Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

Albert Ellis first demonstrated and introduced his innovative rational-emotive therapy (RET) in 1957. In 1993, Ellis revised and expanded the scope of his theory, creating rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). REBT resulted from Ellis’s response to the frustration he experienced as a psychoanalyst when his patients were not improving using traditional psychoanalytic techniques. Ellis found that patients seemed to improve more rapidly when he was more active and direct in his methods. The perceived lack of efficacy of psychoanalytic treatment caused Ellis to return to his philosophical roots in Greek, Roman, and ancient Asian philosophy and seek a more effective form of therapy. These philosophies laid the foundation for REBT, which states that people are disturbed not by things, but by their views of those things.

Ellis focused on people’s cognitions as the sources of their psychological distress and believed there were two basic biological tendencies in how humans think. The first is that humans have a biological tendency to think irrationally and in a dysfunctional manner. This is based on humans’ predisposition to think “crookedly,” and is supported by the observation that irrational thinking is so prevalent despite the individuals’ attempts to think rationally. The second biological tendency is that humans also tend to work toward changing their dysfunctional thinking and acting. Humans have the ability to recognize when their irrational thoughts are causing a disturbance, the ability to see that a change can be made to alter the irrational thinking, and the ability to actively work toward changing the irrational thoughts through cognitive, emotive, and behavioral methods. REBT works with that ability in order to help individuals identify and change their irrational belief systems to more rational ones. Overall, the image of the person in REBT is one of optimism. REBT has a basic proposition that people have goals, desires, and purposes in life that generally can be described as striving for happiness, a long life, self-actualization, success, approval, and comfort. A healthy person sees these goals and desires as options, not absolute givens that must occur.

Understanding this therapeutic approach can be best explained by going through the ABCs of REBT. An Activating Event or Activating Experience (A) is something that happens to a person. For example, a student receives a bad grade on a paper. People typically assume the Activating Event causes the emotional or behavioral Consequence (C) (perhaps the student’s feeling of being a complete failure and withdrawing from the class, in this example). However, the Consequence is not a direct result of the Activating Event, but rather a result of the Belief (B) system the person has about the Activating Event. For example, if the Belief about getting a good grade on a paper is that it would be pleasant and rewarding to get such a good grade, but not mandatory, the resulting Consequence could be disappointment or frustration when receiving the bad grade and perhaps a resolve to do better in the future. However, if the person’s Belief is “I must get a good grade because anything less than perfect means that I am stupid and will never succeed in life,” then the Consequence would be despair and depression when the bad grade was returned. Therefore, it is not the Activating Event that results in the Consequence, but the Belief, which is based on biological or genetic predisposition, constitutional history, prior interpersonal and social learning, and predisposed and acquired habit patterns.

As mentioned earlier, just as humans have a natural propensity to be rational and straight thinking, they also have the propensity to be “crooked-thinking” creatures. Irrational beliefs differ from rational beliefs in two distinct ways. First, they are absolute or dogmatic and are expressed through rigid forms of “must,” “should,” “ought,” and “have to.” Second, irrational beliefs lead to negative emotions that interfere with the achievement of goals. REBT posits that the irrational beliefs are centered on the human tendency to make demanding and commanding statements about what should and must happen in life and that these things absolutely and necessarily must occur to obtain the desired result.

Subsequently, Ellis identified four basic forms of irrational beliefs: (1) “musturbatory” statements— believing that something or someone should, ought, or must be different from the way it actually does exist; (2) “awfulizing”—believing that something is awful, terrible or horrible when it is this way; (3) “I-can’t-stand-it-itis”—believing that one can’t bear, stand, or tolerate this person or thing and this person or thing should not be this way; and (4) “damnation”—believing that people have made or keep making horrible errors and because they should not act in this manner, they deserve nothing good in this life and should be forever labeled as rotten people. REBT holds that most of the irrational beliefs originate from musturbatory beliefs. Ellis has detailed 12 of the most common and frequently seen “musts” in therapy. These include all-or-nothing thinking, jumping to conclusions and negative nonsequiturs, fortune-telling, focusing on the negative, disqualifying the positive, allness and neverness, minimization, emotional reasoning, labeling and overgeneralization, personalizing, phonyism, and perfectionism.

The consequences of these and similar musturbatory statements often bring people to seek counseling. Irrational thoughts result in dysfunctional emotions and behaviors and inhibit people from living rational and effective lives. It becomes the job of the REBT therapist to work with clients and assess their ABCs of a specific belief system or systems and identify ways in which the clients can alter those beliefs to achieve consequences that are more rational.

Counseling Techniques

The counselor working from an REBT perspective takes an active role in identifying the client’s irrational thoughts and challenging those thoughts so that the client can differentiate between rational and irrational belief systems and choose beliefs that are more rational. This happens in the Disputing (D) component of REBT counseling. There are three aspects of this process of determining and correcting the irrational belief. The first is to debate any irrational belief. Debating can be done by asking questions such as “What evidence supports your thought?” and “In which way does it have any truth or falseness?” The primary goal of debating is to take clients’ shaky hypotheses about the world around them and actively and vigorously dispute their irrational beliefs until they are surrendered or revised. The second goal is to discriminate between musts (irrational beliefs) and preferences (rational beliefs). For example, a person has the ability to discriminate that waiting in line can be a hassle, but not a horror. Additionally, a person can argue that getting a bad grade is unfortunate, but not unbearable. The final component is to define the irrational statements being used. In the example used earlier, the irrational thought could be defined as “I always write bad papers and I am going to get a failing grade on this paper, too.” By defining the irrational thought, the client can begin to redefine the overgeneralized statement, which could become “Although I may have written a bad paper in the past, this does not mean I will always write bad papers.” Thus, in debating, discriminating, and defining the irrational thought, clients can begin the process of redirecting and restructuring their cognitive thought processes.

Once the ABCD aspects have been sufficiently covered, the individual is ready for the end result of acquiring a new Effect (E) or philosophy that replaces the old irrational belief. For example, the client might realize that, “Yes, I have written bad papers in the past and my earlier irrational attitude toward papers could be self-defeating and undesirable. I accept the fact that I am not perfect, but will work hard to produce a quality paper. If I were to again get a poor grade, however, this would be an unfortunate occurrence rather than a catastrophic event.” It should be noted that just learning the ABCs and going through D and E once is not enough to permanently remove irrational beliefs. REBT theory states that by nature individuals are irrational beings, thus it is their natural tendency to think irrationally. It is only by actively, forcibly, repeatedly, and continually doing the ABCDEs, that rational beliefs will be maintained.

Therapy is an educational process that often includes the use of out-of-session or homework assignments. Clients are taught how to use REBT beyond therapy sessions, so that when they leave the therapist’s office, they will be equipped to debate, discriminate, and define their irrational thoughts and to create their own new effective behavior or philosophy. The therapist helps to educate clients through pamphlets, books, attending lectures and workshops, and listening to tapes. One of the most important techniques used in REBT is in vivo assignments. This technique consists of homework assignments in which clients perform specific tasks outside of therapy and monitor their cognitions during the homework assignment. For example, homework assignments may consist of techniques that increase their frustration tolerance by encouraging them to remain in uncomfortable situations, antiprocrastination exercises, and skill-training exercises. Antiprocrastination exercises encourage clients to start tasks earlier rather than later, which disputes the need for comfort in the current moment. Finally, skill-training exercises provide the client with needed skills, such as assertion or increased social skills. Through these techniques, clients are able to receive positive reinforcements for their rational behavior and corrective assignments to extinguish irrational behavior. The use of REBT techniques provides the therapist with a wide array of options when counseling an individual. These techniques not only are used to help a client in the here and now, but also equip the client to address dysfunctional beliefs in the future.

Healthy Personality

If musturbatory beliefs are the foundation of a dysfunctional person, then the absence of musturbatory beliefs constitutes a healthy person. REBT recognizes that humans have goals, wishes, desires, and wants. If these desires remain nonabsolute and do not escalate to grandiose dogmas or demands, then an individual will remain less psychologically disturbed. Since life is unpredictable and difficult, however, people will experience healthy negative emotions such as sadness, regret, disappointment, and annoyance when their desires are not met. These negative emotions are thought to be healthy because they help people remove obstacles to attain the goal and to make constructive adjustments when their desires are not met.

In comparison to the absolutist irrational beliefs, the rational beliefs consist of rating or evaluating badness, tolerance, and acceptance. Rating or evaluating badness acknowledges that a thwarted desire is bad. The badness, however, is not rated as catastrophic or awful. Tolerance is the polar opposite of low frustration tolerance or “I-can’t-stand-it-itis.” Here the rational person will accept that an undesirable thing has happened, rate the event according to its badness, attempt to change the undesirable event, or accept that the event can’t be changed and actively pursue other goals. Acceptance is the alternative to the irrational damnation. Through rational acceptance, a person realizes that humans are fallible creatures who will make mistakes and accepts that humans live in a complex world where there are things that are outside of their control.

There are two types of strategies in REBT: general and elegant. General REBT is synonymous with cognitive-behavioral therapy, whereas elegant REBT is unique in many different aspects. The major goal of elegant REBT is to encourage clients to make a profound philosophic change in the areas of ego disturbance and discomfort disturbance. This involves helping clients give up their irrational musturbatory processes and replace them with rational, nonabsolute thinking. Elegant REBT also helps clients pursue long-range basic goals by helping them fully accept who they are and how to tolerate unchangeable and uncomfortable life conditions (i.e., develop a healthy personality). Therapists using elegant REBT strive to help clients obtain the skills necessary to prevent irrational beliefs in the future. When it is evident that a client is not able to make a philosophical change, either with a specific behavior or in general, the therapist will often switch to using general REBT. The therapist using general REBT will apply methods to effect behaviorally based change.


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  4. Ellis, A., & Dryden, W. (1997). The practice of rational emotive behavior therapy (2nd ed.). New York: Springer.
  5. Ellis, A., & Grieger, R. (1977). Handbook of rational-emotive therapy. New York: Springer.
  6. Prochaska, J. O., & Norcross, J. C. (1999). Systems of psychotherapy: A transtheoretical analysis (4th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

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