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Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy is a form of psychotherapy that helps you identify self-defeating thoughts and feelings, challenge the nature of irrational and unproductive feelings, and replace them with healthier, more productive beliefs. REBT, which was devised by the psychologist Albert Ellis beginning in the mid-1950s, focuses mostly on the present time to help you understand how unhealthy thoughts and beliefs create emotional distress which, in turn, leads to unhealthy actions and behaviors that interfere with your life and goals. Once identified and understood, negative thoughts and actions can be changed and replaced with more positive and productive behavior, allowing you to develop more successful personal and professional relationships.

Ellis developed concepts such as awfulizing and musterbating. Some people have the tendency to awfulize a situation by catastrophizing, meaning distorting reality with worst case scenario or all-or-nothing thinking. Meanwhile, the concept of musterbating creates emotional unrest. The person who suffers uses absolutist words such as must, should, ought, never. For example:

• I must be loved by this person, and only by this person
• I should have won the race
• I ought to get that promotion
• I will never be happy

When It's Used

REBT can help you with negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, guilt, problems with self-worth, and extreme or inappropriate anger. This approach is also used to help change stressful and self-defeating behaviors, such as aggression, unhealthy eating, and procrastination that can get in the way of your quality of life and reaching your goals.

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What to Expect

To help you manage and overcome difficulties or achieve life goals, the therapist will work with you to identify the beliefs and rigid thought patterns that may be holding you back. The therapist will help you see how irrational these thoughts are and how they harm you. Through a variety of mental exercises, you will then learn how to reduce your negative thoughts and behaviors, and replace them with healthier, more constructive, and self-accepting thoughts. REBT makes use of a variety of methods and tools, including positive visualization, reframing your thinking, and the use of self-help books and audio-visual guides, as well as assigned homework for reinforcement between sessions.

How It Works

Rational emotive behavior therapy is a pillar of cognitive behavioral therapies, its tenets served as inspiration for Aaron Beck, the founder of CBT. Albert Ellis believed that most people are not aware that many of their thoughts about themselves are irrational and negatively affect the way they behave in important relationships and situations. According to Ellis, these thoughts lead people to suffer negative emotions and engage in self-destructive behaviors.

At the same time, humans are capable of challenging and changing their irrational beliefs, if they are willing to do the work. While specific life events may contribute to mental health difficulties, REBT therapists believe that it is an individual’s own faulty and irrational belief system that is at the root of most problems. By letting go of negative thoughts and replacing them with positive beliefs, one is better able to accept one’s self and others.

Rational emotive behavioral therapy follows the ABCDE model:

  • Activating event: The external event that activates how we feel or think
  • Belief: Our automatic beliefs about the event, ourselves, other people
  • Consequence: Your emotional or behavioral responses
  • Dispute: When you dispute or question these beliefs
  • Effective behavior: When you have resisted irrational beliefs and have changed your behavior

A skilled REBT therapist will help you see the connections between the activating event, your beliefs, and the consequences. This awareness may help you understand your irrational beliefs and thoughts, which may mean better and more positive reactions and consequences.

What to Look for in a Rational Emotive Behavior Therapist

Screen your potential therapist either in person or over video or phone. During this initial introduction, ask the therapist:

  • How they may help with your particular concerns
  • If they dealt with this type of problem before
  • What their process is
  • The timeline for treatment

Look for a licensed mental health professional with training in cognitive-behavioral and rational-emotive therapy. Health providers can receive training and certification in this type of therapy. In addition to checking credentials, it is important to find a rational emotive behavior therapist with whom you feel comfortable working. Note that not all types of therapy are covered by insurance, so call your carrier for information.

Albert Ellis “Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.” Encyclopedia of Psychotherapy. Vol. 2. p. 483-487. 2002 Elsevier Science USA.  
Dryden, Windy. “Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.” Encyclopedia of Cognitive Behavior Therapy. Springer US. 321-324.  
Last updated: 07/27/2022