Albert Ellis and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy
Rational emotive behavior therapy, called RET or REBT, is a form of action-oriented psychotherapy which helps patients identify and adjust their destructive, irrational thoughts and behavior patterns. In order to understand how it works, it’s helpful to have a little background on the ways in which we formulate our emotional and behavioral responses to life.
Perhaps more than anything else, human beings want desperately to be happy. We may see our happiness as contingent upon circumstances and events that affect us, but behavioral psychologist Albert Ellis saw pursuing the goal of happiness a little differently.
According to Ellis, our emotional reactions—and therefore, our happiness—aren’t merely the result of things that happen to us. Instead, our reactions to our circumstances are determined by the beliefs we hold about ourselves and about the world in general. In other words, our own thinking patterns about our situation, whether rational or irrational, determine our happiness.
Ellis’ A-B-C model illustrates how our beliefs prompt behavioral and emotional reactions. In his model, A is the activating event itself, B is our belief, and C is our emotional consequence. For example, say you receive a mediocre performance report at work that threatens your job security—this is an activating event (A). If you hold the belief (B) that you must be incompetent, then your reaction might be shame or anxiety (C).
On the other hand, if you hold the belief (B) that your boss has evaluated you unfairly, your emotional reaction might be anger and resentment (C). According to Ellis, emotional responses of shame or anger aren’t a result of the performance report, but are instead the result of beliefs that cause us to interpret the performance report a certain way.
Our rational beliefs correspond with flexibility and consequently take the form of wishes, desires, hopes, etc. When met with adversity, a person with rational beliefs will achieve sensible emotional and behavioral consequences because their beliefs, though strong, are more elastic. These people experience only moderate levels of negativity when confronted with setbacks, accept a complex world in which good and bad exist along a continuum, think about events in a flexible way that avoids always/never conclusions, and accept that while unpleasant, they can tolerate an undesirable outcome.
It’s when our beliefs are irrational that our potential for happiness is thwarted and our reactions become dysfunctional. Irrational beliefs take the form of strict “musts,” “have tos,” and “shoulds”. They are characterized by rigidity and yield irrational conclusions that manifest as a low frustration threshold, bifurcated always/never thinking, and a tendency to catastrophize. Our irrational beliefs stem from three basic types of demands, according to Ellis: demands about the self, demands about others, and demands about the world.
Unreasonable demands about self might include statements like “I must succeed in everything that I do or I am doomed,” or “If I don’t do well, life will be unbearable”. Such beliefs often produce feelings of anxiety, blame and depression.
On the other hand, demands of others—such as, “I must be treated with fairness always, or you deserve condemnation for your unfair treatment of me”—can result in anger, passive-aggression and even violence.
Lastly, demands about the world come in the form of extreme beliefs about our life condition. “If things don’t go exactly my way, life is terrible,” is an example of such a demand. Fallacious demands about the world produce defeatism and hurt.
Ellis’ rational emotive behavior therapy works to change the irrational beliefs that stem from these demands to rational ones. While all people will have irrational thoughts from time to time, REBT helps to ensure that we can reduce the extent, occurrence and force of our illogical beliefs and avoid negative behavioral and emotional consequences.
To this end, Ellis added a D-E component to his A-B-Cs of REBT. D stands for disputing irrational beliefs and thought patterns. In treatment, a qualified REBT therapist can help to identify and then challenge a client’s irrational beliefs by asking logical, functional and empirical questions. A therapist might ask a patient if their belief is hurting or helping them, or if there is any proof that such a belief is true, or even logical.
The final stage of therapy is generating effective new belief systems (E). In this phase, an REBT practitioner helps the patient to replace an irrational belief with a helpful, rational one. Through time and effort, dysfunctional beliefs are changed to emotionally healthy responses that lead to unconditional acceptance of self, others and fthe world.
REBT is a very practical and effective therapy in that once patients learn the process, it can become a philosophy of life instead of just a one-off treatment. The desired result is an emotionally healthy, happy human being with a greater acceptance of and tolerance for frustration and an abundance of self-acceptance. REBT is one of the most widely practiced forms of psychotherapy and Albert Ellis is considered with luminaries such as Sigmund Freud as preeminent in his field.
- Essential Psychology by Philip Banyard, Gayle Dillon, Christine Norman, Belinda Winder (SAGE, 2015)