Biography of Albert Ellis, Creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

Psychotherapist Dr. Albert Ellis
Dr. Albert Ellis (L), 91, legendary figure in psychotherapy, analyzes George Sanchez (R) a graduate student at St. Johns University from his nursing home In New York City.

 Ramin Talaie / Getty Images

Albert Ellis (1913-2007) was one of the most influential psychotherapists in history. He created rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), which was part of psychotherapy’s cognitive revolution and served as a foundation for cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Fast Facts: Albert Ellis

  • Known For: Creating rational emotive behavior therapy, the first cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Born: September 27, 1913 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Died: July 24, 2007 in New York, NY
  • Parents: Harry and Hattie Ellis
  • Spouse: Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis (also a psychologist)
  • Education: City University of New York and Columbia University
  • Key Accomplishments: Founder of The Albert Ellis Institute; prolific author who wrote 54 books and over 600 articles.

Early Life

Albert Ellis was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1913. He was the oldest of three children. His father was a traveling salesman and his mother was an amateur actress. Because of his profession, his father was often absent, and when he was home, he was indifferent to his children. Meanwhile, Ellis said his mother was emotionally distant and self-absorbed. That left Ellis to care for his younger siblings. Ellis had a kidney disorder as a child, and between the ages of 5 and 7 he was hospitalized eight times. During those occasions his parents rarely visited and offered little emotional support. As a result, Ellis learned to deal with adversity on his own.

At the age of 19, Ellis recognized he was incredibly shy. In order to change his behavior, Ellis decided to talk to every woman who sat alone on a bench in a nearby park. In a single month, Ellis talked to 130 women. Even though he only got one date out of the exercise, it helped him overcome his shyness. Ellis employed a similar technique to overcome his fear of public speaking.

Ellis initially planned to become a businessman and a novelist. He graduated from the City University of New York with a degree in business administration in 1934. He then went to work in business and spent his spare time writing. Ellis never had success publishing his fiction, however, he noticed he did have a talent for non-fiction writing. As he conducted research for a book he was writing called The Case for Sexual Liberty, Ellis’ friends started asking him for advice on the subject. It was in this way that Ellis realized he enjoyed counseling as much as he enjoyed writing. Ellis decided to pursue a degree in clinical psychology, receiving his master’s from Columbia University in 1943 and his doctorate in 1947.

Dr. Albert Ellis
Dr. Albert Ellis, psychologist, stretched out in a recliner next to his desk, 1970. Bettmann / Getty Images

Career

Before Ellis earned his Ph.D. he’d already started a private practice. He was trained to use a psychoanalytic approach to therapy but became disenchanted when he realized it rarely helped his clients. He began to see psychoanalysis as too passive and too preoccupied with past trauma. Ellis sought to develop a more active, present-focused approach to psychotherapy that could work in a minimal number of sessions.

This led to the creation of rational emotive behavior therapy. Ellis looked to both psychologists like Karen Horney and Alfred Adler and to philosophers like Epictetus, Spinoza, and Bertrand Russell to come up with a therapeutic approach that challenged irrational thinking that led to problematic emotions and behavior. In REBT, the therapist actively disputes the client’s irrational beliefs while seeking to replace them with healthier, more rational ones.

By 1955, Ellis no longer considered himself a psychoanalyst and instead was presenting and practicing what he then called rational therapy. In 1959, he founded the Institute for Rational Living, which is now known as The Albert Ellis Institute. Although his confrontational style of therapy raised the hackles of some in the field and earned him the nickname “the Lenny Bruce of psychotherapy,” his approach soon caught on and contributed to the cognitive revolution.

Despite failing health, Ellis continued to lecture, write, and see dozens of therapy clients on a weekly basis until his death in 2007.

Contributions to Psychology

Ellis’ creation of REBT was groundbreaking. It is a pillar on which cognitive behavioral therapy is based, which is one of the most widely used forms of therapy today. As a result of Ellis' contributions, Psychology Today declared “no individual — not even Freud himself — has had a greater impact on modern psychotherapy.”

As a result of his outsized impact on the field, a 1982 survey of clinical psychologists ranked Ellis as the second most influential psychotherapist in history, just behind Carl Rogers and before Freud. Ellis helped countless people by adapting the talk therapy of psychoanalysis into the short-term, practical approach of REBT and by paving the way for the cognitive revolution.

Key Works

  • Ellis, Albert. (1957). How to Live with a Neurotic.
  • Ellis, Albert. (1958). Sex Without Guilt.
  • Ellis, Albert. (1961). A Guide to Rational Living.
  • Ellis, Albert and William J. Knaus. (1977). Overcoming Procrastination: Or How to Think and Act Rationally in Spite of Life’s Inevitable Hassles.
  • Ellis, Albert. (1988). How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything — Yes, Anything!

Sources