Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is both a psychotherapeutic system of theory and practices and a school of thought established by Albert Ellis. Ellis first presented his ideas at a conference of the American Psychological Association in 1956 then published a seminal article in 1957 entitled “Rational psychotherapy and individual psychology”, in which he set the foundation for what he was calling Rational Therapy (RT) and carefully responded to questions from Rudolf Dreikurs and others about the similarities and differences with Alfred Adler‘s Individual psychology. This was around a decade before psychiatrist Aaron Beck first set forth his “cognitive therapy“, after Ellis had contacted him in the mid 1960s. Ellis’ own approach was renamed to Rational Emotive Therapy in 1959, then to the current term in 1992.
Precursors of certain fundamental aspects of rational emotive behavior therapy have been identified in ancient philosophical traditions, particularly Stoicism. Ellis also acknowledges more modern therapists, particularly Paul Charles Dubois, though he only read his work several years after developing his therapy. For example, Ellis’ first major publication on Rational Therapy describes the philosophical basis of it as the principle that a person is rarely affected emotionally by outside things but rather by ‘his perceptions, attitudes, or internalized sentences about outside things and events’, which he compares to the writing of Epictetus in the Enchiridion: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.” Shakespeare, many centuries later, rephrased this thought in Hamlet: “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
A fundamental premise of REBT is humans do not get emotionally disturbed by unfortunate circumstances, but by how they construct their views of these circumstances through their language, evaluative beliefs, meanings and philosophies about the world, themselves and others. This concept has been attributed as far back as the Roman philosopher Epictetus, who is often cited as utilizing similar ideas in antiquity. In REBT, clients usually learn and begin to apply this premise by learning the A-B-C–D-E-F model of psychological disturbance and change. The A-B-C model states that it is not an A, adversity (or activating event) that cause disturbed and dysfunctional emotional and behavioral Cs, consequences, but also what people B, irrationally believe about the A, adversity. A, adversity can be an external situation, or a thought, a feeling or other kind of internal event, and it can refer to an event in the past, present, or future.
The Bs, irrational beliefs that are most important in the A-B-C model are explicit and implicit philosophical meanings and assumptions about events, personal desires, and preferences. The Bs, beliefs that are most significant are highly evaluative and consist of interrelated and integrated cognitive, emotional and behavioral aspects and dimensions. According to REBT, if a person’s evaluative B, belief about the A, activating event is rigid, absolutistic, fictional and dysfunctional, the C, the emotional and behavioral consequence, is likely to be self-defeating and destructive. Alternatively, if a person’s belief is preferential, flexible and constructive, the C, the emotional and behavioral consequence is likely to be self-helping and constructive.
Through REBT, by understanding the role of their mediating, evaluative and philosophically based illogical, unrealistic and self-defeating meanings, interpretations and assumptions in disturbance, individuals can learn to identify them, then go to D, disputing and questioning the evidence for them. At E, effective new philosophy, they can recognize and reinforce the notion no evidence exists for any psychopathological must, ought or should and distinguish them from healthy constructs, and subscribe to more constructive and self-helping philosophies. This new reasonable perspective leads to F, new feelings and behaviors appropriate to the A they are addressing in the exercise.
The REBT framework assumes that humans have both innate rational (meaning self-helping, socially helping, and constructive) and irrational (meaning self-defeating, socially defeating, and unhelpful) tendencies and leanings. REBT claims that people to a large degree consciously and unconsciously construct emotional difficulties such as self-blame, self-pity, clinical anger, hurt, guilt, shame, depression and anxiety, and behaviors and behavior tendencies like procrastination, compulsiveness, avoidance, addiction and withdrawal by the means of their irrational and self-defeating thinking, emoting and behaving. REBT is then applied as an educational process in which the therapist often active-directively teaches the client how to identify irrational and self-defeating beliefs and philosophies which in nature are rigid, extreme, unrealistic, illogical and absolutist, and then to forcefully and actively question and dispute them and replace them with more rational and self-helping ones. By using different cognitive, emotive and behavioral methods and activities, the client, together with help from the therapist and in homework exercises, can gain a more rational, self-helping and constructive rational way of thinking, emoting and behaving. One of the main objectives in REBT is to show the client that whenever unpleasant and unfortunate activating events occur in people’s lives, they have a choice of making themselves feel healthily and self-helpingly sorry, disappointed, frustrated, and annoyed, or making themselves feel unhealthily and self-defeatingly horrified, terrified, panicked, depressed, self-hating and self-pitying. By attaining and ingraining a more rational and self-constructive philosophy of themselves, others and the world, people often are more likely to behave and emote in more life-serving and adaptive ways.
Albert Ellis posits three major insights of REBT:
Insight 1 – People seeing and accepting the reality that their emotional disturbances at point C are only partially caused by the activating events or adversities at point A that precede C. Although A contributes to C, and although disturbed Cs (such as feelings of panic and depression) are much more likely to follow strong negative As (such as being assaulted or raped), than they are to follow weak As (such as being disliked by a stranger), the main or more direct cores of extreme and dysfunctional emotional disturbances (Cs) are people’s irrational beliefs — the “absolutistic” (inflexible) “musts” and their accompanying inferences and attributions that people strongly believe about the activating event.
Insight 2 – No matter how, when, and why people acquire self-defeating or irrational beliefs (i.e. beliefs that are the main cause of their dysfunctional emotional-behavioral consequences), if they are disturbed in the present, they tend to keep holding these irrational beliefs and continue upsetting themselves with these thoughts. They do so not because they held them in the past, but because they still actively hold them in the present (often unconsciously), while continuing to reaffirm their beliefs and act as if they are still valid. In their minds and hearts, the troubled people still follow the core “musturbatory” philosophies they adopted or invented long ago, or ones they recently accepted or constructed.
Insight 3 – No matter how well they have gained insights 1 and 2, insight alone rarely enables people to undo their emotional disturbances. They may feel better when they know, or think they know, how they became disturbed, because insights can feel useful and curative. But it is unlikely that people will actually get better and stay better unless they have and apply insight 3, which is that there is usually no way to get better and stay better except by continual work and practice in looking for and finding one’s core irrational beliefs; actively, energetically, and scientifically disputing them; replacing one’s absolute “musts” (rigid requirements about how things should be) with more flexible preferences; changing one’s unhealthy feelings to healthy, self-helping emotions; and firmly acting against one’s dysfunctional fears and compulsions. Only by a combined cognitive, emotive, and behavioral, as well as a quite persistent and forceful attack on one’s serious emotional problems, is one likely to significantly ameliorate or remove them, and keep them removed.
“REBT assumes that human thinking, emotion, and action are not really separate or disparate processes, but that they all significantly overlap and are rarely experienced in a pure state. Much of what we call emotion is nothing more nor less than a certain kind — a biased, prejudiced, or strongly evaluative kind — of thought. But emotions and behaviors significantly influence and affect thinking, just as thinking influences emotions and behaviors. Evaluating is a fundamental characteristic of human organisms and seems to work in a kind of closed circuit with a feedback mechanism: First, perception biases response, and then response tends to bias subsequent perception. Also, prior perceptions appear to bias subsequent perceptions, and prior responses appear to bias subsequent responses. What we call feelings almost always have a pronounced evaluating or appraisal element.”
REBT then generally proposes that many of these self-defeating cognitive, emotive and behavioral tendencies are both innately biological and indoctrinated early in and during life, and further grow stronger as a person continually revisits, clings and acts on them. Ellis alludes to similarities between REBT and the general semantics when explaining the role of irrational beliefs in self-defeating tendencies, citing Alfred Korzybski as a significant modern influence on this thinking.
REBT differs from other clinical approaches like psychoanalysis in that it places little emphasis on exploring the past, but instead focuses on changing the current evaluations and philosophical thinking-emoting and behaving in relation to themselves, others and the conditions under which people live.
One of the main pillars of REBT is that irrational and dysfunctional ways and patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving are contributing to much, though hardly all, human disturbance and emotional and behavioral self-defeatism and social defeatism. REBT generally teaches that when people turn flexible preferences, desires and wishes into grandiose, absolutistic and fatalistic dictates, this tends to contribute to disturbance and upset.
Albert Ellis has sugg
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