Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT)
An interview with Dr Michael R. Edelstein
REBT stands for Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and was devised by Albert Ellis in 1955. Since then, it has spawned a variety of cognitive behaviour therapies, most notably those devised by Aaron Beck and David Burns. REBT says that it’s never situations themselves that upset us or disturb us or cause us to feel anxious, depressed, angry, or act in addictive ways, but rather it’s our thinking about those situations.
The main premise is that our ideas, thoughts, views and opinions (or what we tell ourselves) about adverse situations cause our problems, not the situations themselves. This is a very powerful idea because it means that if you’re feeling anxious, depressed, or angry, you are in control. You have created that feeling - you are making yourself feel that way. The good thing is that if you can create the feeling, you can also “uncreate” the feeling. That’s the basis of cognitive behaviour therapy and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy.
Albert Ellis devised the theory, and distilled it to a simple ABCDEF concept described below.
A stands for Activating event or Adversity.
So, A is for example “My mate criticised me unfairly.”
Then B is what you tell yourself about it.
B stands for your irrational Belief.
B normally starts with a reasonable notion, such as “I prefer he or she not criticise me unfairly. I don’t like it. This is unpleasant, frustrating. I wish he wouldn’t.” That preference leads to appropriate negative emotions, such as displeasure, frustration, concern, disappointment.
And those are appropriate negative emotions in that it’s not dysfunctional to feel that way; if you get criticised unfairly, it makes sense to have a negative reaction. It doesn’t make sense to feel numb or happy about it. A more measured or reasonable response is better.
But then, being imperfect humans, we take our strong preferences and convince ourselves they’re absolute musts, shoulds, have-tos, laws of the universe, things absolutely have to be that way. So I take my preference, “I’d prefer my mate not to criticise me,” and insanely convince myself, “Therefore she must not criticise me unfairly. She must be fair. And she’s no good, she’s rotten, because of her unfair treatment.”
And we call that B irrational belief.
C stands for undesirable emotional Consequence.
And that irrational belief in B leads to C, an undesirable emotional consequence: anger, resentment, hostility, wife abuse, those kinds of things. So it’s B that causes C. My demand is she treat me fairly, rather than A, activating event, her unfair treatment.
So the question is, how can I keep my goal, to be treated fairly by my mate, but get rid of the demanding, the commanding, the musting about it? And the answer is we go on to D.
D stands for Disputing or questioning the irrational belief.
It’s a simple process to do this. We just take what we have at B, “She must not criticise me unfairly,” and simply ask “Why?” or “What is the evidence?”. We then get a helpful question: “Why must she not treat me unfairly? Where’s the evidence she must always be fair in her criticisms? Where is it written that my mate must be understanding, fair, kind, and considerate?” So that’s a good question.
And then we go on to E, which stands for Effective new thinking, or the answer to the question.
E stands for Effective new thinking, or the answer to the question.
And if you think about it, and think about it and think about it, you’ll normally never find evidence for must. So that’s what we could put in E: “No reason she absolutely must treat me fairly, although I’d prefer she treat me fairly.” And then the more you have in E, the more persuasive it tends to be, as long as what you write in E is meaningful and not pie-in-the-sky.
You can add more things, like:
• “It is disadvantageous to be treated unfairly, but not the end of the world.”
• “I don’t like being treated unfairly, but I definitely can stand it.”
• “I’ve survived unfair treatment in the past, and I’ll survive it in the future.”
• “It’s not my mate’s unfair treatment of me that makes me angry, but rather it’s my unrealistic thinking about it, and I can change my thinking.”
• “In order to have the advantages of a good relationship with a mate, a partner, or a friend, or even a colleague, it’s necessary to have the disadvantages. That’s inevitable.”
• “I can still have a happy life, even though I’m treated unfairly at times, although I’d be happier if everyone in the world always treated me fairly.”
So you write out all the reasons why the must is false and self-destructive. And then, if you do that on a regular basis, even daily, once or twice or three times a day, you practise writing out those three-minute exercises and reinforce the effective new thinking, then, due to the learning process which says “Reinforcement is the royal road to learning, ” you slowly, or not so slowly, get to F.
F stands for your new feeling.
The new feeling can be concern, disappointment, displeasure, frustration, or if it’s a big issue, great displeasure, great concern, great disappointment. But not anger, not resentment, not hostility, because you’ve banished the must.
We talk about, in the first session, why the client wants help, and that has to do with feelings, “I’m depressed, I’m anxious, I’m having panic attacks, I feel guilty, I’m unassertive or I’m acting addictively.” So we do look at feelings.
And the goal of REBT, this feeling exercise that we described, is to help people improve their feelings. All this is anchored in feelings, but since we see that it’s the intellect, especially the evaluative intellect, that creates the feelings. We REBT specialist focus on cognitions, intellectual, perception and thoughts, attitudes, beliefs. And we believe that it is important to focus on your thinking in order to change your feelings.
REBT can be criticised for being simplistic. However, one of the highlights of REBT and the cognitive therapies is that they are simple. The basic premise is that it’s your thinking that causes your feelings. It’s “musty” thinking that causes disturbed feelings and to overcome disturbed feelings and behaviours you change your “musty” thinking.
This simple premise has profound implications. It is simple, but simplistic implies glibly simple or superficial, and that’s not the case with REBT because the therapist explores the deep core beliefs that cause our problems. It’s not simplistic, but rather simple, clear cut, and doable.
Suppressing, or repressing anger is not the goal in REBT. It’s to get at the thinking behind it. Again, we have some simple principles; it’s your thinking that causes your anger - not situations. So if you change your thinking, if you don’t think in an angry, demanding, commanding way then you won’t get angry in the first place. So there’s nothing to suppress and repress.
Anger comes from a demand, “You must treat me kindly, considerably, lovingly, courteously, reciprocally, reasonably”. And as long as you demand that, you get anger, and you are much less likely to get the results you want. And you are much less likely to get kind, loving behaviour on your partner’s part or your colleague’s part. Because often when you get angry at someone they’ll say, “Who do you think you are telling me what to do, I’ll show you” and they’ll tend to get rebellious themselves. So anger certainly doesn’t work.
I don’t think that people should not necessarily be able to express anger. I think if people want to, and they feel that it’s in their best interest to express anger, that’s certainly their prerogative and I’m not going to try to stop them.
As a therapist, what I do is I ask people, what are your goals, what would you like out of therapy and if they say, “I’m angry but I don’t want to get un-angry, I want to get over my cigarette addiction” then I’ll just help them with that. People certainly have a right to get angry if they want. I’m just saying, in terms of most people’s goals most of the time, anger tends to sabotage, defeat, and interfere with their goals.
There is no such thing as bad emotions in the abstract; emotions are all human. However in terms of people’s goals there are bad, self destructive, self defeating emotions. Not in a moralistic sense but in a practical sense, in that negative emotions tend to act against what you’d like to get out of life. In that case anger, anxiety, depression certainly don’t work, and in that sense they are bad emotions.
Along with unconditional self-acceptance, high frustration tolerance is a prescription for a happy life. And low frustration tolerance means you need to have goals in your life: long-term goals, middle-term goals, short-term goals, and then you try to find ways to achieve those goals.
For example, something as small, you would think, to many people, as getting out of bed in the morning. You have a goal to get out of bed at 6 am and get to work on time. But then you wake up in the morning, and it’s dark outside, or it’s cold in the room, or you’re tired. So it’s frustrating to push yourself to get out of bed.
And low frustration tolerance comes from a demand: “It must not be so frustrating or so difficult to get out of bed. It should be easy. So I’ll press the snooze alarm and try again in five minutes when it’ll be easier.” And then, in five minutes, you have the same philosophy, normally, and you do it again, and ultimately you’re late out of bed and late to work, because you had difficulty, you created difficulty yourself in tolerating the frustration.
And this leads to procrastination. You put off doing things that are going to be frustrating because you convince yourself, “It should not be so hard. I can’t stand this frustration. I’ll do something fun now, like have a drink or have a smoke or surf the web, or anything but pay the bills or wash the dishes or do my homework, or ask the boss for a raise, because it’ll be uncomfortable.” And that’s an easy way to a difficult life.
So the solution is to accept the fact that life consists of one frustration after another, one hassle after another, one dissatisfaction after another – of course, with satisfaction and joys in between, so it’s not all grim – and that’s the way it is.
The more you accept that, again, unconditional self-acceptance, the more you accept the fact that there are going to be frustrations. And if you face them and get over them and don’t have them hanging over your head. If you do the homework right now, or just wash the dishes, or make the bed, or have the unpleasant discussion with someone that you’re better off having, and get it over with, you’ll have less frustration in the long run. So people who have low frustration tolerance or low discomfort tolerance tend to go for a quick fix, immediate pleasure, short-range hedonism. They stay in bed. But paradoxically that creates more frustration, discomfort, and hassles in the long term.
In summary, REBT gives you have a new way of looking at things, which can be developed through the practice, repetition, and reinforcement. Writing out the three-minute exercises, described in stage E (Effective new thinking), is a key to that practice. So I recommend that you write out the three-minute exercises, daily – once a day, twice a day, or even three times a day. The forms at this address will help you:
*This description of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) was adapted from an interview with Dr Michael R. Edelstein. The original interview can be found at:http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2008/10/15/on-the-couch-with-dr-michael-edelstein/
Dr Edelstein is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in private practice in San Francisco. He is the author of Three Minute Therapy: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life: A self-help book for overcoming common emotional and behavioural problems.