How Does Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy Work?


Rational emotive behavior therapy, also known as REBT, is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy developed by psychologist Albert Ellis. REBT is focused on helping clients change irrational beliefs.

Let’s take a closer look at how rational emotive behavior was developed and how it works.

History of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

As a young man, Ellis found himself longing for companionship yet experienced a severe fear of talking to women.

In order to tackle his fear, Ellis decided to perform an experiment. For a month, his visited a nearby park and forced himself to talk to 100 different women. Over time, Ellis found that his fear of speaking to women had diminished considerably. Ellis later explained that this experience served as a basis for developing his approach to therapy, combining behavioral strategies with assessing underlying thoughts and emotions.

Ellis had trained as a clinical psychologist. As he treated patients, he became increasingly dissatisfied with the results offered by the traditional psychoanalytic approach to therapy that he was using at the time. He noted that while his patients were able to become aware of their underlying problems, their behavior did not necessarily change as a result. Simply becoming conscious of the problem was not enough to lead to actual changes in behavior, he concluded.

By the 1950s, Ellis had started experimenting with other types of psychotherapy and was heavily influenced by philosophers and psychologists including Karen Horneyand Alfred Adler as well as the work of behavioral therapists.

Ellis’s goal was to develop what he viewed as an action-oriented approach to psychotherapy designed to produce results by helping clients manage their emotions, cognitions, and behaviors.

According to Ellis, “people are not disturbed by things but rather by their view of things.” The fundamental assertion of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is that the way people feel is largely influenced by how they think.

When people hold irrational beliefs about themselves or the world, problems can result. Because of this, the goal of REBT is to help people alter illogical beliefs and negative thinking patterns in order to overcome psychological problems and mental distress.

Rational emotive behavior therapy was one of the very first types of cognitive therapies. Ellis first began developing REBT during the early 1950s and initially called his approach rational therapy. In 1959, the technique was redubbed rational emotive therapy and later rechristened rational emotive behavior therapy in 1992. Ellis continued to work on REBT until his death in 2007.

The ABC Model

Ellis suggested that people mistakenly blame external events for unhappiness. He argued, however, that it is our interpretation of these events that truly lies at the heart of our psychological distress. To explain this process, Ellis developed what he referred to as the ABC Model:

  • A – Activating Event: Something happens in the environment around you.
  • B – Beliefs: You hold a belief about the event or situation.
  • C – Consequence: You have an emotional response to your belief.

The events and situations that people encounter throughout life are only one piece of the puzzle.

In order to understand the impact of such events, it is also essential to look at the beliefs people hold about these experiences as well as the emotions that arise as a result of those beliefs.

The Basic Steps in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

In order to better understand how REBT looks, it is important to take a closer look at how the therapeutic process itself.

1. Identify the Underlying Irrational Thought Patterns and Beliefs

The very first step in the process is to identify the irrational thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that lead to psychological distress. In many cases, these irrational beliefs are reflected as absolutes, as in “I must,” “I should,” or “I cannot.” According to Ellis, some of the most common irrational beliefs include:

  • Feeling excessively upset over other people’s mistakes or misconduct.
  • Believing that you must be 100 percent competent and successful in everything to be valued and worthwhile.
  • Believing that you will be happier if you avoid life’s difficulties or challenges.
  • Feeling that you have no control over your own happiness; that your contentment and joy are dependent upon external forces.

By holding such unyielding beliefs, it becomes almost impossible to respond to situations in a psychologically healthy way. Possessing such rigid expectations of ourselves and others only leads to disappointment, recrimination, regret, and anxiety.

2. Challenge the Irrational Beliefs

Once these underlying feelings have been identified, the next step is to challenge these mistaken beliefs. In order to do this, the therapist must dispute these beliefs using very direct and even confrontational methods. Ellis suggested that rather than simply being warm and supportive, the therapist needs to be blunt, honest, and logical in order to push people toward changing their thoughts and behaviors.

3. Gain Insight and Recognize Irrational Thought Patterns

As you might imagine, REBT can be a daunting process for the client. Facing irrational thought patterns can be difficult, especially because accepting these beliefs as unhealthy is far from easy. Once the client has identified the problematic beliefs, the process of actually changing these thoughts can be even more challenging.

While it is perfectly normal to feel upset when you make a mistake, the goal of rational emotive behavior therapy is to help people respond rationally to such situations. When faced with this type of situation in the future, the emotionally healthy response would be to realize that while it would be wonderful to be perfect and never make mistakes, it is not realistic to expect success in every endeavor. You made a mistake, but that’s okay because everyone makes mistakes sometimes. All you can do is learn from the situation and move on.

It is also important to recognize that while rational emotive behavior therapy utilizes cognitive strategies to help clients, it also focuses on emotions and behaviors as well. In addition to identifying and disputing irrational beliefs, therapists and clients also work together to target the emotional responses that accompany problematic thoughts. Clients are also encouraged to change unwanted behaviors using such things as meditation, journaling, and guided imagery.

REBT can be effective in the treatment of a range of psychological disorders including anxiety, PTSD and phobias as well as specific behaviors such as severe shyness and excessive approval-seeking.

I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin

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