Article for The National Psychologist: Master Therapists.
Albert Ellis PhD.
Albert Ellis, legendary pioneer in the field of cognitive psychology, was a genius.
He created his approach of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), describing its methods and techniques in clear style – through his writings, presentations, trainings and therapy sessions. REBT was understood and embraced by people within the world of psychology and those from every walk of life.
His whole-hearted and earnest goal was to help as many people as possible to suffer less emotional misery and to experience more happiness in their lives.
His tireless work over more than six decades helped millions of people change their lives for the better.
Yes, Albert Ellis was a genius.
He was my mentor, my model.
He also happened to be my husband.
When I studied the various psychological approaches during my university days, it was his approach toward which I felt magnetized. I loved its clarity, its efficiency, and its holistic embrace: recognizing the interrelationship of thinking, behavior, and emotions. I loved its humanistic and philosophical emphases, and after first meeting the man (years before we began our relationship) – I loved him. I loved his vigor, his definite and unforgettable style of communicating, his humor, his honesty, and above all his authentic care and compassion for those who were in emotional distress.
From the moment our relationship started we were practically inseparable, and l worked with him in each aspect of his work – including writing, presenting, giving workshops and co-leading groups. I witnessed his approach with students, clients and members of the public in our work settings, and in every other scenario of our lives.
I could write a large volume detailing the many outstanding qualities he exhibited as a master therapist, but for the purpose of this short article I have selected just a few of them to share with you.
- Authenticity, straightforwardness and practicing what he preached.
He reminded us that all humans are fallible, prone to acting both for and against our healthy goals, but that we have the power to control our emotional destinies, and that by choosing to think in healthy ways we can create appropriate and healthy emotions. With urgency he would often remind us of the swift passing of time – encouraging us to use it well, and not waste it by creating unnecessary misery.
And he did not waste a minute of his time. He would usually work 16 hour days. On planes, in doctors’ waiting rooms and elsewhere – he would never sit idly. Instead he would engage in writing, reading or composing songs and poems.
With straightforward language he would teach the REBT tools which help change and prevent emotional suffering, and often share his own experiences of using them on himself in dealing with his unhelpful tendencies. He never presented himself as someone occupying any altar of “holier that thou” perfection. He spoke of his successful efforts as a young man in overcoming painful and debilitating shyness. He spoke often of the on-going effort he continued to make to prevent, for example, his largely inherited tendency of impatience and low frustration tolerance. He reminded us that, for each one of us, ongoing work and practice are required for the maintenance of healthy change, sharing his example of doing so with successful results. Hence many people felt at ease in his company, did not feel judged or damned for any flaws – they witnessed his unconditional acceptance of himself and heard of his ongoing efforts. They felt his unconditional acceptance of them. Al was an authentic model of what he was recommending, in addition to being teacher and therapist. As a consequence of this, many were less defensive and more receptive to hearing and acting upon recommendations for changing. Al did not pander to any justifications that some people presented for continuing to think and behave in their self-defeating ways. He would dispute such ideas and did not go along passively with clients or students who were hurting themselves. His no-nonsense definite manner added to the motivating energy he provided. And underneath all of that, most people felt his genuine care and concern for their well being.
Journalists and others have written about Al’s experiences during his final years of life: being ousted off the board of his institute and then being re-instated by a Supreme Court judge (even though it was too late to have any impact); of his being stopped by directors from presenting programs in his institute (we rented a room in the building next door to continue giving workshops); and of his sadness in discovering that the original mission statement for his institute had been changed without his knowledge or approval. He felt deeply saddened by these and other related events – and yet continued to practice what he preached. He did not damn or hate the people involved – he was very clear about that. He hated their actions – but did not hate them. Hence he did not experience rage, or depression, just a deep sadness which was wholly appropriate in those circumstances. He also felt genuine compassion for those people.
One afternoon as my tears fell following an incident I considered very harsh and unjust – he gently reminded me “Accept, Debbie, accept. Since they think in the way they think, then they have to act the way they act. We don’t like it. But we had better accept it.” He taught me, and showed me, that unconditional acceptance of others is something we can choose to experience, when we are willing to put in the effort. It may not arise automatically when people act against our goals – hence effort is required. As a result of doing so I felt steadied, less devastated, less hopeless and felt appropriate concern and sadness. Consequently when I work with clients who would benefit from working to choose to accept what they cannot change, I do so with comfort and conviction. I know that I am not just spouting a familiar line or presenting a Pollyanna-ish ideal. I know from my experience that the attainment of unconditional acceptance, though often difficult to do in dire circumstances, is nonetheless achievable when one makes the choice and puts in the effort. And well worth it.
The final 14 months of Al’s life were marred by brutal ill health, yet he continued to practice what he preached. In addition to making effort to change undesirable circumstances with whatever strength he had, he accepted the likelihood that he might not succeed. Though we felt deep sadness, we also practiced another important REBT principle – accepting our sadness whilst also focusing on what was good and positive. Each and every day we relished being together, grateful for our love and remarkable closeness. Though so many things were not going well, we still had one another. And with gratitude we focused on that love, and cherished it.
- Humor and Keeping Things in Healthy Perspective.
Al included the use of humor as being one of the helpful responses to adopt when circumstances were challenging. He had sharp wit and an uninhibited way of expressing his observations that led many listeners to laugh and to take things less seriously. In one workshop demonstration with Al, a woman shared her negatively critical impressions of her appearance, thinking she would never meet a romantic partner, that she was “never good enough”, and was feeling depressed and anxious as a result. Al asked her from where she got such nutty ideas. She responded “From magazines and family” – to which he answered, “So they are as crazy as you are!”
He said this warmly, with a smile on his face, and she roared with laughter, gaining new perspective on her unrealistic thoughts and self assessments, as he continued to use REBT with her. Over time she successfully worked with Al to stop putting herself down, and her depression and anxiety diminished remarkably.
In our everyday life together Al used humor constantly – including during the tough times.
In 2003 after some months of abdominal discomfort, Al suffered severe symptoms and we rushed to the hospital. His large intestine was severely infected and in danger of bursting at any moment.
Immediate surgery was required, his life was in danger, and the whole of his large intestine was about to be removed. When I told Al this news, instead of complaining, he said “At least they’re not taking my balls!”
2013 is the centennial anniversary year of Al’s birth.
Born with great intelligence and capacity for innovation and creativity, his life and work and his immense dedication to helping people, contributed to their well being in profound ways.
He was a deeply caring and truly golden-hearted man.
His practice, modeling and teaching of the benefit of choosing to constantly work on gaining and experiencing compassion, kindness and unconditional acceptance of oneself, others and life itself during challenging times may have been one of his most important contributions. This attitude was healing for the recipient and elevating for the practitioner.
His life and works will inspire many for years to come.
Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis.
Ellis, A. & Ellis, D.J. (2011) Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. American Psychological Association: Washington DC.
Ellis, A. (2010) All Out! An Autobiography. Prometheus Books: Amherst, N.Y.
Ellis, A. (2005) The Myth of Self Esteem. Prometheus Books: Amherst, N.Y.