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.
12 IRRATIONAL IDEAS THAT CAUSE AND SUSTAIN NEUROSIS
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.
MAIN DIFFERENCES FROM OTHER SCHOOLS
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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