Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

Ann Vernon

Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is the first cognitive-behavioral therapy to be introduced into clinical practice by Albert Ellis (1957/1975). Although thousands of counselors or therapists throughout the world have been trained in REBT, Ellis himself was one of the most significant promulgators of his theory. In its over 50 years of existence, REBT has been applied successfully to individual, group, marital, and family therapy for a wide array of problems. It is a well-established form of counseling or therapy that has been used successfully with children and adults in hospital and mental health facilities, as well as in industrial, commercial (DiMattia & IJzermans, 1996; Ellis & Dryden, 1997), and educational settings (Banks & Zionts, 2009; Vernon, 2009b, 2009c). Rational emotive behavior therapy has a strong philosophical basis as well as commitment to the scientific method. The interconnectedness of thinking, feeling, and behaving is central to this theory, as is the notion that emotional distress results from dysfunctional thought processes.


Albert Ellis, who died of natural causes in 2007 at the age of 93, was the grandfather of cognitive-behavioral therapy and the founder of rational-emotive therapy, currently known as rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). There is little doubt that Ellis's legacy will live on, as he was considered to be the second most influential psychotherapist in history, next to Carl Rogers. He was also regarded as a mentor by countless numbers of counselors and psychotherapists throughout the world (Broder, 2001). Although he had a reputation for being abrasive and abrupt and often seemed to delight in being flamboyant and somewhat eccentric, comments about his harsh manner reflect overgeneralizations. In fact, there was another side to Ellis that was often ignored, which was his ability to be compassionate and personable – characteristics to which numerous clients, colleagues, and personal friends could attest. Although he was an energetic professional who literally never wasted a minute, he revealed his humanness by being unassuming, witty, supportive, and encouraging (DiMattia & Lega, 1990). The fact that he donated much of his income from his therapy sessions, lectures, and workshops to the Albert Ellis Institute is proof of his desire to see the Institute flourish and his theory promulgated.

Ellis was bom in Pittsburgh in 1913 but spent most of his life in New York City. The eldest of three children, Ellis was frequently hospitalized when he was young for nephritis and also suffered from severe headaches (Ellis, 2004a). He was a very bright student who began writing stories, essays, and comic poems at the age of 12. Prior to becoming a psychologist, Ellis worked as an accountant while he pursued his interests in philosophy, music, literature, and politics. He wrote novels and operas, and as a political activist, he overcame his fear of public speaking by giving political talks (DiGiuseppe, 1999).

As a young man, Ellis was also very interested in romantic and sexual relationships, in part because he was anxious about dating. In fact, he had had a great deal of social phobia throughout his childhood and teen years (Nelson-Jones, 2000). At age 19, to overcome his shyness toward women, he forced himself to talk to a hundred girls in the Bronx Botanical Gardens (Ellis, 2004a). His self-experiment was successful because he was married briefly to two different women in his younger years, sustained a relationship with Dr. Janet Wolfe for over 30 years, and married Debbie Joffee when he was 90 years old. As a young man, he was often asked for advice about romance, and friends encouraged him to enroll in a clinical psychology doctoral program so that he would have more credibility. After graduating from Columbia University, he started intensive psychoanalytic training. Although he had reservations about Freud's theory of personality, he retained his belief in the efficacy of psychoanalytic techniques and spent 2 years in intense analysis. At the conclusion of his therapy, he worked under supervision with his own clients, sitting behind them on the sofa and practicing orthodox psychoanalysis. However, he soon became disillusioned with this approach and began to question the validity of interpretation and insight, as well as the effectiveness and efficiency of psychoanalysis (DiGiuseppe, 1999; Ellis, 2004b). In 1950 he began to experiment with different forms of therapy, including psychoanalyti- cally oriented psychotherapy and eclectic-analytic therapy. Although he achieved better results with his clients, he still felt dissatisfied. He began putting his psychological and philosophical knowledge together in a different way and between 1953 and 1955 reread philosophy and did a comprehensive study of all the major therapy techniques. "As a result of this research, I came up with REBT by the end of 1954 and started practicing it in January 1955" (Ellis, 2002b, p. 14). It was first called rational therapy (Dryden, 2002c), then rational-emotive therapy, and is now known as rational emotive behavior therapy (Broder, 2001; Dryden, 2002c).

As an innovator, Ellis was often criticized, but in an interview with Michael Broder in 2001, Ellis asserted that he probably received more criticism than most because he did original things. True to form, he did not let criticism stop him because he saw his motive as being effective and efficient. Therefore, he continued to change his ideas and revise his theory, striving to make it comprehensive and intensive so that "clients wouldn't just feel better, but they would also get better" (Broder, 2001, p. 78). As a therapist, Ellis saw his goal as solving personal and social problems. As a problem solver, he tried to figure out better solutions. He shared that had he not been a therapist, he would have been an efficiency expert. His intolerance for inefficiency can be summarized in his statement that "life is short and the one thing you never get back is time" (Broder, 2001, p. 78). For this reason, Albert Ellis did most things quickly and efficiently, and often did several things at once, such as exercising or reading while he listened to music. He also was not a procrastinator, because he viewed that as a waste of time. As a high school student, he did his homework in the 10 minutes between classes, and even into his late 80s, he always submitted articles several months before they were due. He attributed his ability to accomplish so much to his persistence, lack of procrastination, and the fact that he did not have to do everything perfectly (Broder, 2001).

As the founder of REBT, Ellis generally practiced what he preached. Several years before his death, he fell and was hospitalized for several days. Although it was a major inconvenience because he was scheduled for an out-of-town speaking engagement, he characteristically did not complain but instead videotaped his lecture from his hospital room and continued reading and writing during his stay. He was diagnosed as having Type 1 insulin-dependent diabetes when he was 45 and since that time was assiduous about testing his blood and giving himself insulin. Rather than being victimized by his fate, he dealt with the disorder and made the necessary accommodations by exercising high frustration tolerance (Ellis, 2004a). This pattern continued into his later years when he became seriously ill and had numerous hospitalizations.

Up until he was almost 90, Ellis worked from 9:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m., 7 days a week, only interrupting his schedule for a brief afternoon nap in his office. In a given week, he saw as many as 80 clients, conducted at least five group therapy sessions, supervised trainees, and gave lectures and workshops throughout the world. Shortly before his 90th birthday he developed a severe infection, lost his large intestine, and almost died. After that time he saw fewer clients, but for at least a year continued to do supervision with the fellows in training and conduct his famous Friday night workshops. He also continued to do some writing, and at the time of his death, he had published over 80 books and 1,200 articles, primarily on the theory and applications of REBT.

Ellis was a frequent guest on radio and television shows and was featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN. He was a charismatic speaker who gave over 3,000 lectures and workshops throughout the world. He was one of the most controversial figures in modem psychology and received numerous awards, including distinguished psychologist, scientific researcher, and distinguished psychological practitioner from various associations (DiMattia & Lega, 1990). His books have been translated into more than 20 languages, and he is famous for his rational humorous songs that he wrote and sang at his public talks and workshops and on numerous radio and television programs in the United States and abroad. At the time of his death, Ellis was president emeritus of the Albert Ellis Institute in New York City, which has affiliated training centers throughout the world.

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