Wednesday, July 25, 2007

In Memory of Albert Ellis

The New York Times reported today that Albert Ellis has died. Ellis is the founder of what he originally called "rational therapy," then called "rational-emotive therapy," and most recently called "rational-emotive behavior therapy," or REBT. He was a tireless lecturer and writer. He was also a shameless self-promoter and total character. He was known as the Lenny Bruce of psychotherapy.

Ellis started writing and lecturing in the 1950's and continued his work until his death. This year, he was giving seminars from his bed in a nursing home. He founded an institute, currently called the Albert Ellis Institute in New York. In many ways, he has been at least as influential as Freud.

Ellis's great contribution was the recognition that our feelings do not come from what happens to us. Instead, our feelings stem from what we tell ourselves about what happens to us. For example. Imagine you get a B on an exam. First, imagine telling yourself, "Oh, God, I'm such a fool! I only got a B. I'll never get into a good school. I'll never accomplish anything. My parents will be disappointed in me!" You can easily see how upset you'll get.

In contrast, imagine yourself saying in response to the B, "Oh, boy. Only a B. I was hoping for an A. What did I do wrong? What can I learn from this?" Here, you might feel disappointed, but not crashingly depressed.

Finally, imagine yourself saying, "Boy am I proud of myself! This was really hard. I didn't think I could do this well!" Then, you feel good.

Ellis's point is that the B didn't make you feel anything. Your thoughts about the B--what you say to yourself--affect your mood. So, you can't tell your spouse, "You made me angry!" That's an unrealistic--Ellis would say irrational--belief. Your spouse may have done something you don't like, and you have every right to object to it, but you made yourself angry.

I saw Ellis speak several times over the years. He always said the same things. Sometimes he would change names, or refine previous ideas, but he never deviated from this basic message. His lectures were always the same. First, he would talk about his approach, then he would demonstrate therapy with volunteers from the audience. He always peppered his speeches with obscenities.

The last time I saw him, he was in his late 70's, still going strong. I often tell my clients about this, because he managed to explain his approach in two words.

After explaining how thoughts affect mood, Ellis began talking about how to change what you tell yourself. He said,

"There are two words you can tell yourself that will get you through any situation, no matter how bad it is."

You can imagine, this whole room, overflowing with clinicians. We all thought to ourselves, "Oh, boy, we're going to get some wisdom from the Master!" We all leaned forward, and Ellis said,


Broke up the joint.

Ellis's whole life was a tribute to those two words. He started his career at the time that psychoanalysis and humanism were the dominant clinical trends. Everyone thought he was crazy, and the criticism was whithering. Ellis didn't care, basically saying, "They don't like what I'm saying, tough shit. I know I'm right." He outlived all his critics and has been revered as the last of the Grand Old Men of psychology. Today, with variations, an awful lot of us are doing therapy his way.

For about the last 25 years, Ellis was somewhat eclipsed by Aaron Beck's "cognitive therapy." Yet, Beck openly admits that he based his approach on Ellis's ideas. Beck was successful because he was more dignified, if less interesting, than Ellis. He made for a better face for psychotherapy. But, I doubt that cognitive therapy would be where it is today, were it not for Ellis and his willingness to be such a character.

If we live well, we touch the world in some way; we usually don't know how. But Ellis died knowing that the things he believed in were now part of clinical psychology's mainstream. That's an incredible legacy.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Psychoanalysis Evolves: Freudian Dissenters

This is the second post in my series on psychotherapy. I know, I've been gone a long time. My stats show it, too.

When Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, he became a very controversial figure because of his emphasis on sexuality. He went through a brief period where he worked in isolation, but, by 1902. he began to gather a group of physicians around him. By 1908, the group had grown into the Vienna Psychoanalyic Society. Two early members of the Society eventually split from Freud: Alfred Adler and Carl Jung.

Carl Jung

Jung and Freud were very close and Freud saw Jung as his successor. This relationship soon fell apart, however, as Jung began to diverge from Freud's views. There are many accounts (some of them scandalous) of their final split, which, fortunately, are irrelevant to my goals for this series.

Jung's theory, like Freud's, is extremely complicated. A good summary of his ideas can be found here. Jung became fascinated with symbols, and began to see a cross-cultural pattern in them. He argued that there are "archetypes" among those symbols which relate to common human heritage, not just the individual's experience. Thus, each of us has a set of common symbols within us, which Jung referred to as the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious coexisted with the personal unconscious.

For Jung, neurosis, or mental illness in general, resulted from attempts to cut off elements of both the collective and personal unconscious from the conscious experience of the individual. Humans have an innate need for "self-realization," which involves understanding and integrating all of the material from the collective and personal unconscious. Proceeding with self-realization results in "individuation," the process of becoming a unique and unified individual.

Psychotherapy for Jung was less structured than psychoanalysis. He did not use free-association the same way Freud did. Rather, he relied on the spontaneous discussion of the individual. Like Freud, he analyzed dreams and verbalized symbols. He was less concerned with uncovering trauma and more concerned with tracing the relationships among symbols. He also understood symbols more in terms of common human experience and less in terms of sexuality. Through therapy, individuals become more centered and more comfortable with their own contradictions.

Alfred Adler

An early member of Freud's inner circle, Adler was the first to break with Freud. A good summary of his ideas can be found here and here. Adler anticipated much of modern psychology and psychotherapy. He dispensed with Freud's instinctive psychology and focused instead on the goal-oriented nature of human behavior.

Adler saw individuals first and foremost as social creatures, forming goals and striving to meet them. Where Freud talked about the superego managing our behavior, Adler conceived of the role of values. This is an oversimplification, but essentially Adler saw mental health in terms of (a) having healthy values, which affect what goals we try to achieve, and (b) having both the confidence and the ability to achieve those goals.

This means that analysis was very straightforward. The analyst encourages the patient to overcome feelings of insecurity, develop more rewarding and meaningful relationships, and to pursue healthy life goals. Insight and exploration of the patient's past occur early in the relationship, but later on, there is more emphasis on behavior change.

There were two critical differences between Adler and Freud. First, Adler emphasized the role of empathy in the therapeutic relationship. For Freud, the analyst was supposed to be a blank slate. This encouraged the development of transference. The interpretation of transference was critical for psychoanalysis. In contrast, Adler argued that the analyst should develop an empathic relationship with the patient, stimulating hope and commitment to the process. Second, while Freud encouraged the analyst to be quiet and allow the patient to free associate, Adler encouraged the analyst to engage in Socratic dialogs to help the patient achieve insights.


Jung and Adler are really polar opposites. Adler was much the realist, while Jung was much more mystical. Together, Jung and Adler moved analysis off the couch and put it across the desk. This changed the dynamic between the patient and the analyst, making it possible to create the modern collaborative relationship.

Both Jung and Adler continue to be influential, and there continue to be institutes (e.g., Alfred Adler Institutes and C. G. Jung Institutes) devoted to their ideas. While Jung is better known, it has been Adler whose influence has been most pervasive in modern psychotherapy. He anticipated the more active approaches we use today and was the first analyst to downplay the emphasis on probing the unconscious. We will come back to him briefly when we discuss cognitive-behavior therapy.