albert ellis: empirically, logically and self-helpingly

the other day i was listening to a little audio clip of an interview with albert ellis, the no-holds-barred founder of rational-emotive behavioural therapy (REBT, also known as RET and RBT). ellis was one of the grandfathers of cognitive therapy; he wasn’t too enamoured with the theories he said freud “made up” and jung’s “mystical nonsense”.

but just like jung and freud, ellis’s ideas made their way into mainstream and pop psychology, forever entrenched there – for he is not only one of the grandfathers of cognitive therapy but also one of the people who helped midwife the psychological “arm” of the self-help movement.

in the interview, ellis was asked how he helps people. his response (slightly paraphrased):

we dispute people’s irrational beliefs which lead them to become neurotic. individuals upset themselves, they tell themselves nonsense and then they blame it on their early childhood!

it works usually within the first 5-10 minutes.

they come in with anxiety, depression, rage. so i ask them, what happened? “well so and so did this and that and i got enraged”

and we say, “let’s assume you are right and they treated you unjustly. what did you tell yourself after that?”

“he was wrong and he shouldn’t be doing this!”

well, they may be wrong alright but that doesn’t matter. the problem is that people say this should not be, this must not be.

and here comes my favourite part

so we get them to think about this. and first they think about their thinking and then think about how they think about it – which human beings, being constructivists, can do, but rarely do.

and then we help them to realize, empirically, logically and especially self-helpingly, that it’s unrealistic to say someone should not or must not do XYZ. and that it doesn’t follow that they are no good as a person; just that they act no good.

finally, ellis tells us

then we say, “it’s too bad that he treated you this way – now what are you going to do to change that or to live with it?”

we show them that they’ve become anxious or depressed because of what they told themselves about this event.

then we use cognitive, behavioural and emotional techniques to act help them act otherwise.

i already mentioned some of those techniques in my eulogy to albert ellis back in june. another one is a shame-attacking exercise, and i’ve certainly used that in my practice.

example: a client, let’s call her marion, is always nervous of what people think of her. she doesn’t even want anyone to know that she’s in therapy, and that troubles her a lot. we decide to allocate a whole session to that. i ask her for a list of people who she thinks might think ill of her for being in therapy.

we then pick a person from that list – usually one who is not too “scary” – and i support marion as she calls that person and casually mentions that she’s just come from a therapy session.

after that we debrief. marion is surprised and delighted to shed a light on her thoughts, beliefs and feelings around the experienced – and she is relieved because she knows she’s starting to put down the burden of always looking over her shoulder to see that “they” think.

interested in experiencing how this works? email me at moritherapy at shaw dot ca, and i’ll give a free taste of it.

for a post i wrote on the occasion of albert ellis’ death at 93, go to don’t should on yourself: albert ellis dead at 93

(this post was mentioned in the carnival of quotes)

2 thoughts on “albert ellis: empirically, logically and self-helpingly

  1. A. Decker

    I got here from the Thoughts on Quotes carnival. I’m not a “follower” of psychology, so I don’t really know the things or people you’re referring to, but I like what I think your saying here. Especially the “Don’t should on yourself” part. I’m now curious about this Ellis guy.

    By the way: Why no capitalization? I’m sorry, but I always wonder that any time I see it.

    A. Decker’s last blog post..“Two birds…”

  2. isabella mori

    hello! always good to run into you.

    albert ellis was a huge influence not only in psychology but on our whole north american way of thinking. much of what people like oprah say can be traced back to him. i’m glad this little post piqued your interest in him!

    re the small letters – let me be lazy and refer you to this post: letter-writing

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