You can also apply the practice of reality testing in day-to-day life, to gain a deeper understanding of your thought patterns and how you react to different situations.
How can I reality test my reactions?
The practice of reality testing can be applied by anyone in everyday life. Here are a few things to keep in mind when doing this:
- Try to be objective and analyse the situation from as many points of view as possible.
- Consider the possibility that you misinterpreted the situation.
- Acknowledge other people’s thoughts and feelings. For example, maybe your boss didn’t return your greeting because they were too busy or stressed about something else, not because they’re angry with you or thinking about firing you.
- Think first, act later. Don’t jump to conclusions about your situation because your initial impression might be wrong. It’s alright to be silent and take a few moments to process the situation.
- Try to spot patterns in your emotional reactions.
- Assess whether you’re magnifying or minimising your emotional response.
- Practice emotional reasoning: just because you feel a certain way about something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.
- Ask a friend what they think about the situation. They can share their external perspective and make you look at things from a point of view you didn’t consider initially.
What are the benefits of reality testing?
Reality testing is a useful tool that can boost your mental wellness in many ways:
- Gain a deeper understanding of why you have certain thought patterns and emotional reactions.
- Evaluate thoughts logically rather than emotionally
- Learn to react appropriately to situations, depending on their real gravity, not your inner fears.
- Correct cognitive biases such as negative bias, overgeneralisation, all-or-nothing thinking, and comparison.
- Reduce the risk of potential mental health complications, such as stress, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
- Overcome negative and harmful thoughts.
In a professional setting, your therapist can suggest thought exercises that replace your initial negative thoughts with realistic alternatives.
If your initial reaction to failing an exam was to assume that you will fail all the other exams, discounting all the progress you’ve made, your therapist can use reality testing to help you understand that one failed exam doesn’t have to cause a string of failures.
Analysing our own thoughts isn’t always easy, but it’s necessary if we want to distinguish between what is and isn’t real. Neglecting to fact check your thoughts can, in time, lead to other problems:
- Become overwhelmed by negative thoughts
- Underplay your accomplishments and focus only on the negatives
- Comparing yourself to others and denying your self-worth
- Dwelling on situations that aren’t serious
- Blaming yourself or taking responsibility for things that are not your fault
- Having inappropriate emotional reactions to normal situations
- Change your behaviour based on what you imagine the other person wants
- Develop maladaptive behaviours
Because it can be hard to stay objective on personal matters, reality testing uses concrete strategies to help you separate your feelings from what’s really going on, and gain clarity. More often than not, reality isn’t as bleak as you imagine it.