Epictetus once said, “Men are not worried by things, but by their ideas about things. When we meet difficulties, become anxious or troubled, let us not blame others, but rather ourselves, that is: our ideas about things” (Tucker-Ladd). This is a basic tenet of REBT. Originally called Rational Therapy, REBT is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy which focuses on beliefs rather than moods. Or, more to the point, REBT attempts to rid its clients of their irrational beliefs rather than medicating or attempting to work directly on the mood produced by such beliefs. Like other cognitive-behavioral therapies, REBT’s focus is on the present, rather than the past focus found in psychoanalysis.
One of the main ideas behind REBT is that people have the ability to be happy, but allow their irrational beliefs to get in the way of this happiness. Rather than accepting problems, trouble, and uncomfortable situations as just a part of life, people become overly upset, discouraged, or unable to function. REBT says that this emotional reaction can be changed by changing the thoughts behind it. Albert Ellis, the creator of REBT, believes that we are all rational people who are capable of breaking the self-destructive cycle of irrational thoughts by replacing the irrational thoughts, which he refers to as “internalized sentences” or “self-talk” (Ellis 52) with rational thoughts.
Ellis named three main, general erroneous schools of thought that can lead people to unhappiness. The first is people’s tendency to ignore the positive: when things go slightly astray, people do not try to look for what is good in the situation. Instead, they focus on what is bad, which brings us to number two: people’s tendency to exaggerate the negative. Once something bad has happened, a person will think about it repeatedly, making it bigger and worse in his or her head until it becomes something that he or she cannot even consider coping with. The third negative tendency is overgeneralizing. When something goes wrong, a person may convince him or herself that the same thing is always going wrong for him or her, that he or she is bad at everything, etc.
Ellis also named the three basic irrational beliefs. One is “I must be outstandingly competent, or I am worthless.” People often base their self-worth on their abilities, skills, and talents. Any type of failure, therefore, equates to low self-worth. Two is “Others must treat me considerately, or they are absolutely rotten.” People tend to feel that other people owe them kindness, politeness, and friendliness. When they are not given this, they often become angry and assume that the other person is against them or simply a “bad” person. Three is “The world should always give me happiness, or I will die.” This one is especially important, because it illustrates the source of unhappiness for many. People feel that the world owes them, that they deserve or even need constant happiness and a trouble free life, so when troubles do arrive, they feel as though they are being attacked and/or treated unfairly by the world.
In addition, people tend to catastrophize situations, in which they take an ordinarily unpleasant situation and turn it into something so huge that they cannot deal with it. Another harmful tendency that Ellis mentions is people’s inclination to confuse wants with needs. When people do this, they become so attached to the idea of having something that they feel they cannot live without it. When they cannot get it, they become upset and depressed.
Another predisposition that REBT tries to correct is people’s tendency to base their self-worth on various criteria: whether or not someone likes them, whether they get a promotion at work, whether or not they get a high score on a test. For example, a teenage boy might base his self-worth on his basketball playing skills. When he does not make the varsity team, or does badly in a game, he will then get angry at himself, and feel as though he worthless and bad at everything.
Ellis believes that we are all biologically programmed to be disposed towards this kind conditioning. It is human nature to have these kinds of thoughts and to allow them to influence our lives.
Ellis says, …even the most intelligent and capable persons in our society tend also to be, because of their biological inheritance, amazingly suggestible, unthinking, overgeneralizing, and strongly bound to the low-level kinds of ideation which it is so easy for them to become addicted to as children; and perhaps more importantly, we bring up our citizens so that, instead of counteracting their normal biological tendencies toward irrationality, we deliberately and forcefully encourage them to keep thinking in childish, nonsensical ways. (93)
Ellis believes that we learn to internalize irrational thought systems that we get from our parents, schools, churches, and even government. Our societal structure often exacerbates the tendency toward irrational thinking with belief systems that tell us such things like we can be/do/have anything we want if we just work hard enough. Such a belief system leads us into great disappointment and often self-loathing when we do fail.
However, REBT says that this can be changed. We must first be made aware of our irrational thoughts, and secondly we must replace them with rational thoughts. The final goal of the therapy is unconditional self acceptance, in which a person learns to accept and love him or herself for who he or she is rather than what he or she does. Ellis also believes that self-evaluation is a destructive process, and should always be avoided if one hopes to attain unconditional self acceptance.
REBT does not aim to repress or eliminate all emotions; rather, it focuses only on repetitive or continuous negative emotions.
“…sustained negative emotions – such as intense depression, anxiety, anger, and guilt – are almost always unnecessary to human living, and they can be eradicated if people learn consistently to think straight and to follow up their straight thinking with effective action.”(52)
Evaluations of REBT show that 65 percent of those treated improve significantly, and 90 percent who have at least 10 sessions show marked improvement (38). In addition, REBT tends to be more efficient in fixing certain problems due to its emphasis on the present rather than past. Instead of focusing on the past and creating a victim complex, in which the client becomes enveloped in self-pity, REBT does quite the opposite, removing fixations on the past and refuting the idea of self-pity. Another advantage to REBT is its endurance. When people understand the concept behind REBT, they can change their entire way of thinking, and once they have done this, they are unlikely to fall back into old habits. Also, REBT is simple and clear enough that one can practice it on him or herself without actual therapy sessions, if he or she understands the basic concepts behind it.
However, REBT has some weaknesses. For instance, it does not take into consideration chemical disturbances, which disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder are often caused by. Many disorders are not caused specifically by irrational thoughts, and often, the sufferers do not even understand or know what causes them. In these cases, the client cannot simply be “talked out” of his or her problem. In such cases, the client often needs medication to control the chemical deficiencies in the brain. Critics of REBT also say that it can be too judgmental, over-verbal, intellectualized, and unemotional (332).
REBT works better on certain people. The more open and intelligent the person, the more likely the therapy will work well. The person has to be able to take criticism and must be willing to change his or her thought patterns and beliefs. Mild depression, anger, and guilt caused by simple, day-to-day problems are easier to treat with REBT than acute depression or anger caused by large, specific events such as the death of a friend or family member, abuse, and drug and alcohol dependence. REBT is not necessarily for children but could work very well on bright and willing adolescents.
Ellis, Albert. Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. New York: Lyle Stuart, 1962.
Gregg, Gary. “A Sketch of Albert Ellis.” Personality Theories 2000. 24 November 2003.
Tucker-Ladd, Clayton E. “Challenging Irrational Ideas.” Mental Health Net 1996-2000. 25 November 2003.