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Symposium at 120th Annual APA Convention: Sunday, August 5th, 2012: 9-9.50am

Room W104A – Convention Center Orlando, FL.

Chair of Session: Frank Farley PhD

Participants: Debbie Joffe Ellis MDAM; StanleyC Krippner PhD; V.Krishna Kumar PhD.


Title of Presentation: Psychology and Philosophy: The Healing Art and Science of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.

Presenter: Dr Debbie Joffe Ellis.


My husband, Albert Ellis (Al) changed the course of psychology as it had been up until his time. His brilliant and ground-breaking approach of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) started what was to become a tsunami of cognitive psychology in the 20th and 21st centuries, which swept over and around the then-dominant psychoanalytic approach.


Al could rightfully be considered to have been both a philosopher and a psychologist. He loved the contemplation of wisdom whilst also having a massive ‘gene for efficiency’, and an intense desire to put into action effective tools which could help him and other people to suffer less and enjoy life more.


The classical Greek word ‘philosophia’ meant literally a love of wisdom, and classical and modern philosophies often attempt to offer guidance for individuals seeking to attain their goals in everyday life. However philosophical guidance, without clear means or tools (the “how-to’s”) for achieving healthy goals, is of limited benefit.


One of the many brilliant contributions of Al was his clarity of description, and the practical achievability, of applying the tools of his REBT method.

His goal: to help as many people as possible to suffer less emotional disturbance and to experience maximum joy in their lives.

And isn’t that essentially the goal of every human being? (Yes).


One of the aspects of REBT which sets it apart from other approaches in the cognitive field is its strong emphasis on developing a healthy philosophy – with a main focus on developing unconditional acceptance of oneself, others and life itself – however it recognizes that contemplation alone of these philosophical tenets is not enough for achieving the goal of greater happiness.

Actions have to be taken. And REBT reminds us, with vigor, that action: work and practice ongoingly, is required for lasting positive change.


In the brief time I have to speak here this morning, I will share with you Al’s development of some of the main aspects of REBT which highlight the philosophical nature of the approach, along with a few of its techniques and methods which support the attainment of healthy goals.


REBT is an evidence-based theory, scientific, considered to be a very “western” approach, yet it is saturated through and through with the elegance and art of philosophical contemplations.

My dear colleagues, Dr Krippner and Dr Kumar, will be referring to early Greek and to Indian philosophies respectively, so I will refer at times, but not exclusively, to Tibetan Buddhism and Zen philosophy – pointing out similarities between them and REBT.


As a child Al was very ill for much of the time, and often hospitalized.

His parents rarely would visit him in the hospital, and in order to feel less sadness he would distract himself from thinking about his loneliness by reading books from the hospital library, talking with nurses and fellow-patients and their visitors, and by using his mind to imagine wonderful things he loved and wishes he wanted to fulfill in the future.

This was to become the “Cognitive Distraction” technique – one of the cognitive techniques in REBT, along with its focus on what was positive or pleasant, and not on what was painful.

Buddhism and Zen approaches also invite practitioners of their philosophies to watch their thoughts, and to choose with discernment those which they focus upon.


When Al was a mere 17 years of age, he wrote the following in his journal:


  • “I would like to be pointed out in the future as one who, like Aristotle and others, advocated great things long before people in general took them seriously.
  • The best thing to do is not to waste away the hours thinking ‘why you are here’, but, knowing you are here, to make the best of it and try to get all the advantages that life can give you with as few disadvantages as possible. (Practical and realistic!)
  • My doctrine is to do away with revenge and to substitute forgiveness as far as is humanly and practically possible.”





A couple of years later Al wrote:


*    “Life has no end, no goal, no aim – you create that. But it is the everlasting seeking after life itself that makes it worthwhile.

Continue seeking, continue fighting for higher satisfaction: for a higher plane of consciousness. In such seeking lies the greatest possibility of human happiness.”

Implicit here was the encouragement to mindfully “fight” – i.e. to be mindful, make effort and to take action – in the quest for greater happiness.

This too has much in common with some Zen and Buddhist writings.


Al often would remind us that unlike other animals who can think – we humans can choose to “think about our thinking” – and he would encourage us to be aware of what we are telling ourselves, to dispute harmful irrational beliefs and to forcefully think in rational and helpful ways.


Also when a teenager and young man Al used In-Vivo Desensitization (an REBT behavioral technique) to help him overcome his terror of talking to females and public speaking: exposing himself to that which he was afraid of by forcing himself to do uncomfortably that which he wanted to become more comfortable at (which is akin to the famous emotive REBT technique known as the “shame-attacking exercise”).

In doing so, he saw that nothing terrible happened when he spoke to females or in public to groups – and he discovered, after he succeeded in feeling no more anxiety about those activities, that he was very good at such activities!

  • Give eg of Al talking to 100 women in month of August in Bronx Botanical Gardens
  • Give eg of Al as president of College political group, speaking at their meetings.


At the heart of the above actions was the attitude, or we might say philosophy, of anti-catastrophizing (otherwise known as anti-horribilizing), which is a core aspect of REBT. It encourages one to consider “what is the worst thing that can happen if I do this or that (e.g. talk with women or speak in public) – will it really kill me, even if others don’t approve of me or reject me? – Of course not! I just won’t like it, but I can stand what I don’t like”.


Through his teen years and into adulthood Al read the works of ‘early constructivist practitioners’ (as he called them)– such as Guatama Buddha, Confucius, Epictitus, Marcus Aurelius, – to name but a few, and another core aspect of REBT has at its roots the adage of Marcus Aurelius:

“If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now.”


REBT asserts that “It is not what happens that creates your emotional experience, but your perception of it, which creates your emotional destiny.

When you think in healthy rational ways, you create appropriate and healthy emotions, when you think in unhealthy irrational ways – you create debilitating and destructive emotions.

So think about your thinking, and choose to think in healthy rational ways.”

This is also akin to the mindfulness approach which is encouraged in Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.


There is a story often told by Zen teachers which goes as follows:


***Tell story of poor man with horse ***


Like REBT – it reminds us of the choice we have in how we perceive events in life, and to be cautious about all-or-nothing type of thinking such as: “It’s terrible!”or “It’s wonderful!”

REBT recommends that we do not overgeneralize, and that we had better not think in either/or ways.

REBT also favors our having an optimistic outlook, but also being realistic rather than Pollyannaish and perfectionistic (which REBT strongly discourages).


When Al was in his 20’s he was madly in love with the on-again, off-again Karyl (who was to be his 1st wife, of 18 hours, but they remained friends till her death). One night after yet another rejection by her, following an earlier declaration by her of ‘forever-love’, feeling deeply depressed and dejected, he went for a walk around the lake in the Bronx Botanical Gardens. He was tired of feeling tortured and thought deeply about what was really causing his emotional devastation and pain. And he realized that it was not the rejections, but his desperation and demands that she “should” not act the way she acted; that he “should” not have to suffer; that it wasn’t fair – as life “should” be – and that life “should” always be fair and just; and the absolutistic idea that he could never be happy without her love.


In reflecting on these beliefs, Al realized the destructiveness and futility of holding onto them, and he disputed them. He realized that whilst it is fine to want what one wants and to try to have it – it is NOT the end of one’s world and potential happiness when one doesn’t get it. He realized that one still can choose to feel content about other things – even if one is deprived of what one prefers, and that though we may not like not having what we want when we want it – we CAN stand it.


From these reflections/ideas/new beliefs came additional core aspects of REBT: namely

* “Cherchez Le Shoulds”

* “the stopping of demands (stopping ‘must’urbation)” – and instead holding preferences

* the encouragement to identify and dispute irrational ideas with vigor, resulting in new rational beliefs which produce healthy and appropriate emotions

* the notion of HFT: High Frustration Tolerance – reminding ourselves “we can stand what we don’t like, we just don’t like it”.


Another core aspect of REBT, and one that distinguishes it from other cognitive approaches in psychology, is its emphasis on the philosophy of Unconditional Acceptance. Its 3 components are:


1. Unconditional Self Acceptance (USA): in which we accept ourselves, mistakes and successes, warts and all, knowing that we have worth simply because we are alive, and not because of any achievements or personal traits.

We realize that if we fail at something, that does not mean we are failures – it means simply that we failed at that particular task.

We do not rate ourselves or our worth, only our behavior, knowing that our worth is NOT defined by what we do or achieve.





2. Unconditional Other Acceptance (UOA): in which we don’t damn others, and we accept that they have worth. We may not like what they do, but realize that what they do does not define who they are or their worth. We realize that they are, like each one of us, fallible humans, capable of good and bad actions. But that does not make them ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people.

This attitude encourages kindness and compassion.

One day I was in tears, as people were behaving very badly against Al and me, and Al said to me – “Accept, accept, accept Debbie! They have to act that way, when they think in their disturbed ways. Accept it”. That did not mean we liked the situation, and we did try to change it. But that acceptance transformed my intense pain and anger into healthy disappointment and appropriate sadness.

Al was quoted in a magazine at that time as saying: “I don’t hate them, I feel sad and sorry for them: I just hate what they do”.

REBT says that to be truly compassionate one has to choose compassion, work hard to get it by strongly disputing irrational beliefs which block it, and experience it, and feel it.


3. Unconditional Life Acceptance (ULA): in which we accept that life does contain suffering, loss and injustice – but that does not mean that ALL of life is bad or unfair.

REBT reminds us that life contains inevitable suffering, as well as pleasure, and that by realistically thinking, feeling and acting to enjoy what we can, and unangrily and unwhiningly accepting painful aspects that cannot be changed – we open ourselves to much joy.


*** Tell story of mourning mother***

*** Tell experience of Al’s final months – we accepted what we couldn’t change, and focused on what was good – our love.

And hence suffered less, and cherished the immense joy and privilege of being together. ***




In the award-winning documentary: “Trumbo” – Dalton Trumbo calls Al: “The greatest humanitarian since Gandhi”.

I think it is accurate to say that Al expressed the compassionate and humanistic qualities of Gandhi – but perhaps with greater testosterone !!!


With forcefulness, authenticity and vigor Al incorporated philosophies – learnt from his reading; from his research; from his innate wisdom; from his deeply kind, genuine, gentle and caring nature; and from his capacity for efficiency – into his scientific, evidence-based, practical, active-directive approach of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and its use of cognitive, emotive and behavioral techniques and methods – a few of which I shared with you earlier.


In my view, biased though it may be – though I don’t think it is, the constructivistic, rational and compassionate approach of REBT is as humanizing a psychotherapy as one could ever wish for!