In this post, I introduce the major ideas of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), and its founder Albert Ellis. I also critique REBT from an existentialist perspective. REBT has some commonality with existentialist thought, such as the idea that we are responsible for our emotions and how we think about what happens to us is largely determined by our underlying philosophy of life.
Since this is a longer post, you can use the table of contents below to navigate to different sections.
- Who Was Albert Ellis?
- REBT as Quasi-Religion
- Existentialist View of REBT
- A Guide to REBT
- How We Make Ourselves Miserable
- Unconditional Acceptance of Self, Others, and Life
- Practicing REBT
- Shame-Attacking Exercises
- Negative Visualizations
- REBT Self-help Form
Who Was Albert Ellis?
There is no psychology; there is only biography and autobiography. -Thomas Szasz
Albert Ellis was a psychotherapist who came up with a philosophically based psychotherapy called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Ellis’ philosophy of life and his quasi-religious “therapy” was based on his life experiences of overcoming depression and anxiety as a young person. There were two major life events that had a profound effect on Ellis which informed his therapy and philosophy of life.
As a child, Ellis was sickly. Between the ages of five and seven, he was hospitalized several times. One of his hospitalizations lasted a year in which his parents never visited him. During this time young Ellis learned the harsh reality of life — that wanting something, in this case parental love, does not make it so. And, demanding that life be different from what it is, is often a recipe for depression and self-pity. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Ellis let go of his demand for love from his parents and refused to make himself more miserable than he already was while in the hospital.
Ellis’ psychotherapy incorporates an aspect of letting go of your sense of entitlement about what you think life should give you. He calls this Unconditional Life Acceptance (ULA).
The second major life event was at the age of 19. Ellis was painfully shy of women and yet wanted to talk with women and get a date. He decided to try an experiment to force himself to overcome his shyness. He forced himself to talk to 100 random women while strolling through the Bronx Botanical Garden.
Ellis recalls his experience talking with women in an interview with Myrtle Heery he said:
I prepared myself philosophically even then — it was before cognitive therapy really — by seeing that nobody took out a stiletto and cut my balls off, nobody vomited and ran away, nobody called the cop. I had a hundred pleasant conversations and the second hundred I got good at and made a few dates. So I used what I later developed into Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy on myself by thinking philosophically differently, that nothing is awful, terrible, it’s just a pain in the ass, that’s all it is.
This experience, of being rejected, helped Ellis come up with another core concept of REBT that he called Unconditional Self-acceptance (USA). This is the idea that when we fail to meet our perfectionistic standards, we make ourselves miserable in the process. Instead, we should accepting ourselves as fallible human beings, by setting realistic expectations for ourselves. We can reduce anxiety, depression, and anger as a result. By using Unconditional Self-acceptance, we can also stop worrying so much about what other people think.
Take a look at Ellis’ use of USA in this interview:
I accept that I do stupid, wrong things very frequently because I’m a fallible human and fallible humans do stupid wrong things — and that’s bad, it’s not good, it’s not neutral, it’s bad. But I, a human, am too complex to rate. You cannot rate a human as Alfred Korzybski shows. You can only rate what he or she does, so, therefore, I say I did badly and again I hope to change it next time especially since I live in a social group and choose to live in it…
Unlike most therapists, Ellis never shied from using strong language. Doing so, he says, helps him use his concept of Unconditional Self-acceptance. He felt that he was being more honest by using it and explains his reasoning in the same interview:
HEERY: I notice quite often you use the words “shit” and “fuck” and this kind of language. Is that okay with you? Is that some part of your vernacular?
ELLIS: Well, even when I was a nutty psychoanalyst I realized that people were afraid to use it. They always use it to themselves, but not in public, so in 1950 I was the first psychologist probably to say “shit” and “fuck” at the American Psychological Association. It’s not just part of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. People think it is, but it’s part of my believing that I will be myself and use my language in public, and if people don’t like it they don’t like it. Too damned bad, but it’s not awful and horrible.
Ellis was not afraid to speak out against what he considered the foolish practices in his field of psychotherapy. He believed that psychotherapy should be more of an educational experience, rather than an uncovering of past trauma or unconscious motivations. He said that most therapists were terrified to tell patients what they needed to hear. In an interview with Arthur Freeman, Ellis said:
…most of the psychotherapy, up to this day, is ass-licking. Most psychotherapists lick the ass of their clients and everybody else, because they have a dire need for love…therapists generally try to quiet clients down and help them feel better, and they do that mainly by loving them, caring for them, showing them that they’re okay, encouraging them, etc. But they don’t basically get them to get better…especially, getting them to the point where they change their basic philosophy of musts, shoulds, oughts, demands, so they stop upsetting themselves theoretically about anything, and the world could literally come to an end and they’d say: “Too damned bad. Now how do I enjoy the last few minutes? Why whine and scream because it’s coming to an end and I don’t like that?”
REBT as Quasi-Religion
All psychotherapy is quasi-religious because, while it may have some very good ideas, all schools of psychotherapy are based on underlying values about the way we should think, feel and act. Schools of psychotherapy are secular moral and ethical systems.
In our age, where medicine and health have replaced religion, one must apparently talk about morals in the shroud of medicine rather than philosophy. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to invent fake cures for problems in living and call it “psychotherapy”. Rather than simply saying, “this is how to live a good life”, as the Stoics did, you have to act as if you are curing a disease.
In the following interview, Ellis shows some of his personal values, and how they are incorporated into REBT:
Ellis: I’m a long-range hedonist, which we teach, rather than the short-range. The short-range smoke and drink and overeat and get into trouble because of the pleasure of the moment. So I look at the moment as many philosophers have done years ago and the future. I’m a long-range hedonist and go after what I want. But if I don’t get it, that’s too bad. It’s never awful. Nothing is awful or horrible in the universe. Do you know why?
HEERY: I’d like to question you on that, because I do think murder is a little bit horrible, don’t you? Or not?
ELLIS: Not even genocide.
HEERY: That’s not horrible, genocide is not?
ELLIS: Because you live in a social group and murder is wrong, and that will get you into jail, trouble, etc. So you follow the rules generally of the social group that you live in, so again you’d say: “I made a mistake, I preferably should not have murdered that person, it was wrong, but I absolutely did it, too bad. I am not a worm or a louse or a loser; I’m a fallible, screwed-up human who made a mistake this time. Now let me learn from it and next time I’ll make fewer mistakes…Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan are never bad people and if you condemn them you’re going to condemn yourself, what you do badly. So that’s an existentialist position which few people have.
Existentialist View of REBT
In the above exchange, we learn that Ellis is a long-range hedonist. That is fine, but why does he prescribe it for everyone? Who is to say that long-range hedonism is the best way to live? Certainly, Jesus, Socrates, Seneca, and many others would disagree. Some people like to lay down at the beach, while others like to surf the 30-foot waves — risking death on the reefs. For the existentialist, it must be up to the individual to choose the best way to live their life.
We also learn that the murders, Hitler, Stalin, and Genghis Kahn are not bad people! This requires a sort of mental gymnastics that most people cannot, or will not find realistic. For the existentialist, who a person is is how they chooses to act in life. So for the existentialist, it makes sense to make general statements about a person based on their behavior, such as liar, murderer, lover, etc.
It is ironic that REBT emphasizes letting go of demands, while at the same time demanding that we lower our expectations of ourselves, other people and life itself. This lowering of expectations, while certainly understandable, is itself a demand — and a prescription of how one should live. Ellis calls this, “changing our demands into preferences”. But one must ask themselves if this is desirable.
Certainly, most of the love songs on the radio are about how one person demands the love from another. Many people seem motivated to do well when they place demands on themselves. Would Steve Jobs had been better off if he did not demand so much from himself and those around him? It is unclear. What is clear is that REBT is a philosophy of life, and if it works for you, great, but don’t make it a prescription for everyone!
For the existentialist, life involves tradeoffs. If you lower your demands, you may decrease your anxiety, anger, and depression, but you also may not achieve as much as you otherwise would.
Psychotherapy, is what existentialist call “bad-faith”. Psychotherapy is a personal philosophy of life masquerading as a medical cure. For the existentialist, one must not live by another’s rules no matter how compelling. The important thing is to ask yourself is: “is this philosophy right for me”?
With all my criticisms of REBT, I still think it has some good ideas. If you are interested in how it might work for you, read my REBT guide below. If you are interested in looking into how REBT differs from the existential approach, check out the debate between Albert Ellis and Thomas Szasz.
A Guide to REBT
How We Make Ourselves Miserable
There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy. — Albert Ellis
At its core, REBT is the idea we make ourselves miserable, most of the time. We are the cause of our feelings, and we can change our feelings by changing our underlying philosophy behind our feelings.
REBT is based on some of the philosophy of the Stoics, especially Epictetus, who said:
”Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”
For Ellis, achieving tranquility of mind was not about changing what was going on in the external world, but rather, changing our underlying philosophy of life. Events themselves don’t cause us to be miserable, it is our beliefs about the event that controls our emotions. By changing our underlying beliefs, we can change how we feel.
According to Ellis, we have three basic demands that make us miserable.
- I must do everything perfectly
- Others must treat me well
- Life must be easy and problem-free
When we make demands of ourselves, other people, or life itself, we cause ourselves to be anxious, angry, depressed or simply miserable. We turn our preferences into needs, and demand that they be satisfied! For example, if I told myself while writing this post: “I must write the perfect guide on how to use REBT.” How do you think I would feel? Probably very anxious.
According to Ellis, I would be better off if I changed my underlying philosophy and told myself:
”I will put forth a solid effort. If other people don’t like my post, then too bad! I can use the feedback to write a better post next time.“
By transforming my demand into a mere desire, I will have prevented myself from becoming anxious and perhaps more likely to achieve my stated goal.
Demands on Self
When we place impossible demands on ourselves, we become miserable as a result. Demands on ourselves are often inflexible, unrealistic, and overly dependent upon what other people think of us. For example, you might say to yourself:
“I must do everything perfectly. If I fail to do things perfectly, then I am a failure.”
Or you might say,
“I must have approval from others. I must not act in a way that others will disapprove of.”
If you hold these beliefs, you will become angry, anxious or depressed when your demands are not met. In life, you will inevitably fall short of perfection. By changing your underlying philosophy and disputing your demands, you can change how you feel. For example, ask yourself, “Why must I do everything perfectly? Where is it written that I must have others’ approval?”
To combat your perfectionism, you could tell yourself instead:
I would prefer that I do everything well, but it isn’t realistic for me to put this demand on myself. I will stop making myself angry, depressed and anxious with my demands.
Attack your dire need for approval from others by telling yourself:
I desire for others’ approval of all that I do. But I can stand it, and live a good life, even if others do not approve of all of my actions. I will stop making myself miserable, angry, anxious, and depressed due to my obsession with other’s opinions of me.
Demands on Others
Ellis claimed that when we make demands of others, we place ourselves at the center of the universe and insist that others act in accordance with our will. Placing demands on others may lead to rage, anger, impatience, bitterness, and resentment. For example, you might demand that other people treat you fairly. You may hold the belief:
“Other people must treat me fairly, act competently, and not criticize me, otherwise, they are no good human beings and deserve to be punished.”
You can dispute what Ellis called your, “god-like” demand by telling yourself:
“I wish that people would act fairly, especially towards me! But if they don’t, then too bad! I do not need to take the criticism of others so seriously. I will stop making myself mad by demanding that others always act favorably towards me.”
Accepting that others act badly does not mean that you condone their behavior. It only means that you stop demanding that people act like angels, especially towards you.
Demands on Life
When we demand that life should be easy, problem free, or different from what it is, we take our desire for a vacation from life and make it into a need. In the process, we make ourselves miserable. Demanding an easy, problem-free life is a recipe for anger, anxiety, depression, and self-pity. For example, we may tell ourselves:
Life shouldn’t be this hard. Life should be easy and problem-free. I can’t stand life the way it is. The government, my job, my boss, my spouse, my child, or my parents should change to make things easier for me.
We can combat our sense of injustice with life by telling ourselves something more helpful such as:
I prefer that life were different and will try to change what is within my control, but I won’t make myself more miserable by demanding that life goes according to my personal wishes. I have limited control over my job, my boss, my spouse, my child, my parents, and the government. I will try to change what is within my control and let go of the rest. Even though life is unfair and difficult, I can stand it and embrace happiness when it does come my way. I will refuse to make myself more miserable by demanding that life always be easy and problem-free.
Ellis maintained that if you take a close look, you will find that your feelings of misery stem from your own demands. By changing your demands to preferences, you can change your feelings of anger, depression and anxiety. You can change depression into mere dissatisfaction, anxiety into simple concern, and anger into mere frustration.
Unconditional Acceptance of Self, Others, and Life
According to Ellis, the second part of getting rid of your personal misery involves unconditionally accepting yourself, others, and life in general. Why would you want to do this? Because you and everyone else on this planet are fallible, flawed human beings! You will make mistakes, others will treat you badly, and life will be difficult. But that is hardly a reason to despair. Accepting yourself, others, and life for what it is doesn’t mean that you desire to be treated badly. It merely requires that you stop overgeneralizing about the negative aspects of yourself, others, and life.
When we overgeneralize about our flaws, we make ourselves miserable in the process. Practice accepting yourself as a worthwhile human being despite your flaws. You are a flawed human being who makes mistakes, but that hardly makes you inhuman. For example, suppose that you make a mistake or treat someone badly. You could make yourself miserable by holding onto the belief, “I am a terrible human being for acting in such a way.”
Instead of berating yourself for your mistake, you could accept your human fallibility, telling yourself:
I am a fallible human being who makes mistakes. Just because I acted badly in the past does not make me a terrible, awful person. I can strive to do better in the future.
When other people fail to treat us with respect, do not enjoy our company, or simply ignore us, this can make us angry, anxious or depressed. In such circumstances, you may tell yourself, “I can’t stand it when others treat me unfairly!” The truth said Ellis, is that you can stand it, and even live a happy life in spite of the fact that others behave badly towards you from time-to-time. Ellis encourages us to accept others as worthwhile human beings despite the fact that they behave badly on occasion. Try telling yourself:
Other people will treat me badly from time-to-time, but that does not make them inhuman. In fact, there are times when I have treated others badly, yet that hardly makes me inhuman. I can accept other people without condoning their bad behavior.
Life doesn’t always work out the way that we had planned. But, for Ellis, this doesn’t mean that life is not worth living! We can still enjoy life despite the fact that life has not conformed to our desires. There is no reason, after all, that the universe should cater to our desires. If you find yourself demanding that life be different from what it is, try telling yourself:
There is no reason why life must go only the way I desire it to go. I will work to change what I can, but I will not make myself more miserable when life is difficult. I will stop demanding that the universe caters to my desires. Even when life feels unbearable, I can stand it. I can continue working towards my goals no matter how difficult life is.
So far, you have learned about the tools that you will need to dispute your demands, and to accept that your desires are not the same as needs. You can begin the practice of changing your beliefs by acknowledging that which is beyond your control.
Is it worth feeling miserable about something which cannot be changed? If not, then work instead to change that which is within your control, especially your demanding beliefs. Preferences are great, says Ellis, but do not revert to demanding that you must have everything you desire. You will only make yourself more miserable in the process.
Ellis suggested that people who are miserable are that way, in part, because they take themselves too seriously. We feel shame when we feel as if we acted stupidly, and we evaluate our entire personhood as a result. He had his clients perform “shame-attacking” exercises to help them overcome unwanted feelings of shame. Shame-attacking exercises can help you stop taking yourself too seriously. The exercises may sound ridiculous, but that is partly because they are! Rather than over-intellectualizing your misery, you can start doing something practical. Here are a few exercises you can try:
- Ask someone you don’t know: “Excuse me, but I just got out of the mental hospital. Can you tell me what year it is?”
- Tie a long red ribbon around a banana and “walk” it down a busy street.
- Ride a crowded elevator standing backward (facing the rear).
- Yell out five successive stops on the bus.
- Wear a ridiculous outfit.
- Grow unusual facial hair.
The Stoic philosophers advised us to regularly visualize losing something that is precious to us. For example, they recommended imagining losing your children or spouse. Doing this, they claimed, would help you to feel more grateful for the things that you have. You can practice imagining that you have lost something that is precious to you. It could be your car, your house, or some other prized possession.
So often, we take for granted the things that make our lives great. We forget the things that have made human existence so much more pleasant than it may have been in past generations. For instance, think of how running water, universal sanitation, flush toilets, or grocery stores have changed our lives. Negative visualizations can help you to remember that life, while unpleasant at times, is never as horrible as you might sometimes imagine it to be.
REBT Self-help Form
The following examples may help you identify your unwanted emotions and work to change your underlying beliefs that are driving your misery.
Describe the Problem
What are you sad, angry, anxious or upset about?
- I feel anxious at work.
- I am angry because someone treated me unfairly.
- Life is so difficult, it makes me miserable and I can’t stand it!
- I’m depressed because I can’t get what I want.
Identify Your Unhelpful Beliefs
What are your unhelpful beliefs in this situation?
- I must perform well and gain the approval of others or else I am a worthless person!
- Other people must treat me fairly or else they are horrible people!
- Life must go the way I want it to or else the world is a rotten place and life is not worth living.
Dispute Your Unhelpful Beliefs
Ask questions that challenge your unhelpful beliefs.
- Where is it written that I must perform well?
- What’s the worst that can happen if I don’t get what I want?
- Just because I prefer to be treated fairly, does that mean I must be treated fairly?
- Just because I don’t like something, does that mean it is horrible and awful?
Identify Your New Emotions
What are your new emotions? Now that you have identified and challenged your unhelpful beliefs, identify your new helpful emotions.
- Sadness, but not despair.
- Concern, but not anxiety.
- Annoyance, but not anger.
- Disappointment, but not depression.
- Regret, but despondency.
- Frustration, but not furry.
Albert Ellis believed that we can achieve tranquility in life by mastering our underlying beliefs. For him, achieving tranquility wasn’t about controlling the external world, but rather, it was about mastering your underlying philosophy of life.
Albert Ellis said that you can refuse to make yourself miserable by attacking your demands on life, yourself and other people. Does this philosophy ring true for you? If so, Ellis encouraged us to let go of our demands and sense of entitlement. In exchange, we may be able to live a happier, more tranquil life.