The Essence of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Comprehensive Approach to Treatment by Albert Ellis, Ph.D. (The following has been adapted from The Essence of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy website).
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 exactly 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
(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
(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 this.
(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 preferable?”
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 woulould 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 quarreled; 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 acts.
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.