Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

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Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) is a comprehensive, active-directive, philosophically and empirically based psychotherapy which focuses on resolving cognitive, emotional and behavioral problems. REBT was created and developed by the American psychotherapist and psychologist Albert Ellis. REBT is one of the first forms of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), first expounded by Ellis in the mid-1950s. The fundamental premise of REBT is that people to a large degree disturb, upset and defeat themselves through how they construct their view of reality by the means of their evaluations, beliefs and philosophies about negative events in addition to the events themselves.

In REBT therapy clients usually learn and begin to apply this premise during their first REBT session in the form of the A-B-C-model of psychological disturbance and psychological change. The A-B-C model first states that it is not A, Adversity (an Activating event) that leads to a self-defeating emotional and behavioral Consequence - at C, but Adversity times what we B, Believe about the Activating event (our evaluative belief system) that leads to C. By understanding the role of their mediating evaluative, philosophically based Belief system in upset, clients can and often do immediately begin to D, Dispute their own problem Beliefs and subsequently begin to experience relief from their self-defeating emotions and behaviors.[1]

The REBT framework assumes that humans have both rational and irrational tendencies. Rational thinking, emoting and behaving, mean realistically, logically and pragmatically evaluating oneself, others and life in realistic-logico and contructive self- and social-helping ways. Irrational beliefs prevent handling of adversities, goal attainment, lead to inner conflict, more conflict with others and poor mental health. Rational beliefs lead to better handling of adversities, goal attainment, better mental functioning and more inner harmony. REBT claims that irrational and self-defeating thinking, emoting and behaving are correlated with emotional difficulties such as self-blame, self-pity, clinical anger, hurt, guilt, shame, depression and anxiety, and behaviors like procrastination, over-compulsiveness, avoidance, addiction and withdrawal. REBT is an educational and active-directive process in which the therapist teaches the client how to identify irrational and self-defeating beliefs which in nature are rigid, extreme, unrealistic, illogical and absolutist, and then to forcefully and activily dispute them and replace them with more rational and self-helping ones. By using different 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 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 (Ellis, 2003).

Albert Ellis (2003, p.23-24) posits three major insights of REBT:

Insight #1 - People seeing and accepting the reality that their emotional disturbances at point C do not stem from the activating events or adversities at point A that precede C. Although A contributes to C, and although strong negative A’s (such as being assaulted or raped) are much more likely to be followed by disturbed C’s (such as feelings of panic and depression) than they are to be followed by weak A's (such as being disliked by a stranger), the main or more direct cores of emotional disturbances (C's) are people’s irrational beliefs—the absolutistic musts and their accompanying inferences and attributions that people strongly believe about their undesirable activating events.

Insight #2 - No matter how, when, and why people acquire self-defeating, irrational beliefs that mainly lead to their dysfunctional, emotional-behavioral consequences, if they are disturbed today, they tend to keep holding these irrational beliefs and upsetting themselves by them not because they held them in the past but because they are still actively, though often unconsciously, reaffirming them and acting as if they are still valid. They still follow, in their minds and in their hearts, the core musturbatory philosophies that they may have taken over or invented years ago, or that they have more recently accepted or constructed for themselves.

Insight # 3 - No matter how well they have achieved insight 1 and insight 2, insight alone will rarely enable people to undo their emotional disturbances. They may feel better when they know, or think they know, how they became disturbed and are still making themselves upset largely because they believe these insights to be useful and curative. It is unlikely, however, that they will really get better and stay better unless they accept insights 1 and 2 and also go on to 3: There is usually no way but work and practice—yes, work and practice—to keep looking for and finding one’s core irrational beliefs; to actively, energetically, and scientifically dispute them; to replace one’s absolutist musts with flexible preferences; to change one's unhealthy feelings to healthy, self-helping emotions; and to firmly act 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 posits that human beings are born gullible, teachable and conditionable with dual and innate potentials and tendencies towards both healthy/self-helping and unhealthy/self-defeating cognitive-affective-behavioral processes, and that these tendencies are often further exacerbated by environmental factors.

Albert Ellis sums up the cognitive-affective processes like this (Ellis, 2003): "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. Evaluating is a fundamental characteristic of human organisms and seems to work in a kind of closed circuit with a feedback mechanism: Because perception biases response and then response tends to subsequent perception. Also, prior perceptions appear to bias subsequent perceptions, and prior responses to bias subsequent responses. What we call feelings almost always have a pronounced evaluating or appraisal element."

In the ABC-model, as we know, the A stands for the activating event or the adversity a person faces, for instance by some type of challenging life situation. An example of an activating event might be a man being rejected by what he thinks is an attractive woman (A). The B then represents the evaluation (cognitive-affective-behavioral) of the activating event, contributing to an emotional and behavioral consequence, represented by the C. If the evaluation or belief "B" of the adversity "A" is rooted in an irrational belief that for instance, the man devoutly believes "Every attractive woman ABSOLUTELY MUST like me and treat me well, and it's awful and terrible when they don't", the consequence is likely to be unhealthy and un-helpful. Alternatively, if the evaluation of the event is rational, and is rooted in the belief "I strongly PREFER that attractive women treat me well, but there is no law in the universe that says that they must. It's not awful and horrible when they reject me, just very unfortunate and sad. Eventhough I want to be treated well by attractive women, I can stand and bear it when they don't, because I will survive it and find other ways of being reasonably happy" the consequence would in all probably be healthy, self-helping and self-constructive feelings and behaviors. Key to REBT thought is that both AxB (activating events and our beliefs about these events) contribute to disturbed and un-disturbed emotional and behavioral consequences. By attaining a more rational and self-constructive philosophy of ourselves, others and the world, people are more likely to behave and emote in a more life-serving and adaptive way.

Originator Albert Ellis points out, "People are born and reared with the ability to look at the data of their lives, particularly the negative things that happen to them against their goals and interests, and to make inaccurate inferences and attributions about these data."

From whence do our self-sabotaging irrational beliefs originate? REBT teaches that people learn some of them during their childhood, some from environmental factors, but to a large degree that human beings have strong inborne biological tendencies (Ellis, 2003). REBT differs from psychoanalysis in that it places little emphasis on exploring the past, but instead focuses on changing the current evaluations and philosophical thinking about people's lives, others and themselves.

Psychological Dysfunction and Mental Wellness

One of the main pillars of REBT is that irrational patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving are the cause of much, though hardly all, human disturbance. REBT teaches that when people turn flexible preferences, desires and wishes into grandiose absolutistic jehovian demands and commands, they disturb and upset themselves. Albert Ellis has suggested three core beliefs that humans disturb themselves through (Ellis, 2003):

  • "I ABSOLUTELY MUST be thoroughly competent, adequate, achieving, and lovable at all times, or else I am an incompetent worthless person." This belief usually leads to feelings of anxiety, panic, depression, despair, and worthlessness.
  • "Other significant people in my life, ABSOLUTELY MUST treat me kindly and fairly at all times, or else I can’t stand it, and they are bad, rotten, and evil persons who should be severely blamed, damned, and vindictively punished for their horrible treatment of me." This leads to feelings of anger, rage, fury, and vindictiveness and lead to actions like fights, feuds, wars, genocide, and ultimately, an atomic holocaust.
  • "Things and conditions ABSOLUTELY MUST be the way I want them to be and never be too difficult or frustrating. Otherwise, life is awful, terrible, horrible, catastrophic and unbearable." This leads to low-frustration tolerance, self-pity, anger, depression, and to behaviours such as procrastination, avoidance, and inaction.

REBT commonly posits that at the core of irrational beliefs there is an explicit or implicit rigid demand and command, and that extreme derivatives like awfulizing, low frustration tolerance, people deprication and overgeneralizations follow from these. A key tenet in the REBT framework is that the evaluative belief system, based on core philosophies, is very likely to create unrealistic, arbitrary, and crooked inferences and distortions in thinking. REBT therefore first teaches that when people in an unsensible and devoutly way overuse absolutistic, dogmatic and rigid "shoulds", "musts", and "oughts", they disturb and upset themselves. REBT holds that that most devoutly held "isms" and dogmas often contribute to disturbances, and that these inflexible and self-defeating philosophies are better replaced with more flexible, self-constructive and self-helping attitudes.

Disturbed evaluations occur through overgeneralization, wherein one exaggerates and globalizes events or traits, usually unwanted events or traits or behaviors, out of context, while almost always ignoring the positive events or traits or behaviors. For example, awfulizing is mental magnification of the importance of an unwanted situation to a catastrophe, elevating the rating of something from bad to worse than it should be, to beyond totally bad, worse than bad to the intolerable and to a holocaust. The same exaggeration and overgeneralizing occurs with human rating, wherein humans come to be defined by their flaws or misdeeds: the person is bad based on bad behavior or bad traits. Frustration intolerance occurs when one perceive something to be too difficult, painful or tedious, and by doing so exaggerates these qualities beyond ones ability to cope with them.

Many of these self-defeating beliefs are both innately biological and indoctrinated in early and during life, and may grow stronger as a person continually revisits and self-propagandizes them. By using emotive, cognitive and behavioral methods the client learns to dispute and replace the irrational and self-defeating beliefs with more rational and self-constructive ones, which then are likely to cause healthier and more constructive emotions and behavior. The Rational Emotive Behavior therapist strongly believes in the rigorous application of the rules of logic, straight thinking, and scientific method to everyday life (Ellis, 2003).

REBT points out that irrational beliefs will often be obvious in how people talk to themselves. The therapist asking, "What are you telling yourself about...?" will often reveal both crooked inferences, and, on closer examination, demands and irrational evaluations. The therapist is most interested in finding core beliefs and deep rooted philosophical evaluations. These are usually the causes of automatic negative inferences and higher level evaluative thoughts.

As would be expected, REBT argues that mental wellness results from a surfeit of rational ways of thinking, emoting and behaving. When a undesired and stressful activating event occurs, and the individual is interpreting the situation rationally (emotional, cognitive and behavioral), then the resulting emotional and behavioral consequence is likely to be more healthy and self-helping. This does not mean a relatively undisturbed person never experiences negative feelings, but REBT does hope to keep debilitating unhealthy affect and behavior to a minimum. To do this REBT promotes a flexible, un-dogmatic, self-helping and efficient belief system about adversities.

REBT acknowledges that people in addition to disturbing themselves, also are innately constructivists. Because they largely upset themselves with their beliefs, they can be helped to examine, to question, to think about these beliefs and thereby to develop a more workable, more self-helping set of constructs.

REBT teaches that:

  • Unconditional self-acceptance, other-acceptance, life-acceptance are of prime importance in achieving mental wellness.
  • People and the world are inherently fallible and people had better accept themselves, life's hassles, and unfairness and others "as is".
  • People had better consider themselves valuable simply because they are alive and kicking, and are better off not measuring their "self" or their "being," or giving themselves any global rating, because all people are continually evolving and are therefore far too complex to rate, and all humans do both good and bad deeds and have both good and bad attributes and traits.

REBT holds that ideas and feelings about self-worth are largely definitional and are not empirically confirmable or falsifiable (Ellis, 2003).

REBT Therapy

As Albert Ellis says: "Humans, unlike just about all the other animals on earth, create fairly sophisticated languages which not only enable them to think about their feeling, and their actions, and the results they get from doing and not doing certain things, but they also are able to think about their thinking and even think about thinking about their thinking." (Ellis, 2003) This is quite essential to the REBT thought. Ellis, also points out that "because of their self-consciousness and their ability to think about their thinking, they can very easily disturb themselves about their disturbances and can also disturb themselves about their ineffective attempts to overcome their emotional disturbances" (Ellis, 2003). In REBT terminology, this is referred to as secondary disturbances.

One of the most popular methods in REBT is forceful and active disputing. Central in REBT is helping the client challenge and question irrational beliefs (B). REBT teaching suggests that the therapist ask the client if there is any evidence for the belief, or what would be the worst possible outcome if the client were to give up that belief. These disputing processes incorporate cognitive-philosophic, emotive-evocative-dramatic, and behavioral methods necessary to successfully challenge the irrational beliefs. In therapy the therapist may point out irrational beliefs, but he or she also teaches the client how to dispute them in day-to-day life outside of therapy and also gives the patient homework exercises. The result of disputing the self-defeating belief and replacing it with a rational one yields an effective new philosophy (E).

REBT acknowledges that understanding and insight are not enough. In order to significantly change the client, they almost always have to pinpoint their irrational philosophies and work hard at changing them to more functional and self-helping attitudes. They can do this in a number of cognitive, emotive-evocative, and behavioral ways. Although REBT teaches that the therapist had better demonstrate unconditional other-acceptance, the therapist is not necessarily encouraged to build a warm and caring relationship with the client. The therapist’s primary task is to aid the client in identifying and confronting irrational thinking, emotive, and behavioral processes and replacing them with more rational ones.

REBT posits that the client has to work hard to get better, and this work may include homework assigned by the therapist. The assignments may include desensitization tasks, i.e., by having the client confront the very thing he or she is afraid of. By doing so, the client is actively acting against the belief with is causing the disturbance.

Often REBT focuses on specific problems and is used as a brief therapy, but in deeper problems longer therapy is promoted. Another factor contributing to the brevity of REBT is that the therapist helps the client learn how to get better through hard work, and to help himself get through future adversities. It holds that hard work, and hard work only, is the way to get better and to stay that way. REBT does not promote a temporary solution! An ideal successful collaboration between the REBT therapist and a client results in changes to the client's philosophical way of evaluating him- or herself, others, and his or her life, and which is likely to yield effective results: The client moves toward unconditional self-acceptance, other-acceptance, and life-acceptance.


  • Ellis, Albert (2001). Feeling better, getting better, staying better. New York: Impact Publishers, 2001. ISBN 1-886230-35-8
  • Ellis, Albert (2003). Early theories and practices of rational emotive behavior theory and how they have been augmented and revised during the last three decades. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 21(3/4)
  • Froggatt, Wayne (2005). A Brief Introduction To Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy. Third Edition, New Zealand Centre for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy
  • Albert Ellis (2001). Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and Behaviors: New Directions for Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Prometheus Books

Further reading

See also

External links

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  1. Ellis, Albert. (1994). Reason and Emotion In Psychotherapy, Revised and Updated. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, ISBN 1559722487