Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

Albert Ellis

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), previously called rational therapy, is a form psychotherapy created and developed by the American psychologist Albert Ellis who was inspired by many of the teachings of Asian, Greek, Roman, and modern philosophers. REBT is one form of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and was first expounded by Ellis in the mid-1950s; development continued until his death in 2007.

 Originally called ‘rational therapy,’ its appellation was revised to ‘rational emotive therapy’ in 1959, then to its current appellation in 1992. REBT was one of the first of the cognitive behavior therapies, as it was predicated in articles Ellis first published in 1956, nearly a decade before Aaron Beck first set forth his cognitive therapy.

Precursors of certain fundamental aspects of REBT have been identified in various ancient philosophical traditions, particularly Stoicism. For example, Ellis’ first major publication on rational therapy describes the philosophical basis of REBT as the principle that a person is rarely affected emotionally by outside things but rather by ‘his perceptions, attitudes, or internalized sentences about outside things and events.’ He adds, ‘This principle, which I have inducted from many psychotherapeutic sessions with scores of patients during the last several years, was originally discovered and stated by the ancient Stoic philosophers, especially Zeno of Citium (the founder of the school), Chrysippus [his most influential disciple], Panaetius of Rhodes (who introduced Stoicism into Rome), Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. The truths of Stoicism were perhaps best set forth by Epictetus, who in the first century A.D. wrote in the ‘Enchiridion’: ‘Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.’ Shakespeare, many centuries later, rephrased this thought in ‘Hamlet’: ‘There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.’

One of the fundamental premises of REBT is that humans, in most cases, do not merely get upset by unfortunate adversities, but also by how they construct their views of reality through their language, evaluative beliefs, meanings and philosophies about the world, themselves and others. This concept has been attributed as far back as the Greek Philosopher Epictetus, who is often cited as utilizing similar ideas in antiquity. In REBT, clients usually learn and begin to apply this premise by learning the ‘A-B-C’-model of psychological disturbance and change, which states that it normally is not merely an A (Adversity) that contributes to disturbed and dysfunctional emotional and behavioral Cs (Consequences), but also what people B (Believe) about the adversity (or activating event). Adversity can be either an external situation or a thought or other kind of internal event, and it can refer to an event in the past, present, or future.

The beliefs are most important in the A-B-C model; they are explicit and implicit philosophical meanings and assumptions about events, personal desires, and preferences. The beliefs that are most significant are highly evaluative and consist of interrelated and integrated cognitive, emotional and behavioral aspects and dimensions. According to REBT, if a person’s evaluative beliefs about the adversity is rigid, absolutistic and dysfunctional, the emotional and behavioral consequence is likely to be self-defeating and destructive. Alternatively, if a person’s evaluative belief is preferential, flexible and constructive, the emotional and behavioral consequence is likely to be self-helping and constructive. Through REBT, by understanding the role of their illogical, unrealistic and self-defeating meanings, interpretations, and assumptions, people often can learn to identify them, and begin to D (Dispute), refute, challenge, and question them, distinguish them from healthy constructs, and subscribe to more constructive and self-helping constructs.

The REBT framework assumes that humans have both innate rational (meaning self- and social-helping and constructive) and irrational (meaning self- and social-defeating and un-helpful) tendencies and leanings. REBT claims that people to a large degree consciously and unconsciously construct emotional difficulties such as self-blame, self-pity, clinical anger, hurt, guilt, shame, depression and anxiety, and behaviors and behavior tendencies like procrastination, over-compulsiveness, avoidance, addiction, and withdrawal by the means of their irrational and self-defeating thinking, emoting and behaving. REBT is then applied as an educational process in which the therapist teaches the client how to identify irrational and self-defeating beliefs and philosophies which in nature are rigid, extreme, unrealistic, illogical, and absolutist, and then to forcefully and actively question and dispute them and replace them with more rational and self-helping ones.

By using different cognitive, emotive, and behavioral methods and activities, the client, together with help from the therapist and in homework exercises, can gain a more rational, self-helping and constructive rational way of thinking, emoting, and behaving. One of the main objectives in REBT is to show the client that whenever unpleasant and unfortunate activating events occur in people’s lives, they have a choice of making themselves feel healthily sorry, disappointed, frustrated, and annoyed, or making themselves feel unhealthily horrified, terrified, panicked, depressed, self-hating, and self-pitying. By attaining and ingraining a more rational and self-constructive philosophy of themselves, others and the world, people often are more likely to behave and emote in more life-serving and adaptive ways.

Albert Ellis posits three major insights of REBT: First, people seeing and accepting the reality that their emotional disturbances at point C only partially stem from the activating events or adversities at point A that precede C. Although A contributes to C, and although disturbed Cs (such as feelings of panic and depression) are much more likely to follow strong negative As (such as being assaulted or raped), than they are to follow weak As (such as being disliked by a stranger), the main or more direct cores of extreme and dysfunctional emotional disturbances (Cs) are people’s irrational beliefs — the absolutistic musts and their accompanying inferences and attributions that people strongly believe about their undesirable activating events.

Second, no matter how, when, and why people acquire self-defeating or irrational beliefs (i.e. beliefs which are the main cause of their dysfunctional emotional-behavioral consequences), if they are disturbed in the present, they tend to keep holding these irrational beliefs and continue upsetting themselves with these thoughts. They do so not because they held them in the past, but because they still actively hold them in the present, though often unconsciously, while continuing to reaffirm their beliefs and act as if they are still valid. In their minds and hearts they still follow the core ‘musturbatory’ philosophies they adopted or invented long ago, or ones they recently accepted or constructed.

Third, no matter how well they have achieved the first two insights, insight alone will rarely enable people to undo their emotional disturbances. They may feel better when they know, or think they know, how they became disturbed – since insights can give the impression of being useful and curative. But, it is unlikely that they will actually get better and stay better unless they go on to strongly apply the third insight: There is usually no way to get better and stay better but by continual work and practice in looking for, and finding, one’s core irrational beliefs; actively, energetically, and scientifically disputing them; replacing one’s absolutist musts with flexible preferences; changing one’s unhealthy feelings to healthy, self-helping emotions; and firmly acting against one’s dysfunctional fears and compulsions. Only by a combined cognitive, emotive, and behavioral, as well as a quite persistent and forceful attack on one’s serious emotional problems, is one likely to significantly ameliorate or remove them — and keep them removed.

Regarding cognitive-affective-behavioral processes in mental functioning and dysfunctioning, Ellis explains: ‘REBT assumes that human thinking, emotion, and action are not really separate or disparate processes, but that they all significantly overlap and are rarely experienced in a pure state. Much of what we call emotion is nothing more nor less than a certain kind — a biased, prejudiced, or strongly evaluative kind — of thought. But emotions and behaviors significantly influence and affect thinking, just as thinking influences emotions and behaviors. Evaluating is a fundamental characteristic of human organisms and seems to work in a kind of closed circuit with a feedback mechanism: First, perception biases response, and then response tends to bias subsequent perception. Also, prior perceptions appear to bias subsequent perceptions, and prior responses appear to bias subsequent responses. What we call feelings almost always have a pronounced evaluating or appraisal element.’

REBT then generally proposes that many of these self-defeating cognitive, emotive and behavioral tendencies are both innately biological and indoctrinated early in and during life, and further grow stronger as a person continually revisits, clings, and acts on them. Ellis alludes to similarities between REBT and the general semantics when explaining the role of irrational beliefs in self-defeating tendencies, citing Alfred Korzybski as a significant modern influence on this thinking. REBT differs from other clinical approaches like psychoanalysis in that it places little emphasis on exploring the past, but instead focuses on changing the current evaluations and philosophical thinking-emoting and behaving in relation to themselves, others and the conditions under which people live.

One of the main pillars of REBT is that irrational and dysfunctional ways and patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving are contributing to much emotional and behavioral self- and social defeatism. REBT generally teaches that when people turn flexible preferences, desires and wishes into grandiose, absolutistic, and fatalistic dictates, this tends to contribute to disturbance and upsetness.

Albert Ellis has suggested three core beliefs or philosophies that humans tend to disturb themselves through: 1) ‘I absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, perform well (or outstandingly well) and win the approval (or complete love) of significant others. If I fail in these important—and sacred—respects, that is awful and I am a bad, incompetent, unworthy person, who will probably always fail and deserves to suffer.’ (contributes to feelings of anxiety, panic, depression, despair, and worthlessness). 2) ‘Other people with whom I relate or associate, absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, treat me nicely, considerately and fairly. Otherwise, it is terrible and they are rotten, bad, unworthy people who will always treat me badly and do not deserve a good life and should be severely punished for acting so abominably to me.’ (contributes to feelings of anger, rage, fury, and vindictiveness). 3) ‘The conditions under which I live absolutely MUST, at practically all times, be favorable, safe, hassle-free, and quickly and easily enjoyable, and if they are not that way it’s awful and horrible and I can’t bear it. I can’t ever enjoy myself at all. My life is impossible and hardly worth living.’ (contributes to frustration and discomfort, intolerance, self-pity, anger, depression, and to behaviors such as procrastination, avoidance, and inaction).

REBT commonly posits that at the core of irrational beliefs there often are explicit or implicit rigid demands and commands, and that extreme derivatives like awfulizing, frustration intolerance, people deprecation, and over-generalizations are accompanied by these. According to REBT the core dysfunctional philosophies in a person’s evaluative emotional and behavioral belief system, are also very likely to contribute to unrealistic, arbitrary and crooked inferences and distortions in thinking. REBT therefore first teaches that when people in an insensible and devout way overuse absolutistic, dogmatic and rigid ‘shoulds,’ ‘musts,’ and ‘oughts,’ they tend to disturb and upset themselves.

Further REBT generally posits that disturbed evaluations to a large degree occur through over-generalization, wherein people exaggerate and globalize events or traits, usually unwanted events or traits or behavior, out of context, while almost always ignoring the positive events or traits or behaviors. For example, awfulizing is partly mental magnification of the importance of an unwanted situation to a catastrophe or horror, elevating the rating of something from bad to worse than it should be, to beyond totally bad, worse than bad to the intolerable and to a ‘holocaust.’ The same exaggeration and overgeneralizing occurs with human rating, wherein humans come to be arbitrarily and axiomatically defined by their perceived flaws or misdeeds. Frustration intolerance then occurs when a person perceives something to be too difficult, painful or tedious, and by doing so exaggerates these qualities beyond one’s ability to cope with them.

Essential to REBT theory is also the concept of secondary disturbances which people sometimes construct on top of their primary disturbance. As Ellis emphasizes: ‘Because of their self-consciousness and their ability to think about their thinking, they can very easily disturb themselves about their disturbances and can also disturb themselves about their ineffective attempts to overcome their emotional disturbances.’

As would be expected, REBT argues that mental wellness and mental health to a large degree results from an adequate amount of self-helping, flexible, empirical ways of thinking, emoting, and behaving. When a perceived undesired and stressful activating event occurs, and the individual is interpreting, evaluating and reacting to the situation rationally and self-helpingly, then the resulting consequence is, according to REBT, likely to be more healthy, constructive, and functional. This does not by any means mean that a relatively un-disturbed person never experiences negative feelings, but REBT does hope to keep debilitating and un-healthy emotions and subsequent self-defeating behavior to a minimum. To do this REBT generally promotes a flexible, un-dogmatic, self-helping and efficient belief system and constructive life philosophy about adversities and human desires and preferences.

REBT generally teaches unconditional self-acceptance in achieving mental wellness and mental health. Human beings are inherently fallible and imperfect and should accept their and other human being’s totality and humanity, even while at the same time not liking some of their behaviors and characteristics. They should avoid measuring their entire self or their ‘being’ and give up the narrow, grandiose, and ultimately destructive notion. This is partly because all humans are continually evolving and are far too complex to accurately rate; all humans do both self- and social-defeating and self- and social-helping deeds, and have both beneficial and un-beneficial attributes and traits at certain times and in certain conditions. REBT holds that ideas and feelings about self-worth are largely definitional and are not empirically confirmable or falsifiable. REBT also teaches people to accept life with its hassles and difficulties not always in accordance with their wants, while trying to change what they can change, and live as elegantly as possible with what they cannot change.

REBT posits that the client must work hard to get better, and in therapy this normally includes a wide array of homework exercises in day-to-day life assigned by the therapist. The assignments may for example include desensitization tasks such as having the client confront the very thing he or she is afraid of. By doing so, the client is actively acting against the belief that often is contributing significantly to the disturbance. Another factor, which contributes to the brevity of REBT, is that the therapist seeks to empower the client to help himself through future adversities. REBT only promotes temporary solutions if more fundamental solutions are not found. An ideal successful collaboration between the REBT therapist and a client results in changes to the client’s philosophical way of evaluating him- or herself, others, and his or her life, which will likely yield effective results. The client then moves toward unconditional self-acceptance, other-acceptance and life-acceptance while striving to live a more self-fulfilling and happier life.

Ellis has himself in very direct terms criticized opposing approaches such as psychoanalysis, transpersonal psychology (which studies the spiritual aspects of the human experience), and abreactive psychotherapies (‘reliving’ a trauma) in addition to on several occasions questioning some of the doctrines in certain religious systems, spiritualism, and mysticism. Many, including REBT practitioners, have warned against dogmatizing and sacredizing REBT as a supposedly perfect psychological cure-all and panacea. Prominent REBTers have promoted the importance of high quality and programmatic research, including originator Ellis, a self-proclaimed ‘passionate skeptic.’ He has on many occasions been open to challenges and acknowledged errors and inefficiencies in his approach and concurrently revised his theories and practices. REBT has generally in quite many ways been developed, revised and augmented through the years as understanding, knowledge and science about psychology and psychotherapy have progressed. This includes both its theoretical concepts but also its practices and methodology. Inherent in REBT as an approach has been the teaching of scientific thinking, reasonableness, and un-dogmatism and these ways of thinking have been part of REBT’s empiricism and skepticism.

2 Comments to “Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy”

  1. Very interesting topic , regards for posting . “The season of failure is the best time for sowing the seeds of success.” by Paramahansa Yogananda.

  2. Thank you for writing this. Very helpful to many I’m sure 8-) Thank you again, much love.

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