What Is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)?

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Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) was developed by psychologist Albert Ellis in 1955. It proposes that psychological ailments arise from our perspective on events, not the events themselves. The goal of REBT therapy is to improve our mental health by replacing self-defeating perspectives with healthier ones.

Key Takeaways: REBT Therapy

  • Developed in 1955, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) was the first cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • REBT claims that psychological dysfunction is the result of irrational beliefs about the situations and events we experience. The goal of REBT is to replace irrational thinking with healthier, rational beliefs.
  • The ABCDE model is the foundation of REBT. A is an activating event that leads to B, a belief about the event. Those beliefs lead to C, the emotional, behavioral, and cognitive consequences of one’s belief about the event. REBT seeks to D, dispute one’s irrational beliefs in order to lead to E, the emotional, behavioral, and cognitive effects that come with altering one’s beliefs so they are healthier and more rational.

Origins

Albert Ellis was a clinical psychologist trained in the psychoanalytic tradition, but he began to feel that psychoanalytic therapies weren’t effectively helping his patients. He observed that although the approach shed light on the problems his patients were dealing with, it didn’t help them actually change their responses to those problems.

This led Ellis to start developing his own therapeutic system in the 1950s. There were many things that influenced him in this process. First, Ellis’ interest in philosophy was instrumental. In particular, Ellis was inspired by Epictetus’ declaration, “People are disturbed not by things but by their view of things.” Second, Ellis drew upon the ideas of prominent psychologists, including Karen Horney’s concept of the “tyranny of the shoulds” and Alfred Adler’s suggestion that the behavior of an individual is the result of their perspective. Finally, Ellis built upon the work of the general semanticists who believed that careless language use can impact how we feel and behave.

From these disparate influences, Ellis created rational emotive behavior therapy, which holds that the way people feel is the result of the way they think. People often hold irrational beliefs about themselves, other people, and the world that can lead to psychological problems. REBT helps people by altering those irrational beliefs and thought processes.

REBT was the first cognitive behavioral therapy. Ellis continued to work on REBT until he passed away in 2007. Because of his constant adjustments and improvements to his therapeutic approach, it went through a number of name changes. When Ellis initially introduced his technique in the 1950s he called it rational therapy. By 1959 he had changed the name to rational emotive therapy. Then, in 1992, he updated the name to rational emotive behavior therapy.

Irrational Thinking

REBT places a heavy emphasis on rationality and irrationality. In this context, irrationality is anything that is illogical or in some way hinders an individual from reaching their long-term goals. As a result, rationality has no set definition but is dependent on the individual’s goals and what will aid them in reaching those goals.

REBT contends that irrational thinking is at the heart of psychological issues. REBT points to several specific irrational beliefs people exhibit. These include:

  • Demandingness or Musterbation — rigid beliefs that lead people to think in absolute terms like “must” and “should.” For example, “I must pass this test” or “I should always feel loved by my significant other.” The perspective expressed by these kinds of statements is often unrealistic. Such dogmatic thinking can paralyze the individual and cause them to sabotage themselves. For instance, it’s desirable to pass the test but it might not happen. If the individual doesn't accept the possibility that they might not pass, it can lead to procrastination and a failure to try because of their anxiety about what could happen if they don't pass.
  • Awfulizing — an individual says an experience or situation is the worst thing that could possibly happen. Awfulizing statements include words like "awful," "terrible," and "horrible." Taken literally, these kinds of statements leave an individual with nowhere to go to improve a situation and therefore aren’t constructive ways of thinking.
  • Low Frustration Tolerance — an individual’s belief that they can’t tolerate it if something they claim “must” not occur happens anyway. The individual may believe such an occurrence will make it impossible for them to experience any happiness. People with low frustration tolerance (LFT) often use phrases like “cannot bear it” or “cannot stand it.”
  • Depreciation or Global Evaluation — rating oneself or someone else as lacking because of a failure to live up to a single standard. It entails judging the entirety of an individual’s being on one criteria and ignoring their complexity.  

While REBT emphasizes irrational thinking, that emphasis is in the service of identifying and adjusting such thinking. REBT argues that people can think about their thinking and thus can actively choose to challenge their irrational thoughts and work towards changing them.

The ABCDEs of REBT

The foundation of REBT is the ABCDE model. The model helps uncover one’s irrational beliefs and provides a process for disputing them and establishing more rational ones. The elements of the model consist of:

  • A – Activating event. An adverse or undesirable event experienced by an individual.
  • B – Beliefs. The irrational beliefs that come about because of the activating event.
  • C – Consequences. The emotional, behavioral, and cognitive consequences of one’s beliefs about the activating event. Irrational beliefs lead to psychologically dysfunctional consequences.

This first part of the model focuses on the formation and results of irrational beliefs. REBT observes that while many people will blame the activating event (A) for the negative consequences (C) they experience, it is actually the beliefs (B) they form about the activating event (A) that really lead to the consequences (C). Thus it is uncovering those beliefs that is key to changing the emotional, behavioral, and cognitive consequences.

For example, perhaps an individual is rejected by his significant other. This is the activating event (A), it’s a fact of life and the individual may respond to it in different ways. In this case, the rejected individual forms the belief (B) that because he was rejected, he is unlovable and will never again have a romantic relationship. The consequence (C) of this belief is that the man never dates, remains alone, and becomes increasingly depressed and isolated.

This is where the remainder of the REBT model can help.

  • D – Dispute. Clients in REBT are trained to actively dispute their irrational beliefs so they can restructure them into healthier beliefs.
  • E – Effect. The effect of changing one’s beliefs about a situation to be more adaptive and rational, which in turn improves one's emotions, behaviors, and cognitions.

After an individual’s irrational beliefs are uncovered, REBT uses a technique called disputing to challenge and restructure these beliefs. For example, if the man who was rejected by his significant other went to see an REBT practitioner, the practitioner would dispute the idea that he was unlovable. REBT practitioners work with their clients to challenge their problematic thought processes about different situations as well as their illogical emotional and behavioral responses. Practitioners encourage their clients to adopt different, healthier perspectives. To do this, the practitioner utilizes a number of methods including guided imagery, meditation, and journaling.

The Three Insights

Although everyone is irrational from time to time, REBT suggests that people can develop three insights that will reduce this tendency.

  • Insight 1: Our rigid beliefs about negative events are primarily responsible for our psychological disturbances.
  • Insight 2: We remain psychologically disturbed because we continue to adhere to our rigid beliefs instead of working to change them.
  • Insight 3: Psychological health only comes when people work hard to change their irrational beliefs. It’s a practice that must start in the present and continue into the future.

It's only by gaining and following all three insights that an individual will come to the conclusion that they must work to challenge their irrational thinking to eliminate psychological dysfunction. According to REBT, if the individual only recognizes their irrational thinking but doesn’t work to change it, they won’t experience any positive emotional, behavioral, or cognitive benefits.

Ultimately, a psychologically healthy individual learns to accept oneself, others, and the world. They also develop a high frustration tolerance. An individual with high frustration tolerance acknowledges that undesirable events can and will happen but believes that they can tolerate such events by either changing or accepting them and pursuing alternative goals. That doesn’t mean people who have developed acceptance and high frustration tolerance don’t experience negative emotions. It means the negative emotions they experience are healthy because they are the result of rational beliefs. For example, psychologically healthy individuals will experience concern but not anxiety and sadness but not depression.

Critiques

Studies have shown REBT to be an effective form of therapy for issues like obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and social anxiety. However, REBT hasn’t escaped all criticism. Some have taken issue with the confrontational approach championed by Ellis in his disputing technique. Some REBT clients left therapy because they didn’t like having their beliefs questioned. However, although Ellis was tough on clients because he believed life was tough and clients needed to be tough to cope, other REBT practitioners often employ a softer touch that limits client discomfort.

Another critique of REBT is that it doesn’t always work. Ellis suggested that this was the result of people failing to adhere to the revised beliefs they came to in therapy. Such individuals might talk about their new beliefs but don’t act on them, leading the individual to backslide into their former irrational beliefs and their emotional and behavioral consequences. While REBT is meant to be a short-term form of therapy, Ellis said that some people might need to stay in therapy long-term to ensure they maintain their healthier beliefs and the emotional and behavioral improvements that result from them.

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