Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is a practical, action-oriented approach to coping with problems and enhancing personal growth. REBT places a good deal of its focus on the present: on currently-held attitudes, painful emotions and maladaptive behaviors that can sabotage a fuller experience of life. REBT also provides people with an individualized set of proven techniques for helping them to solve problems. REBT practitioners work closely with individuals, seeking to help uncover their individual set of beliefs (attitudes, expectations and personal rules) that frequently lead to emotional distress.
REBT then provides a variety of methods to help people reformulate their dysfunctional beliefs into more sensible, realistic and helpful ones by employing the powerful REBT technique called “disputing.” Ultimately, REBT helps individuals to develop a philosophy and approach to living that can increase their effectiveness and satisfaction at work, in living successfully with others, in parenting and educational settings, in making our community and environment healthier, and in enhancing their own emotional health and personal welfare.
But don’t you need to uncover the past in order to really understand people’s problems?
Contrary to what some people erroneously believe, REBT does recognize that we may be strongly influenced by events in early life. Much of our philosophy of life—what we think about ourselves and our values—is learned from past experiences. But the past is with us in the form of beliefs that we carry in our head in the present. REBT hones in on the beliefs that are harmful in our current emotional life and behavior—whether those beliefs arose in the distant reaches of our youth or within the past few weeks. REBT believes that the “nuttiness” of our past exerts its influence in our current-day thinking patterns and beliefs. Although we cannot change the past, we can change how we let the past influence the way we are today and the way we want to be tomorrow. In this sense, REBT is an optimistic approach to living and to solving problems.
I’ve heard that REBT tries to do away with negative emotions altogether by making people think logically and objectively. Is that true?
This is a fundamental misconception of REBT. Perhaps more so than any other approach, REBT emphasizes the involvement of emotions in just about every aspect of our thinking and actions. REBT proposes that when our negative emotions become too intense (e.g., rage, panic, or depression), not only do we feel very unhappy, but our ability to manage our lives begins to deteriorate. At these times, the quality of our thinking changes and we begin to take things over-personally, blow things out of perspective, condemn others for their transgressions and generally become less tolerant of life’s hassles and hardships. REBT helps restore the emotional balance in an individuals life by providing methods for thinking more realistically and levelheadedly about ourselves, other people, and the world.
But aren’t feelings such as anger and anxiety normal and appropriate?
Of course! But it is the quality of feelings that is important. Experiencing intense irritation and displeasure when things go wrong can motivate you to change frustrating conditions. Feelings of rage, on the other hand, often land you in a smoldering stew, where you’re likely not to take any action at all, or to act in ways that are impulsive and self-defeating. A bit of anxiety or some degree of concern about facing the boss can add an edge of excitement that sharpens performance; excessive anxiety, however, can interfere with thinking and action. While REBT tries to minimize debilitating emotions, that does not mean that it’s unhealthy to experience keen feelings of sorrow or displeasure when you experience misfortune.
With REBT’s emphasis on reducing emotional upsets in the face of unfairness or misfortune, doesn’t it encourage the preservation of the status quo? (Not to mention take away energy to make things better?)
One of REBT’s favorite maxims (first expressed by Reinhold Neibuhr) is: “Grant me the courage to change the things I can change, the serenity to accept those that I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.” REBT seeks to empower individuals both by helping them more effectively handle their own painful emotions, and by enabling them to change their own behavior and improve their world where possible. When you get too upset, it is much more difficult to behave in constructive ways. By gaining better control over upsetting emotions, you become far more able to act assertively to change bad outside circumstances.
With all this emphasis on “me,” doesn’t REBT encourage selfishness? Don’t we already have too much selfishness in this world?
A very good question. Yes, many people are too selfish for their own and others’ good. REBT provides people with the skills and attitudes to become less selfish. Selfishness is often motivated by ego-gratification. Many selfish people tend to be very needy and demanding and are intent on getting what they want at any cost in order to feel good about themselves. REBT helps people to reduce their own neediness and specifically their need to prove themselves to others. To discourage selfishness, REBT teaches what Albert Ellis calls the value of rational self-acceptance. According to Ellis, healthy people are usually glad to be alive and accept themselves just because they are alive and have some capacity to enjoy themselves. They refuse to measure their intrinsic worth by their extrinsic accomplishments, materialistic possessions and by what others think of them. They frankly choose to accept themselves unconditionally; and then try to completely avoid globally rating themselves—meaning their totality or their “essence.” They attempt to enjoy rather than prove themselves. Thus, rather than acting out of selfishness, they learn to operate from responsible self-interest.
Isn’t REBT just about intellectual disputing?
REBT does help people by teaching them to recognize and change those aspects of their thinking which are not sensible, accurate or useful. This is probably what is meant by intellectual disputing. However, it also uses a host of other emotional and behavioral methods designed to reduce upset feelings and increase personal effectiveness. These include rational-emotive imagery; assertiveness, self nurture, risk-taking, and other behavioral homework assignments; communication skill training; and “shame-attacking” exercises.