Machiavellian Therapy


I bet you never expected to hear someone say that one of their role models is Machiavelli, a man who has come to represent deceit and lack of scruples, but here you are. I admire him because he was the first proponent of Reality Therapy.

If you look it up, William Glasser gets all the credit for inventing Reality Therapy. He was a psychiatrist who lived five hundred years after Machiavelli. Glasser didn’t believe in reaching into a person’s psychological insides to root around for what was wrong like the Freudians do. He thought problems arise when the person is not getting her needs met. He preferred helping people discover what they really want and showing them how to behave in a way that leads to success.

Nowadays, you don’t hear much about William Glasser or Reality Therapy. You heard it from me because, being a reflective eclectic, I possess a vast storehouse of unfashionable therapeutic methods. Glasser’s ideas have become mainstream, after having mated with others and evolved into present day forms of CBT, ACT, and DBT, which you may heard of, if you traffic in therapeutic methods.

Glasser probably did not realize how Machiavellian his ideas were. Niccolò Machiavelli is not often associated with therapy. We don’t study him in shrink school. His very name conjures up images of bare-knuckled political realism, duplicitous bad faith, and self-centered expediency. There’s even a theory that the Devil is called Old Nick in reference to him. But Machiavelli was a counselor, a counselor to princes.

As a counselor to princes, Machiavelli did what I like to do with my clients. He got them grounded. I don’t mean grounded in the sense of meditate-on-your-breath-till-your-thoughts-stop-racing type grounding; I mean grounded in reality: the basic knowledge of what is. You see, if we don’t pay attention to reality, we’re not going to know how to thrive within it.

It amazes me sometimes, how little regard we have for reality; we much prefer the domain of a fantasy world. Take a guy filled with road rage, for instance, fuming that someone cut him off. He’ll tell you the other driver shouldn’t be permitted on the road. He honks his horn and speeds up, just to ride on the malefactor’s tail and show him how annoyed he is. What’s wrong with this picture? Only that the guy with road rage is so taken by his sense of right and wrong he forgets he lives in a real world of physics in which he could die in a car accident even when he’s right. He can’t accept a world where people make honest mistakes and sometimes misjudge the speed and urgency of other cars when they pull out into traffic. He prefers to believe his car horn can communicate accurately and tailgating is an effective teaching strategy. Or he believes that screaming and acting out makes him feel better and he ought to be able to express his feelings freely whenever he wants.

Machiavelli would have none of that. Don’t try to talk to him about right and wrong. Machiavelli didn’t care about what was right, he only cared about what worked. No, let me correct that. Machiavelli did care about moral codes. He cared about them enough to say that a wise prince should appear to have one, but that the prince should discard it the moment it becomes a liability.

From what I can tell, Glasser didn’t have much to say directly about morality, except to refer to a vison people have of an ideal world called, Quality World.  The guy with road rage has a vision of an ideal world in which everyone carefully obeys the rules of the road. He becomes righteously indignant whenever there’s a gap between Quality World and the world as it is.

For both Glasser and Machiavelli, it’s important to first identify the true components of Quality World. What you really want is seldom what it seems. What Machiavelli wanted was a stable political state, one in which the citizens were free, could prosper, and enjoyed law and order. Without that, nothing else was possible, not gentile manners, fine sentiments, nor love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, or faithfulness. Machiavelli had his one priority and all else was subordinate to it. He didn’t mind if a prince cut off a few heads, broke a few promises, started a few wars, and told a few lies if it resulted in political stability within his borders. He was willing to crack eggs to make egg salad.

If Glasser were to work with the guy with road rage, he would question him further about his vision of Quality World. The guy would start off by saying he wants everyone to follow the rules of the road. But, Glasser would ask, why is that important to you? We are all safer that way, the guy would answer, and we would get where we’re going with fewer hassles. Glasser would dig more, why is it important to be safe and have fewer hassles? The guy would look at Glasser like he was stupid, shrug his shoulders and say, it’s obvious, I want to enjoy life.

Once the vision of Quality World is sharpened this way, Glasser would begin phase two of his intervention. He would ask, what works? If you want to enjoy life, as you say, how do you go about doing that? What is effective? Do you enjoy life by fuming, screaming, shaking your fists, and tailgating? I didn’t think you did; you enjoy life by letting go of frustrations and behaving as if bad driving doesn’t matter.

This is where Machiavelli, and all shrinks to some extent, get a reputation for not having morals. People get hung up; unable to let go of the idea that following rules is important, even when rules don’t help. But rules are meant to serve people, not people, rules. How do you think I can listen non-judgmentally to all the horrible things clients say? I set aside moral codes when they are useless. I accept cheaters, narcissists, bullies, alcoholics, drug-dealers, woman-beaters, as well as child abusers, rapists, murderers, and criminals of all kinds as human beings no different than you and I. Everyone, when you get down to it, wants the same thing. We all have the same vision of Quality World. We just get stuck on ineffective ways of attaining it.

Another reason I admire Machiavelli is because, when it came to his field, politics, he was an early reflective eclectic. He thought a republic was the most desirable form of government, but he was not above advocating the others, monarchy and aristocracy, when they were useful. In the same way, I find Reality Therapy helpful only some of the time. For example, when I find one partner so devoted to a moral code that she puts up with all kinds of garbage from her partner while complaining about it. I start to think Reality Therapy might be good for her. I try to help her define her vision of Quality World and show her how alternating between enabling and scolding will not bring it about. Some people accept that and change their behavior accordingly. Others are so dug in that, if I continue in this vein, I’m just going to lose them. A Reality Therapist must accept reality. If Reality Therapy ain’t working, he’s got to turn to something else.

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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