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.


naked politics said...

There are few people willing to speak the truth and the few that are, leave behind lasting and viral legacies.
Albert Ellis will live forever!

Name Withheld said...

I believe that Ellis should be required reading for the 12-step movement. I am currently housesharing with a recovering alcoholic 8 years into sobriety. I have never had addiction problems with either drugs nor alcohol. I am, however, chronically depressed for at least 20 years. My behaviors mimic those of the quintessential alcoholic/drug addicted--avoidance, exceedingly low self esteem, and loss of control of basic self-caring. This particular person exhibits an annoying and frustrating proselytizing bent similar to toxic spirituality written of here in this blog elsewhere. Most frustrating is the repetitive harangue regarding taking control of my life, expressed in terms of her understanding of only speaking of her recovery processes. T'were it that Ellis' full spectrum of REBT applied in AA, the rather self-serving characteristic of sycophantic mutual support (be that the vaunted 'calling one on their bullshit' or affirmation, both) might be directed toward empathy with others rather than simply reinforcing sympathy. The 12-step movement needs to evolve past a simple list of 12 commandments. What makes the 12-step movement confusing is its parallel to the nuanced distinctions between sects in authoritative religion. Simply replacing one noun for another in the list of commandments too easily sidesteps the underlying structure of self-recrimination, self-flagellation, and guilt/reward couched in the vaunted character flaw paradigm. While not wishing to discount the reported beneficials of AA and similar recovery paradigms outright, I do wish to call attention to its pervasive leakage into all manner of societal person-management arenas. It is in this respect that dealing with a 12-stepper on a daily basis lends me insight into the fragile bubble of religiousness that I perceive in the paradigm, given that I do base my observation on close interaction with more than this one individual alone.

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It is interesting how the writings of Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, Alfred Adler and Harry Stack Sullivan would arguably be some of the greatest influences in Ellis's thinking and played a role in shaping his psychological models. Ellis credits Alfred Korzybski, his book, Science and Sanity, and general semantics for starting him on the philosophical path for founding rational therapy.

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