The Essence of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Comprehensive Approach to Treatment


 by Albert Ellis, Ph.D.


Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy is a comprehensive approach to psychological

treatment that deals not only with the emotional and behavioral aspects of human

disturbance, but places a great deal of stress on its thinking component. Human beings are

exceptionally complex, and there neither seems to be any simple way in which they

become “emotionally disturbed,” nor is there a single way in which they can be helped to

be less-defeating. Their psychological problems arise from their misperceptions and

mistaken cognitions about what they perceive; from their emotional underreactions or

overreactions to normal and unusual stimuli; and from their habitually dysfunctional

behavior patterns, which enable them to keep repeating nonadjustive responses even

when they “know” that they are behaving poorly.




REBT is based on the assumption that what we label our “emotional” reactions are

largely caused by our conscious and unconscious evaluations, interpretations, and

philosophies. Thus, we feel anxious or depressed because we strongly convince ourselves

that it is terrible when we fail at something or that we can’t stand the pain of being

rejected. We feel hostile because we vigorously believe that people who behave unfairly

to us absolutely should not act the way they indubitably do, and that it is utterly

insufferable when they frustrate us.

  Like stoicism, a school of philosophy that existed some two thousand years ago,

rational emotive behavior therapy holds that there are virtually no good reasons why

human beings have to make themselves very neurotic, no matter what kind of negative

stimuli impinge on them. It gives them full leeway to feel strong negative emotions, such

as sorrow, regret, displeasure, annoyance, rebellion, and determination to change social

conditions. It believes, however, that when they experience certain self-defeating and

unhealthy emotions (such as panic, depression, worthlessness, or rage), they are usually

adding an unrealistic and illogical hypothesis to their empirically-based view that their

own acts or those of others are reprehensible or inefficient and that something would

better be done about changing them.

  Rational emotive behavior therapists — often within the first session or two of

seeing a client — can almost always put their finger on a few central irrational

philosophies of life which this client vehemently believes. They can show clients how

these ideas inevitably lead to emotional problems and hence to presenting clinical

symptoms, can demonstrate ex actly how they forthrightly question and challenge these

ideas, and can often induce them to work to uproot them and to replace them with

scientifically testable hypotheses about themselves and the world which are not likely to

get them into future neurotic difficulties.




Rational therapy holds that certain core irrational ideas, which have been clinically

observed, are at the root of most neurotic disturbance. They are:

(1) The idea that it is a dire necessity for adults to be loved by significant others for

almost everything they do — instead of their concentrating on their own self-respect, on

winning approval for practical purposes, and on loving rather than on being loved.

(2) The idea that certain acts are awful or wicked, and that people who perform such acts

should be severely damned — instead of the idea that certain acts are self-defeating or

antisocial, and that people who perform such acts are behaving stupidly, ignorantly, or

neurotically, and would be better helped to change. People’s poor behaviors do not make

them rotten individuals.

(3) The idea that it is horrible when things are not the way we like them to be — instead

of the idea that it is too bad, that we would better try to change or control bad conditions

so that they become more satisfactory, and, if that is not possible, we had better

temporarily accept and gracefully lump their ex istence.

(4) The idea that human misery is invariably externally caused and is forced on us by

outside people and events — instead of the idea that neurosis is largely caused by the

view that we take of unfortunate conditions.

(5) The idea that if something is or may be dangerous or fearsome we should be terribly

upset and endlessly obsess about it — instead of the idea that one would better frankly

face it and render it non-dangerous and, when that is not possible, accept the inevitable.

(6) The idea that it is easier to avoid than to face life difficulties and self-responsibilities

instead of the idea that the so-called easy way is usually much harder in the long run.

(7) The idea that we absolutely need something other or stronger or greater than

ourselves on which to rely — instead of the idea that it is better to take the risks of

thinking and acting less dependently.

(8) The idea that we should be thoroughly competent, intelligent, and achieving in all

possible respects — instead of the idea that we would better do rather than always need to

do well and accept ourselves as a quite imperfect creature, who has general human

limitations and specific fallibilities.

(9) The idea that because something once strongly affected our life, it should indefinitely

affect it — instead of the idea that we can learn from our past experiences but not be

overly-attached to or prejudiced by them.

(10) The idea that we must have certain and perfect control over things — instead of the

idea that the world is full of probability and chance and that we can still enjoy life despite


(11) The idea that human happiness can be achieved by inertia and inaction — instead of

the idea that we tend to be happiest when we are vitally absorbed in creative pursuits, or

when we are devoting ourselves to people or projects outside ourselves.

(12) The idea that we have virtually no control over our emotions and that we cannot

help feeling disturbed about things — instead of the idea that we have real control over

our destructive emotions if we choose to work at changing the musturbatory hypotheses

which we often employ to create them.




1.  De-emphasis of early childhood. While REBT accepts the fact that neurotic states

are sometimes originally learned or aggravated by early teaching or irrational beliefs by

one’s family and by society, it holds that these early-acquired irrationalities are not

automatically sustained over the years by themselves.

  Instead, they are very actively and creatively re-instilled by the individuals

themselves. In many cases the therapist spends very little time on the clients’ parents or

family upbringing; and yet helps them to bring about significant changes in their

disturbed patterns of living. The therapist demonstrates that no matter what the clients’

basic irrational philosophy of life, nor when and how they acquired it, they are presently

disturbed because they still believe this self-defeating world- and self-view. If they will

observe exactly what they are irrationally thinking in the present, and will challenge and

question these self-statements they will usually improve significantly.


2.  Emphasis on deep philosophical change and scientific thinking. Because of its

belief that human neurotic disturbance is largely ideologically or philosophically based,

REBT strives for a thorough-going philosophic reorientation of a people’s outlook on

life, rather than for a mere removal of any of their mental or psychosomatic symptoms. It

teaches the clients, for ex ample, that human adults do not need to be accepted or loved,

even though it is highly desirable that they be. REBT encourages individuals to be

healthily sad or regretful when they are rejected, frustrated, or deprived. But it tries to

teach them how to overcome feelings of intense hurt, self-deprecation, and depression. As

in science, clients are shown how to question the dubious hypotheses that they construct

about themselves and others. If they believe (as alas, millions of us do), that they are

worthless because they perform certain acts badly, they are not merely taught to ask,

“What is really bad about my acts?” and “Where is the evidence that they are wrong or

unethical?” More importantly, they are shown how to ask themselves, “Granted that my

acts may be mistaken, why am I a totally bad person for performing them? Where is the

evidence that I must always be right in order to consider my-self worthy? Assuming that

it is preferable for me to act well rather than badly, why do I have to do what is


  Similarly, when people perceive (let us suppose, correctly) the erroneous and unjust

acts of others, and become enraged at these others, they are shown how to stop and ask

themselves, “Why is my hypothesis that the people who committed these errors and

injustices are no damned good a true hypothesis? Granted that it would be better if they

acted more competently or fairly, why should they have to do what would be better?”

REBT teaches that to be human is to be fallible, and that if we are to get on in life with

minimal upset and discomfort, we would better accept this reality — and then

unanxiously work hard to become a little less fallible.

3.  Use of psychological homework. REBT agrees with most Freudian, neo-Freudian,

Adlerian, and Jungian schools that acquiring insight, especially so-called emotional

insight, into the source of their neurosis is a most important part of people’s corrective

teaching. It distinguishes sharply, however, between so-called intellectual and emotional

insight, and operationally defines emotional insight as individuals’ knowing or seeing the

cause of their problems and working, in a determined and energetic manner, to apply this

knowledge to the solution of these problems. The rational emotive behavior therapist

helps clients to acknowledge that there is usually no other way for him to get better but by

their continually observing, questioning, and challenging their own belief-systems, and by

their working and practicing to change their own irrational beliefs by verbal and

behavioral counter-propagandizing activity. In REBT, actual homework assignments are

frequently agreed upon in individual and group therapy. Assignments may include dating

a person whom the client is afraid to ask for a date; looking for a new job; experimentally

returning to live with a husband with whom one has previously continually quarrelled;

etc. The therapist quite actively tries to encourage clients to undertake such assignments

as an integral part of the therapeutic process.

  The REBT practitioner is able to give clients unconditional rather than conditional

positive regard because the REBT philosophy holds that no humans are to be damned for

anything, no matter how execrable their acts may be. Because of the therapist’s

unconditional acceptance of them as a human, and actively teaching clients how to fully

accept themselves, clients are able to express their feelings more openly and to stop rating

themselves even when they acknowledge the inefficiency or immorality of some of their


  In many highly important ways, then, rational emotive behavior therapy utilizes

expressive-experimental methods and behavioral techniques. It is not, however, primarily

interested in helping people ventilate emotion and feel better, but in showing them how

they can truly get better, and lead to happier, non-self-defeating, self-actualized lives.


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