Understanding Albert Ellis’ contributions

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated January 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Albert Ellis was an American psychologist and psychotherapist who is widely viewed as a pioneer in the field of modern psychology. He’s best known for the impact he made through his development of a revolutionary new type of psychotherapy known as rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). Many of the concepts and frameworks he devised are still in use by therapists today to help individuals learn to navigate challenging situations, better control their emotions, and embrace change to promote improved mental health and a better quality of life.

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Learn about Albert Ellis and his innovative approach to therapy

Who was Albert Ellis?

Albert Ellis was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 27, 1913. He was interested in psychology from a young age and began to study it on his own at 16. Then, after rendering his undergraduate studies in business at the City College of New York, he obtained a master's degree in clinical psychology from Columbia University. 

During his studies, Albert Ellis became particularly drawn to the idea of developing a more practical and effective approach to therapy, as he recognized the limitations of traditional psychoanalytic techniques used at the time. After finishing his master's degree, Albert Ellis began his career as a psychologist, working in both own practice and mental health clinics over the years. He continued to study and refine his ideas over time, eventually introducing REBT—his unique approach to therapy—in the 1950s.

Ellis’ main contributions to the field of psychology

Albert Ellis is best-known for introducing the framework for rational emotive behavior therapy, which many view as a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). As CBT in general is the most widely used method and “the current gold standard” of psychotherapy today, Albert Ellis is considered to be one of the most influential minds in the field to date. 

He devised the method of rational emotive behavioral therapy after identifying clients and circumstances in which other types of therapy did not seem to be effective. He felt that the predominant methods of psychotherapy at the time were too passive and overly focused on past trauma, motivating him to devise a more action- and future-oriented method. 

Albert Ellis is also known for having authored over 60 books and hundreds of articles on various topics related to psychology. He founded the Institute for Rational Living in 1959 as well, which is now known as the Albert Ellis Institute and continues to offer trainings for psychotherapists today. 

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How does rational emotive behavioral therapy work?

REBT is based on the concept that a person’s thoughts about a situation or circumstance are what cause the most distress. That’s why practitioners use it in an attempt to help clients learn how to notice and challenge flawed or unhelpful thought patterns that are leading to unfavorable emotions or behaviors. The goal of this type of therapy is to empower individuals to reframe problematic core beliefs into more realistic ones over time. Two key elements of this type of therapy include:

  1. Focusing more on the present moment, which allows an individual to notice flawed thoughts as they occur in real time so they can challenge them on the spot. In addition, aiming to live in the present moment can help prevent unproductive rumination on the past or unhelpful projection of past events onto the future.

  2. A bias toward action, as Ellis believed that the power of REBT lies in encouraging individuals to take ownership of their beliefs, emotions, and behaviors and to shift them with their own power to create a healthier emotional life.

Ellis’ approach to REBT is reflected in one of his more well-known quotes: “The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny”. 

Rational emotive behavioral therapy today

REBT is a therapy modality that is still in use today. A 2017 review of studies on the topic concludes that it remains “a sound psychological intervention”. The review reports that it can be an effective treatment for mental health conditions and behaviors. These include but are not limited to depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social phobia, psychotic symptoms, parental distress, and disruptive behavior.

One key technique often used in REBT is known as the ABC method. It aims to help an individual learn to slow down and recognize the often unconscious or automatic ways in which they tend to respond to unpleasant or difficult events in their lives so they can learn to shift them. The underlying idea is that we all control our own interpretations of events, which are typically where distress comes from. In this method, ’ABC’ stands for:

  • Activating event, which is an unpleasant or difficult event, circumstance, or situation that occurs in a person’s life

  • Belief, which refers to the thoughts the individual has in response to the activating event

  • Consequence, which is the emotional reaction the person has in response to their beliefs about the activating event

Developing an awareness of the ABCs of a given situation is typically the first step of REBT. Next, the therapist will aim to help the individual learn how to challenge any beliefs that may be causing distressing consequences. Over time, this new perspective may become easier to participate in the moment, leading to decreased distress overall. 

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Learn about Albert Ellis and his innovative approach to therapy

How to connect with a therapist

Various forms of CBT, including REBT, have helped many people gain greater control over their emotions and helped them improve their mental health overall. If you’re interested in connecting with a therapist, there are various ways to do so. For those who would prefer to meet with a mental health professional in person, searching for a provider in the local area can be a helpful next step. For those who would feel more comfortable meeting with a provider virtually, online therapy may be worth considering. 

With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of home or anywhere you have an internet connection. Many people find this therapeutic format to be more cost-effective than traditional in-person sessions as well. Research suggests that both online and in-person therapy can offer similar benefits in many cases, so you can typically choose the format that works best for you.

Takeaway

Albert Ellis is recognized as a pioneer in the field of modern psychotherapy because of his development of rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT)—a methodology that’s still in use today. If you’re interested in seeking the support of a therapist, you can connect with a professional in person or online.

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