The Prince of Reason
An interview with Albert Ellis, developer of rational emotive behavior therapy. The groundbreaking treatment rests on the premise that most of our emotional problems are based on irrational beliefs.
By Robert Epstein Ph.D. published January 1, 2001 - last reviewed on December 23, 2020
Albert Ellis is a force to be reckoned with, both as a person and as a professional. Renowned as much for his colorful language and strong opinions as for his innovations in therapy, Ellis developed what is now called "rational emotive behavior therapy" (REBT) in the mid-1950s. The groundbreaking therapy is based on his main philosophy: that most of our behavioral and emotional problems—from getting over a breakup to handling child abuse—stem from our own irrational beliefs about our situations and how we should be treated. Quickly and powerfully, REBT helps you replace such irrational thoughts with rational ones. Given that these techniques have now become mainstream, it's safe to say that no individual—not even Freud himself—has had a greater impact on modern psychotherapy. At 87, Ellis was still lecturing, writing and seeing 70 or more clients per week—his steady stream of gusto and bravado apparently unstoppable.
Robert Epstein: You are widely known as a very unusual person—as a kind of a character. Do you agree?
Albert Ellis: Yes, compared to most therapists, and probably to the general population, because I usually tell it like it is. And I don't give that much of a damn what people think of me for saying it. That's unusual, since the world consists mainly of love slobs who need other people's approval. Most people don't live their own lives very well.
How long have you spoken your mind?
A long time. I majored in business administration in college, but my hobby was philosophy and I read all the philosophers. When I was 16 I started keeping a diary in which I recorded my disagreements with the famous philosophers.
Could this be interpreted as a kind of arrogance?
Yes, but I didn't insist that they were wrong, that I was right and I had to prevail. I just agreed and disagreed with them. I thought there was a high degree of probability that I was right and some other thinkers were wrong. But I wasn't positive about it.
Has speaking your mind ever gotten you in trouble?
Yes, several times. For example, I once wrote a book with a psychiatrist, and I did practically all the work. It was a study of sex offenders in the New Jersey State system, where I was chief psychologist. I started to get it published and put his name second—it's dubious whether he even deserved that—and he got angry and complained to the famous Sanford Bates, then director of the Department of Human Services. Bates said I had to put the psychiatrist's name first. I held my ground and practically got kicked out of the state of New Jersey. I ended up quitting and going into private practice in 1952.
How did you feel about that?
I felt that I was right and they were wrong, but I wasn't upset, even though the process was very unfair. They trumped up charges, for example, that I lived in New York and shouldn't be allowed to work for the state of New Jersey. I pointed out that half the people working for the state lived in Philadelphia. But I don't recall that I was terribly angry at them. I just noted that they were unfair.
Nevertheless, you paid a price for your boldness. Isn't that the reason most people won't speak their minds?
Yes, and I don't recommend that people speak their minds to their bosses or to somebody who's directly over them. You need to know when to speak your mind and what the penalty will be for doing so. Sometimes it's worth it, and often it's not!
You were trained initially in the Rogerian tradition of therapy, which is entirely non-directive. Then you shifted to Freudian psychoanalysis. How did you end up developing your own very directive technique?
I was trained in Rogerian therapy at Columbia University, but I didn't buy it so I never practiced it. I had used eclectic therapy and behavior therapy on myself at the age of 19 to get over my fear of public speaking and my terror of approaching young women in public. So I'd used other forms of therapy on myself, and I started to use those with clients. But I thought foolishly that Freudian psychoanalysis was deeper and more intensive than other, more directive forms of therapy, so I was trained in it and practiced it. Then I found that it intensively went into every irrelevancy under the sun—and that it didn't work. People got insights into what was bothering them, but they hardly did a damn thing to change. Freud had a gene for inefficiency, and I think I have a gene for efficiency. Had I not been a therapist, I would have been an efficiency expert.
Freudian therapists do a lot of listening and very little persuading.
Right, and that was one of the reasons I eventually gave up being an analyst. You had to be too passive and not speak up, and you couldn't give homework to clients. While I was still an analyst, I wrote several articles criticizing psychoanalysis, but the analysts weren't listening to my objections. So I finally quit psychoanalysis after practicing it for six years.
You made this shift, as I recall, around 1955. Sometime during this transitional period you began to focus on a very critical idea—namely, that many of our problems are rooted in irrational beliefs. How did this idea emerge?
When I started to get disillusioned with psychoanalysis I reread philosophy and was reminded of the constructivist notion that Epictetus had proposed 2,000 years ago: "People are disturbed not by events that happen to them, but by their view of them." I could see how that applied to many of my clients. One was a very shy man whose father had taken him out at the age of 4 and made him shoot at birds and animals with a great big shotgun. He really loathed himself in many respects. When I showed him that he had underlying irrational thoughts that led to negative feelings about himself, he denied it, and he also denied that he hated his father. But one time I probed and probed and suggested that it was what he told himself that upset him. And he finally admitted, "Damn it. I really do hate him. I could kill him right now because he shouldn't have done what he did when I was a little boy and made me so afraid of people and things." I saw—and he saw—that it wasn't just his father's behavior, what I call "adversity," that made him angry and self-doubting. It was also his "belief system"—what he told himself about the adversity.
How did he turn out?
He didn't completely get over his shyness, but he saw that his father had serious problems of his own. He was able to accept disliking his father and to get along with him. I also had a great many sex and love cases where people were absolutely devastated when somebody with whom they were compulsively in love didn't love them back. They were killing themselves with anxiety and depression. They were telling themselves, "I absolutely must be loved by the person I love or I am no good as a person." And I started pointing out their irrational demands and disputing their shoulds and musts, and some of them got remarkably better quite quickly.
What's an irrational belief, and how can it interfere with our normal functioning?
If something is irrational, that means it won't work. It's usually unrealistic. People are terrified of other people or difficult projects because they tell themselves that they could fail or be rejected. Failure can lead to sorrow, regret, frustration and annoyance—all healthy, negative feelings without which people couldn't exist. But then they add, "I absolutely must succeed and must be loved by significant persons, and if I don't, it's terrible and I'm no good." Those are irrational beliefs. As long as people keep them, they'll be terrified of life and will put themselves down when they get rejected.
So there's a certain level of belief that isn't harmful.
Yes, like when we say that something that we're encountering is bad. We don't like it.
Then people add another level of belief—the "must" level—which is harmful. The rational belief is one that's closer to the facts, and the irrational belief includes imperatives like "must," "should" and "ought."
Yes. Rational beliefs bring us closer to getting good results in the real world.
Psychoanalysis can take decades, but you became known for producing rapid change. How did you achieve this?
My rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) was one of the very few therapies that was originated partly or largely because I wanted to be brief and efficient. And therefore right from the start I was active and directive. I tried to show people some central masturbatory core to their philosophy and to get them to work at changing it cognitively, emotionally and behaviorally.
How did REBT develop?
I started to call myself a "rational therapist" in January 1955; later I used the term "rational emotive." Now I call myself a "rational emotive behavior therapist." But from the start, I always included philosophic techniques as well as experiential, emotional and behavioral techniques. At first I did REBT myself. Then I taught it to a few of my friends who were psychotherapists. And then I began in 1956 to start teaching it to others. In 1959, I got a great big Ampex tape recorder and recorded specific sessions that I had with people and started sending samples to other therapists. That year I also established the Institute for Rational Living, which later became the Institute for Rational Emotive Therapy and then the Albert Ellis Institute, which trains therapists and gives them certificates in REBT.
How did the profession react to REBT?
I was ostracized by most of the psychological, psychiatric and social professions. Therapists said REBT was superficial. It won't work. They wrongly said it has no "feeling" aspects. Some said it wasn't behavioral, although it was very behavioral. Critics said all kinds of things about it and objected philosophically and otherwise to it. But essentially they said it wouldn't work.
Who were the most vocal critics?
One was Fritz Peris. Whenever we were on a symposium together he would say, "I'm bored. It's too rational. It has no feeling." Many psychoanalysts refused to let me speak at their meetings. They were exceptionally vigorous because I had previously been an analyst and they were very angry at my flying the coop. Practically every other kind of therapist was opposed to REBT.
You and the thousands of therapists you've trained and influenced have used REBT with perhaps millions of people. What evidence do you have that it works?
In my very first paper on what we now call REBT, I outlined 11 common irrational beliefs. Later I added 30 or 40 more common irrational ideas. Beginning in the 1960s, many studies showed that people who hold what we call irrational beliefs are significantly more disturbed than when they don't hold them, and the more strongly they hold them, the more disturbed they tend to be. We started doing outcome studies, and then later Aaron Beck and Donald Meichenbaum began to do them, and now there are probably 2,000 or more studies on the effectiveness of cognitive behavior therapy, which I originated. The studies tend to show that when people change their irrational beliefs to undogmatic flexible preferences, they become less disturbed.
Are there any particular populations that are more resistant to this technique?
The psychotics, naturally. They don't think straight. And severe personality disorders take much longer to treat than people who are neurotic.
Does your technique work better with men than with women?
There's no evidence whatsoever that men are more rational than women or that men are more willing to surrender their irrational beliefs. Both sexes seem to be equally irrational and equally benefit from REBT and cognitive behavior therapy.
A classic joke goes as follows: A client tells Carl Rogers, the quintessential nondirective therapist, that she feels like committing suicide. Rogers replies, "You're feeling suicidal." She says, "Yes, I feel like jumping out the window," and Rogers replies, "You feel like jumping out the window." She walks over to the window, and Rogers follows. She jumps, and Rogers leans out the window and says, "Plop." Could this happen with your own therapeutic approach?
No, because we'd immediately say, "What are you telling yourself to make yourself suicidal? You largely constructed your depression. It wasn't given to you. Therefore, you can deconstruct it. What do you think you're telling yourself to make yourself this way?" We'd get the client to admit things like, "I don't like my life," and then we'd say, "Yeah, but that wouldn't induce you to commit suicide. What else are you telling yourself?" And that's when clients say things like, "It shouldn't be the way it is. It's terrible that I failed. I'm no good." That's when we hear the shoulds, the oughts and the musts, and then we convince the client to abandon these irrational demands. Our slogan is, "I will not should on myself today."
Rogers' approach and your approach seem to be miles apart.
But they're also similar in one respect. We both had the idea—which I think we each got from Paul Tillich's book The Courage To Be—that humans can always accept themselves unconditionally. But Rogers thought that he could get people to accept themselves just by listening to them and being nice to them, and I don't think that's enough. I think nine out of 10 people who go through Rogerian therapy conclude wrongly that "I'm okay because my therapist approves of me." But that's conditional love. I get people to truly accept themselves unconditionally, whether or not their therapist or anyone loves them. Self-esteem is the greatest sickness known to man or woman because it's conditional. "When I do well and am loved by significant others, then I'm okay." Rogers would have been opposed to that as an endpoint of therapy, but he didn't have a good technique for showing people how to get beyond it. In REBT, we give clients unconditional acceptance but we also teach them how to give it to themselves.
Several professional organizations are now cautioning therapists that by being too directive they might inadvertently be implanting false memories in their clients. Do you worry about this?
With all directive techniques—including classroom teaching—the teacher or therapist might indoctrinate the pupils or the clients with wrong ideas which could be harmful to them. That's a liability.
Let's get more concrete about this. A man comes in and says "I've been feeling horrible lately, and I think it's because I may have been abused as a child." How do you react?
We'd assume the worst, usually as a hypothesis. Let's suppose somebody abused you sexually. You still had a choice—though not a good one—about what to tell yourself about the abuse. Given that you're still upset about the abuse, you probably told yourself two things about it. First, you said things like: "I don't like it. I wish to hell it weren't so. How unfair." That made you feel sorry and regretful, which is okay. But you also in all probability told yourself that the abuse should not exist. You were disturbed as a child because of both the adversity you experienced and what you told yourself about that adversity. If adversity alone caused disturbance, then everybody who experienced such adversity would turn out the same, but we know they don't. So we teach people that they upset themselves then and that they're still doing it now. We can't change the past, so we change how people are thinking, feeling and behaving today.
By assuming that the abuse really occurred, isn't there a danger here that you might inadvertently implant a memory?
No, because after we show people that they are partly responsible for their upsetness, then we say: Now that you're not very disturbed about it, what were the details? Did it really occur?
So you're basically helping people to protect themselves from the worst case.
Right. That's what we call the "elegant solution." You might say that your wife is nasty and mean and blames you for everything. You say that makes you angry. We'll assume that she really behaves this way and teach you how to get unangry. Then you can decide whether she was really that bad.
How old are you?
I'll be 87 tomorrow.
And how many clients do you see?
When I'm in New York, I see about 40 individual clients, and I also have four groups with eight people apiece. So I see as many 70 or more clients per week.
Have you been cutting down over the years?
Yes, because of HMOs. In the old days we used to get more referrals, because people had insurance that paid for therapy. Now they belong to HMOs, and we can only be affiliated with a few HMOs. On the other hand, cognitive therapy, cognitive behavior therapy and rational emotive behavior therapy are much more popular with the public than they ever were. So we do okay.
What does it cost to have therapy with Albert Ellis?
We're a nonprofit organization, and it usually costs $100 an hour for individual therapy. Participating in a group costs $120 a month.
That seems like quite a value, considering that some of my therapist friends consider you to be the greatest living therapist in the world. Are you?
Well, in terms of my personal effectiveness with clients, I think that I'm certainly one of the most effective therapists doing REBT or cognitive behavior therapy. Whether I'm the best in the world—that would certainly be questionable with so many therapists around.
Do you think the Freudian tradition will ever die?
It will never completely die because it has a few good points. For example, people have motives and thoughts of which they are unaware. Most of cognitive therapy has now adopted a similar idea. On the other hand, the relationship part of psychoanalysis—where you must have a deep, emotional relationship with the client—will, I think, get kicked in the teeth one of these days. I just had a client this week who came to me after ten years of Freudian therapy. He's in love with his analyst, and she is sort of in love with him, though she's not going to go to bed with him. There's no question that she has aided this kind of intense personal involvement.
Freudians call this transference and countertransference, of course. Does this also happen in REBT?
Oh yes, and I recently wrote an article on it. In one situation, I was going too easy on a client because she was very bright and attractive. I didn't get after her about her low frustration tolerance, which I might have done with some other client or a male client. She took me to task for it, and she was right. I was too taken with her. But I watch that, to see that it doesn't interfere with the therapy.
Are you married? Any children?
I've lived "in sin" with the executive director of our institute for 35 years. I was married twice briefly before that.
None to speak of.
Any regrets about that?
I would have liked having children to some degree, but frankly I haven't got the time to take the kids to the goddamn ballgame. So it would have had more disadvantages than advantages for them.
Do you think it's irrational for people to say "I don't want to be in a relationship?"
It could be rational or irrational. It's irrational when it's defensive because they're really afraid of rejection. But they could rationally decide that prolonged relationships take up too much time and effort and that they'd much rather do other kinds of things. But most people are afraid of rejection.
You appear to be unflappable. Is there anything I could say that would upset you?
I doubt it. As a matter of fact, as a result of my philosophy, I wasn't even upset about Hitler. I was willing to go to war to knock him off, but I didn't hate him. I hated what he was doing.
Your philosophy is not just something you teach; it is something you live by.
I hope so.
You're an unusually accomplished person.
Very few people have written more than 60 books and 700 papers—I've lost count.
Are you also happy?
Oh yes, I'm very happy. I like my work and I like the various aspects of it—going around the world, teaching the gospel according to St. Albert—I like that. And seeing clients, doing group therapy, writing books.
So now we get to the critical question: Are you productive and successful and happy because of your philosophy?
To some degree, yes, because most people would have given up when faced with all the criticism I've received over the years. I'm one of the best-loved psychologists in the United States, but I'm also probably the most hated one, now that Fred Skinner has died. I even wrote a paper years ago showing why we were both so productive—it was because we both didn't give that much of a shit what other people thought of us. So by not caring too much about what people think, I'm able to think for myself and propagate ideas which are very often unpopular. And I succeed with them because, again, I don't care too much what other people think.
Could people claim that when a client goes through this process and comes out feeling good and functioning well, he or she has become a cognitive clone of Albert Ellis?
If they did we would be opposed to it. We teach people to be flexible, scientific and logical in their thinking and therefore to be less prone to brainwashing by the therapist.
What would the world be like if everyone in the world thought like Albert Ellis?
Oh, I think it would be a hell of a lot better. People would be largely free of neurosis. They would be much more creative and try all kinds of things that they might fail at and be rejected by others for failing at. They'd do things just because they like doing them.
What would relationships be like?
People would have unconditional self-acceptance. They'd always accept themselves no matter who disliked them or what they did badly. They'd also have unconditional other acceptance. They'd always accept other people, although not necessarily what other people do, which means they would be less prejudiced or combative. They'd also have high frustration tolerance in the face of adversity.
Would divorce still occur?
Yes. Acceptance is not love. You love a person because he or she has lovable traits, but you accept everybody just because they're alive and human.
What would psychology be like?
I think the future of psychotherapy and psychology is in the school system. We need to teach every child how to rarely seriously disturb himself or herself and how to overcome disturbance when it occurs. In that sense, psychotherapy belongs in the schools.
What do you see yourself doing over the next few years?
I see myself continuing pretty much as I do now, for as long as I'm able. I'm getting more fragile. I have arthritis of the thumbs and can't walk as well as I used to. I may have to restrict my activities, but if so I'll just do more here at the Institute—give workshops here rather than traveling around the world. And I hope to die in the saddle seat.
Do you have any regrets?
I regret that I've been so busy with clinical work that I haven't been able to spend much time on experiments and outcome studies. Fortunately, Beck and Meichenbaum and other clinicians have done some of it. But theoretically—and especially if I had been a member of the academic establishment—I could have done other experiments which haven't been done.
How do you want to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered as one of the individuals who founded, ideologically and practically, cognitive behavior therapy and who pioneered multimodal or integrated therapy.
Any final thoughts?
People don't just get upset. They contribute to their upsetness. They always have the power to think, and to think about their thinking, and to think about thinking about their thinking, which the goddamn dolphin, as far as we know, can't do. Therefore they have much greater ability to change themselves than any other animal has, and I hope that REBT teaches them how to do it.
So there's hope for humanity?
Yes. I think there's definite hope. But there are three musts that hold us back: "I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy." And I sometimes think that as long as we keep the second must, which is socially learned, then some screwballs 100 years from now will manufacture atomic bombs in their bathtub and maybe annihilate the whole human race because they demand that the rest of the world must agree with their dogmas. When we don't agree, they may zap us. So we'd better work hard on getting rid of that second must—Other people must do what I want them to do!" It's what makes people hostile, nasty, mean and combative, and it leads to feuds, wars and genocide. We'd better do something about that.
Read More About It
Making Intimate Connections: Seven Guidelines for Great Relationships and Better Communication, Albert Ellis, Ph.D., and Ted Crawford (Impact, 2000)
The Secret of Overcoming Verbal Abuse, Albert Ellis, Ph.D., and Marcia Grad Powers (Wilshire, 2000)