Albert Ellis developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), a brief, direct, and solution-oriented therapy which focuses on resolving specific problems facing a troubled individual. REBT is the first form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy first set forth by Ellis in 1953. Fundamental to REBT is the concept that our emotions result solely from our beliefs, not by the events that occur in our lives. Therefore, it is of utmost importance for our beliefs to be healthy and rational, because the consequences of these beliefs will be emotional growth and happiness. If our beliefs are irrational and self-defeating, our emotional life suffers from neuroses such as self-blame, depression, and anxiety. REBT is an educational process in which the therapist teaches the client how to identify irrational beliefs, dispute them, and replace them with rational ones. Once the client is equipped with healthy beliefs, emotional difficulties and problematic behavior are abated.

View of the Human Mind

REBT posits that human beings are born with the dual potentials for both healthy and unhealthy thought processes. The healthy process rational thinking and the unhealthy variety irrational thinking. Rational thinking, as would be expected, means objectively seeing things as they really are, whereas irrational thinking distorts reality by misinterpreting things that happen.

At the core of REBT is the A-B-C theory of personality. The A stands for an activating event, usually some type of challenging life situation. An example activating event might be a teenage boy being “dumped” by his girlfriend. The B represents a belief that takes over and causes the emotional consequence, represented by the C. If the belief is irrational (for example, the boy believes “Everyone must always like me and treat me well”), the consequence is likely to be depression or anger. Alternatively, if the belief is rational (e.g. “Sometimes people will not like me and will mistreat me”) the consequence would be only a temporary sadness that the relationship is over. Key to REBT thought is that the belief, not the activating event, causes the emotional consequence. Therefore, if a person has a number of irrational beliefs, then he or she is likely to experience much emotional pain throughout life as various challenges are encountered. On the other hand, if a person’s beliefs are rational, then he or she can handle the disappointing events of life with aplomb. In other words, how one feels is primarily determined by how one thinks.

Where do our self-sabotaging irrational beliefs originate? REBT teaches that we learn some of them from other people during our childhood and the rest we concoct on our own. This is the only way in which the past matters in REBT: our current beliefs are learned from past experiences. The past cannot be changed and REBT places very little emphasis on discussing it; instead, REBT works to replace the illogical beliefs with logical ones.

Psychological Dysfunction

In REBT thought, irrational beliefs are the cause of human neuroses, including depression and anxiety. Irrational beliefs tend to ignore the positive, exaggerate the negative, distort reality, and/or overgeneralize. REBT teaches that people tend to overuse “shoulds,” “musts,” and “oughts.” Many of these self-defeating beliefs are indoctrinated in early life and grow stronger as a person continually revisits them. As mentioned previously, according to the A-B-C theory of personality, the belief, not the activating event, causes the emotional consequence. When the belief is irrational, the emotion is not healthy. The consequences of irrational beliefs can be relatively mild (procrastination, for example) but can also be extremely disruptive, immobilizing, or even dangerous.

Irrational beliefs will often be obvious in how people talk to themselves. Asking the question, "What are you telling yourself about . . . ?" will usually reveal "shoulds," "musts," and so forth—but not always. Irrational beliefs probably exist as extreme, automatic attitudes or extreme, evaluative, psychological schemas about which people are not too clearly aware which generate the absolute languate, the "must." It is possible, for example, to say them out loud, but not really be aware of what one is saying. Part of the difficulty in changing the irrational beliefs is becoming aware that they are present.

Mental Wellness

As would be expected, REBT argues that mental wellness results from a surfeit of rational beliefs and an absence of self-defeating beliefs. When a stressful activating event occurs and the operating belief is a rational one, then the resulting emotional consequence is not unhealthy or immobilizing. This does not mean a healthy person never experiences sorrow or displeasure, but REBT does hope to keep debilitating emotions to a minimum.

REBT teaches that unconditional self-acceptance is of prime importance in achieving wellness. Healthy people know that they are not perfect and will continue to make mistakes, but see themselves as worthwhile nevertheless. They consider themselves valuable just as a result of being alive; in fact, they relish life and they have the capacity to continually enjoy themselves.

REBT Therapy

Recalling the A-B-C theory of personality, successful REBT therapy adds steps D, E, and F. The D stands for disputing: the therapist helps the client to challenge the irrational belief (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. In therapy the counselor may point out faulty beliefs, but he or she also teaches the client how to dispute them in day-to-day life outside of therapy. The result of disputing the self-defeating belief and replacing it with a rational one yields an effective philosophy (E), and also a new set of feelings (F) which are not debilitating. Although REBT teaches that the counselor should demonstrate unconditional full acceptance, the therapist is not encouraged to build a warm and caring relationship with the client. The counselor’s only task is to aid the client in identifying and confronting irrational beliefs and replacing them with rational ones. The therapist usually is not even interested in the past events which are the source of the irrational belief; all that matters is getting rid of that belief in the present.

REBT posits that the client has to work hard to get better, and this work may include homework assigned by the therapist. The assignments frequently are meant to desensitize the client by having him or her do the very thing that is causing fear. Since REBT focuses on specific problems and avoids detailed analysis, it can be used as a brief therapy. Another factor contributing to brevity is that the counselor teaches the client how to identify and dispute self-defeating beliefs so that the client can help himself or herself in the future without the need of therapy.

A successful collaboration between the REBT therapist and a client results in changes to the client’s cognitions, which results in the client feeling better. Self-defeating thinking is arrested and behavioral changes result. The client moves toward self-acceptance despite his or her imperfections.