Who Is Albert Ellis And Why Is He Important?
By: Patricia Oelze
Updated February 12, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Erika Schad, LCP, CWLC
Psychologists, as a whole, make a huge impact on society. Whether or not you have personally worked with a therapist, counselor, psychiatrist, or clinical psychologists, they have undoubtedly made an impact on your life by influencing the behavior of other people around you. One such psychologist who made a massive impact on the field, and many people, is Albert Ellis.
Who Is Albert Ellis?
Albert Ellis is a renowned clinical psychologist from New York City. Ellis realized his desire to work as a therapist his late 20s when friends would commonly ask him for advice, and he realized how much he enjoyed being in the counselor role. He received a master's degree in clinical psychology from Columbia University in 1943, and soon after, in 1947, completed his doctorate.
Throughout his studies and in his early work following his graduation, Ellis was a big believer of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is the style of therapy that focuses on the unconscious mind, popularized by the famous Sigmund Freud. Ellis practiced psychoanalysis in the early years of his career along with his family counseling practice. But, over time, he began to lose faith in the process. Rather than taking a hands-off approach, as was the prescribed method for psychoanalysis sessions, Ellis decided to become more involved in his patients' analysis sessions, similar to his actions during standard family therapy.
He found that their conditions improved at a much faster rate with this new method. Ellis began to practice a style of therapy in which he confronted his patients with the beliefs or behaviors that could be causing them hardship, and guiding them towards replacing these beliefs and behaviors with new ones. This was the birth of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), a form of cognitive behavioral therapy pioneered by Ellis.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is widely utilized today, but it did not emerge as a popular psychological method until Albert Ellis, and other early pioneers began to practice the methods in the 1950s and 1960s. CBT focuses on the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. The guiding principle of the therapy is that our thoughts influence our feelings which determines our behavior. Thus, to change behavior, we must change our thoughts.
To change thought patterns and bring about change in behavior, CBT practitioners break down a patient's problems into five different areas. The areas are:
- Physical feelings
By breaking down behaviors or responses to situations into these different sections, a therapist can help a patient see the relationship between them. Ultimately, the goal is to help patients realize how their thoughts influence their behaviors so that they can alter their thought patterns and prevent a negative behavioral response.
What is CBT Session Like?
There are multiple ways in which you can choose to undergo CBT, including in an individual session, group therapy, or even online. Treatment duration typically ranges from five to twenty sessions, though that can certainly vary and is based on each patient's individual needs. Each treatment session typically lasts thirty or sixty minutes.
Before fully initiating CBT treatment, your therapist will likely want to conduct at least one initial session to evaluate whether or not CBT is the right treatment plan for you (it is not right for everyone). If you and your therapist both choose to move forward to CBT, you will work together to begin the process of facing your problems and dissecting them into their separate parts. You will consider whether your thoughts are irrational, and how your thoughts could be negatively impacting your behavior. In addition to your therapy sessions, your therapist may ask you to keep a journal throughout the week to document any instances where you notice negative thought patterns arising and what the behavioral outcome of these thoughts was.
Once you have identified certain negative thought and behavioral patterns, you will begin to work on replacing your thoughts with positive ones, to then spark a positive behavioral change. There is also an element of really knowing yourself through your thoughts; for example, realizing when action will cause a negative thought or emotion, so making the conscious choice to do something else. Even after you have completed your course of CBT, you can continue to apply the strategies to your thoughts and behaviors throughout your life, making it an especially valuable form of therapy.
In addition to journaling or keeping a diary, there may be other "homework" assignments for the patient throughout CBT. Often, these are situations that will challenge the person and spark a change in their beliefs. This type of therapy, known as exposure therapy, is particularly useful for people struggling with anxiety or phobias. It begins by having the patient confront a situation or item that causes them anxiety or fear, but that they can tolerate.
The tasks will build from there until the patient is doing things or putting themselves in situations that they would never have believed they were capable of before. Exposure therapy thus changes the person's limiting beliefs and can be a great tool for reducing anxiety or fear surrounding a situation. This type of change through behavior is one of the unique aspects of CBT vs. psychotherapy.
What Does CBT Treat?
CBT can be used to treat a variety of conditions. Often, it is used to treat phobias, substance abuse disorders, eating disorders, or mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Though this is not always the case, sometimes CBT is made more effective when used together with medications. This varies for every person, and should always be discussed with a medical professional.
Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy
Albert Ellis was a pioneer of the cognitive revolution in psychology, which began the shift away from psychoanalysis to therapies focused on cognitive science. CBT was one of the therapies to emerge from this movement. But, Albert Ellis practiced a specific type of therapy within the CBT realm: rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT).
What is REBT?
REBT is a form of CBT. The philosophy and end goal of the two therapies are the same: that thoughts influence our emotions and behavior, and that we must alter our thoughts to improve our behavior. But, the specific beliefs and methods used in Ellis' REBT differ from those used in standard CBT.
First, REBT does not focus as much on the thoughts, emotions, behavior cycle that is so prominent in CBT. Rather, Ellis' focus with REBT is on the irrational beliefs that people hold and how these beliefs negatively impact their behavior. Ellis believed that each person holds a set of assumptions about themselves and that these assumptions influence how we respond to situations throughout our lives. But, many people hold some irrational assumptions which then cause negative behavior. By rectifying these irrational assumptions, we can improve our behavior.
Though everyone's assumptions about themselves are personal, Ellis identified certain irrational assumptions that were common among many people. He referred to these as the common irrational assumptions. The common irrational assumptions include thoughts such as:
- I need to be good at everything. If not, I am a failure.
- I have no control over my happiness.
- I need someone stronger than me to lean on.
- My past influences my present and will continue to influence my future.
- There is a solution to every problem, and I need to find it.
As you can see, these thought patterns are certainly problematic and can lead to emotional distress and irrational behavior. But, these are all thoughts that many people have. You might even have dealt with some of these beliefs yourself at some point.
But, these are not beliefs that you need to hold on to. As Ellis' strategy describes, these are irrational beliefs, and they can be worked through to live a much happier life.
The REBT Method
The methods utilized in an REBT session also differ from those implemented in CBT. Rather than breaking down problems into sections and working through them piece by piece, Ellis implemented something known as the ABC method.
The ABCs stand for "activating event," "belief," and "consequences." In an REBT session the therapist will analyze a patient's problems and categorize them into these three columns:
- The activating event is a situation that typically invokes a strong emotional response.
- The belief is the negative thoughts that accompanied the emotional response.
- The consequences are the behaviors that resulted from the thoughts and emotions.
Unlike the CBT model that emphasizes that thoughts directly influence behavioral response, the REBT model follows that an event, followed by an irrational belief, causes a negative emotional response. REBT has been proven effective for conditions such as anxieties or certain fears.
Albert Ellis' Legacy
In 1959, Ellis founded the Albert Ellis Institute (AEI) in New York, New York. A multi-faceted organization, the AEI conducts research, provides continuing education opportunities and training for mental health professionals, and workshops and affordable psychological assessments and treatments for the public. The AEI was established with the goal to provide "effective, short-term therapy with long-term results." Of course, the institute practices methods based on Ellis' game-changing REBT.
Albert Ellis passed away in 2007, but his legacy undoubtedly persists in the field of clinical psychology and the world at large. You may not have previously heard of Albert Ellis, but you have likely heard about CBT. Ellis played a huge role in the cognitive revolution that introduced effective new therapies to the world that have helped countless people. As one of the most influential psychotherapists in history, Albert Ellis' paved the way for a new type of therapy that has positively impacted the lives of many.