Counseling Today, Features

Remembering Albert Ellis

August 6, 2007

Branding-Images_EllisIn 2004, a little more than a month before the American Counseling Association honored him as one of the profession’s five “living legends” at its convention, Albert Ellis spoke with Counseling Today about the greatest challenge of his career.

Ellis recalled the intense criticism he initially received in the 1950s upon developing rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), an action-oriented therapy that challenged the prevalent psychoanalytic approach of the day. Today, many mental health professionals consider REBT the foundation of cognitive behavior therapy.

“I was very severely criticized when I first did it because it was not emotional, evocative or psychoanalytic,” Ellis said. “(The REBT approach) was supposedly superficial, not at all deep, or so it was thought by many others in the profession. They called me all kinds of names for using it, so I used REBT on myself and didn’t take the criticism too seriously. I told myself that they may have something to them, but they are not that crucial or important. I went ahead despite opposition.”

As a matter of course, Ellis never seemed to let opposition — or any other obstacle for that matter, including advancing age, profound hearing loss or poor health — slow him down. Variously labeled a maverick, an eccentric, controversial, confrontational, provocative, irreverent, more showman than serious lecturer, Ellis nevertheless emerged as one of the most indisputably influential and innovative figures in the history of psychology and counseling. In 2003, the American Psychological Association named him the second most influential psychologist of the 20th century, behind only Carl Rogers.

Ellis, 93, died shortly after midnight on July 24 of kidney and heart failure in his apartment on the top floor of Manhattan’s Albert Ellis Institute, which he originally established as the Institute for Rational Living in 1959. Until falling seriously ill at age 92, Ellis was still famously known for putting in exceptionally long days — writing books in longhand, seeing clients and teaching at every opportunity. Until the last four months of his life, he continued to meet with students even while in a hospital and nursing home.

Ellis was born in Pittsburgh in 1913 and raised in New York City. He earned a degree in business from the City University of New York and briefly tried to make his way first as a businessman and then as a fiction writer. He eventually began writing nonfiction, gradually focusing on the topic of human sexuality. Individuals began seeking him out for advice, and this lay counseling convinced Ellis that he should enter the field of clinical psychology. He went on to earn his master’s and doctorate degrees in clinical psychology from Columbia University in 1943 and 1947, respectively.

After serving as the chief psychologist for the state of New Jersey, Ellis moved into full-time private practice in 1952. According to the article “A Brief Biography of Dr. Albert Ellis 1913-2007,” available at, “His task of building a full-time practice (was) aided by his growing reputation as a sexologist, especially from his books The Folklore of Sex (1951), The American Sexual Tragedy (1954) and Sex Without Guilt (1958). … He also wrote the introduction to Donald Webster Cory’s controversial book, The Homosexual in America, and thereby became the first prominent psychologist to advocate gay liberation.”

During the early days of his private practice, Ellis also began seriously questioning the passivity, efficiency and effectiveness of Freudian psychoanalysis, concluding that “talk” alone wouldn’t truly help clients. He grew to believe that clients would change only if they took direct action to modify their self-defeating behaviors and thoughts. Making a clean break from psychoanalysis in January 1953, he began referring to himself as a “rational therapist” and introduced his REBT approach (then known as rational emotive therapy) two years later.

A prolific writer and accomplished public speaker in addition to being a tireless worker, Ellis spread the gospel of REBT, causing a dynamic shift in the field of psychology. His weekly public therapy workshops at the Albert Ellis Institute became famous, regularly drawing crowds of 100 or more every Friday night for several decades. Attendees were often treated to displays of Ellis’ trademark style, which included exhorting his volunteer participants — sometimes in no uncertain terms — to stop feeling sorry for themselves and move on with their lives by taking action. It was not unusual for his blunt guidance to be accompanied by liberal doses of colorful language.

Ellis also liked to infuse humor into his speeches and therapy sessions. In 2004, he told Counseling Today that he was especially proud of penning rational humorous songs. He spent much of his free time, he said, listening to music, which inspired his own lyrics to counseling tunes. “I’ve been making up songs for many years and having people sing them in group and individual therapy,” he said. Ellis also noted that if he hadn’t become a psychologist, he would have enjoyed being a composer.

In 2005, Ellis sued the Albert Ellis Institute after its trustees voted to remove him from the board of directors and suspended his Friday night workshops (see “The legend versus the legacy,” Counseling Today, February 2006). The board contended it had received negative feedback pertaining to Ellis’ presentations and lectures, saying he could no longer hear and was sometimes lashing out during therapy sessions. The board also said it took action because Ellis’ medical expenses were putting the institute’s tax-exempt status in jeopardy.

Ellis and his supporters countered that the board was leading the institute in a direction that veered away from REBT and didn’t want to contend with Ellis. In December 2005, Ellis and his third wife, Debbie Joffe Ellis, a psychologist he had married when he was 90, resumed the Friday night workshops in rented office space next door to the Albert Ellis Institute. In January 2006, a New York state Supreme Court judge reinstated Ellis to the board, saying that he had been removed without proper notice.

A memorial service for Albert Ellis is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University.


Thoughts on Albert Ellis

Debbie Joffe Ellis, widow of Albert Ellis

Al — brilliant genius, unique personality, witty, compassionate, wise, bold and unconditionally loving.

Throughout his life he fully practiced what he preached. He was a solid model for healthy being and a compass for truth.

In his last three years, faced with situations that could have devastated many, Al endured with supreme courage and dignity, determined to continue to fight for justice, whilst maintaining a compassion for those who acted against him.

The world has lost an irreplaceable force for good. I have lost my most beloved husband and partner. I am now, and for the rest of my life will be, fully and wholeheartedly dedicated to teaching and sharing the wisdom and gift of Albert Ellis and rational emotive behavior therapy.

Jeffrey T. Guterman, assistant professor, Barry University; author, Mastering the Art of Solution-Focused Counseling

Ellis was a revolutionary figure. He is most well known for leading the cognitive revolution and developing REBT, one of the most effective and widely practiced models in the field. But he was also a pioneering sexologist who was an instigator of the sexual revolution in the 1950s and 1960s. As a result of his writings — for example, his 1958 book Sex Without Guilt — Ellis contributed to significant changes in attitudes about sexuality.

We have lost one of the most influential figures in the history of psychotherapy. Ellis takes his place with the likes of Freud, Rogers, Jung and Adler as among the most important psychotherapists in the field.

Ellis had legal struggles at the end of his life, ironically, against members of the board of his own Albert Ellis Institute, who tried to remove him because they claimed he was becoming increasingly eccentric and was incurring inordinately high medical bills for his deteriorating physical condition. The Supreme Court of the State of New York eventually ruled in favor of Ellis, and he remained at the institute, where he had been working and residing since 1964. Only when he died could it be said that Ellis finally left the building.

Albert Ellis’ relationship to me evolved through the years from therapist to supervisor to colleague, but I have always considered him to be my friend. I first met Ellis in 1986. I was his client then and was seeking help to overcome my problem of shyness with women. In that very first session, Ellis forcefully disputed my irrational belief — “I must not be rejected or I will be a worthless person!” — and he suggested that I practice getting rejected many times “until I stop giving a crap.” When I reported in a follow-up session that indeed I had approached a woman and got rejected, Ellis replied: “Good! You don’t have to marry the broad!”

Ellis was my first and most influential mentor. Like many counselors, his REBT profoundly informed my own practice — and my life! Although I eventually shifted away from REBT to a solution-focused approach, I still use many of its techniques from time to time.

In the 1990s, Ellis and I participated in an ongoing debate in publications and ACA workshops about counseling in the postmodern era along with other leaders in the field, including Michael D’Andrea, Earl Ginter, Don C. Locke, Allen E. Ivey and Sandra A. Rigazio-DiGilio. At the workshop, “Counseling in the Postmodern Era” held at the ACA 1999 Annual Convention in San Diego, Ivey acknowledged that Ellis had made seminal contributions in the area of social advocacy through his long career. Ivey then asked if Ellis would add an “S” to REBT to put a name to the emphasis that he placed on social context. Ellis said that as a result of participating in this workshop, he would put more thought to the role of social reform in counseling and agreed to consider revising his theory of REBT accordingly. It was impressive to observe Ellis’ willingness to accommodate an alternative view live on stage. At the end of the workshop, Ivey stated, “Let’s remember the moment when we saw a great man become even greater.” The audience gave Ellis a standing ovation.

Although Ellis remained strongly aligned to REBT right to the end of his life, he demonstrated the importance of being flexible and open to new developments in the field. For example, in some of his later writings, he acknowledged that he would use so-called “irrational” techniques with some clients if his bread-and-butter REBT methods were ineffective.

Ellis also frequently wrote about the limitations of REBT and counseling in general. He read up on many of the latest cutting-edge developments in the field in a continual effort to find new and effective ways of helping clients change.

Ellis was also an active participant on the Internet. On August 21, 1996, I hosted ACA’s first text-based chat, with Albert Ellis as the special guest. Ellis went on to participate in several Internet events with me.

Ann Vernon, vice president, Albert Ellis Institute Board of Trustees; professor emeritus, University of Northern Iowa

The field of psychotherapy has benefited tremendously from Dr. Albert Ellis’ contributions. He was ahead of his time in championing a theory that helps people help themselves, which in this age of managed care, is very significant. This comprehensive approach can be applied equally successfully with children as well as adults.

The applicability with children is what drew me to REBT, because as a school counselor, I was in search of a theory that would be practical for school-aged children. I went to my first training in New York in 1976 and then proceeded through all levels of training, opening the Midwest Center for REBT in Iowa in the late 1980s. Al encouraged me to do this and also served as a mentor, giving me feedback on my first REE (rational-emotive education) curriculum, Thinking, Feeling, Behaving, and urging me to promote applications in schools, which I have done over the years.

Dr. Ellis was totally dedicated to his work, working from early in the morning until 11 p.m. until his late 80s. I know this firsthand because, for several years, I stayed in the apartment he and Janet Wolfe shared on the sixth floor of the institute when I would go to New York to attend board meetings. Al had no interest in leaving the institute unless he had appointments or speaking engagements; he would rather be writing, seeing clients or listening to classical music than doing things most people enjoy, such as socializing with friends, going out to dinner or to the theater, sightseeing if in a new environment and so forth. In his words, “If you’ve seen one ****ing mountain, you’ve seen them all!”

Just prior to his 90th birthday, I arranged with ACA President Mark Pope for Al to be part of a keynote panel at the ACA Convention in Kansas City, where (Ellis) was honored. Because of his extreme hearing loss, he was quite anxious about being able to hear the questions, but Jon Carlson did a marvelous job of moderating the panel, giving Al the questions ahead of time and in writing so he could respond. He displayed his typical sense of humor and brought the huge crowd to a standing ovation as he closed the session by singing several of his humorous songs for which he is famous.

In the next presentation, a panel on specific applications of REBT with Drs. Allen Ivey, Kristene Doyle and myself, he spoke eloquently, delighting the audience with some typical “Al” behavior, swearing a bit profoundly as he emphasized several points.

Years ago at an REBT conference in Keystone, Colo., Al and a select group of invited colleagues participated in a think tank to address the topic of how REBT would “live on” after Al. As I recall, Al was adamant about the future of the theory being in rational emotive education and self-help and the importance of empowering clients of all ages to use the theory. Although he jokingly said that he would probably outlive us all, his message was that REBT “must” live on.

In my mind, there is no doubt that the theory will live on because, through the Albert Ellis Institute and its affiliates all over the world, countless numbers of individuals have been trained in this theory and have used it successfully, personally and professionally. The institute is dedicated to continuing his mission even though he is no longer with us.

Brian S. Canfield, ACA president, 2007-2008

A true innovator in the mental health field, Dr. Albert Ellis provided counselors and other helping professionals with a conceptual framework and set of clinical interventions for addressing a wide range of client issues. His theory and treatment approach of rational emotive behavior therapy provides a concise model for addressing aspects of human cognition, affect and behavior and has provided the foundation for all solution-focused approaches to counseling and psychotherapy. His contributions have influenced a generation of counselors and therapists and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the future.

I was first exposed to the theories and concepts of Dr. Ellis as a counseling graduate student in the seventies. I was very attracted to his notion that thoughts influence emotions and, subsequently, our behaviors. This concept helped me integrate an understanding of how cognitions and affect are interconnected and result in the behavioral choices we all make. Feelings, while important, are to a large extent an outcome of our beliefs. I continue to use aspects of his theory and treatment concepts in my work with clients.

Mark Pope, ACA president, 2003-2004; professor and chair, Division of Counseling & Family Therapy, University of Missouri-Saint Louis College of Education

When I began my master’s degree in counseling and personnel services at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1973, I said I would never be a behaviorist. The book 1984 had just come out, and I was an anti-establishment political activist who wanted to change the world, to never be controlled by “group-think.”

We learned in our theories of counseling course about the new cognitive behavioral techniques and about the guru of that revolution, Dr. Albert Ellis and rational emotive therapy (as it was then called). We watched the “Gloria” tapes and saw this strange, wild-eyed and –haired professor talking about changing the way that people thought. It sounded like 1984 all over again, but then I realized that it was about the individual client “choosing” to change, not having change forced upon them from this outside, impersonal, governmental entity. I was hooked.

To me, a gay man coming out in the 1970s, Dr. Ellis’ work on human sexuality was a breath of fresh air. He questioned the basic beliefs of his psychoanalytic colleagues (who were dominant at that time) about homosexuality, and he gave those of us who were gay hope for our new profession — hope that it would come around and realize our struggle for acceptance and our humanity. Dr. Ellis opened the door for me as a gay man to become a counselor, to enter into our profession. I would not be here without his work, and any contributions I have made to our profession are a direct result of Albert Ellis.

In 2004, I finally got to meet Albert Ellis when I invited him to speak on a keynote panel of “living legends” at my ACA Convention (as president) in Kansas City. Rogers and Perls had already died, and Ellis was the last of the “Gloria” triumvirate. He was very ill, and the ACA staff was not sure he would make it, but Jon Carlson, who moderated that panel, said, “Al is tough and really wants to come.”

As one of my final acts as ACA president, I got to share the stage with Albert Ellis while he regaled the overflow crowd of conventioners with songs and colorful language. It was also his birthday, and I led the audience in singing “Happy Birthday” to him. We even had a birthday cake with candles — a lot of candles — which was eaten by those in attendance both at the keynote and at my presidential reception later that night. Very memorable. It was the last time he would be able to attend an ACA Convention.

Our profession, the mental health professions in general and, really, the world are richer, more interesting and hopeful places because of him and the gifts that he gave to us.

Brooke B. Collison, ACA president, 1987-1988

From the time I was a grad student in the sixties to the time I retired and beyond, Albert Ellis has always been a “bigger-than-life” figure in the counseling world. His early work had a huge impact on the grad students who would discuss his latest diatribe and wonder if he, Rogers and the other giants in the field were actually talking about the same profession and the same processes. As students, we hung on every word and replayed every film.

Ellis has always been a guaranteed draw at any convention, much to the chagrin of a group of University of Missouri folks who, in the early sixties, were excited to find their convention program room packed to

standing-room only with people ready, they thought, to hear a presentation on “Use of the D-Square Statistic in Profile Analysis.” Imagine their surprise when no one asked a single question and no one left the room at the close of their exciting statistical presentation. Only after the program had concluded and the presenters had stepped into the hallway did they discover that the room full of people were actually there to hear the presenter scheduled for the next session — Ellis. They had decided to sit through any program scheduled ahead of his in order to have a seat for Albert’s presentation.

In my 30 years as a counselor educator, the student response to Ellis has always, predictably, been the same: “I love the theory, but I can’t stand the theorist.” The degree to which counseling students needed to like the theorist in order to accept the theory produced some fascinating maneuverings in class discussions.

One photo in my ACA album shows me with Albert at the Chicago convention. At the black-tie dinner that year, I was pleased to present Ellis with a nice check and an award from ACA. In his acceptance speech, Ellis, distinguished in his tux and with a boutonniere in his lapel, acknowledged the importance of ACA (then the American Association for Counseling and Development) with the remark, “Nothing else would get me to put on this goddamned tie.”

It is sad to think of Ellis’ death. He was, and is, a giant in our profession — regardless of how one thinks about the theoretical, personal and practical aspects of what he promoted. I don’t see any figure on the horizon who is likely to achieve such prominence. His death truly represents the passing of an era.

Jon Carlson, distinguished professor of psychology and counseling, Governors State University; named one of ACA’s “living legends of counseling” in 2004

Albert Ellis was unique. Wherever counselors and psychologists gather, it is only a matter of minutes before “Ellis stories” are shared. Al was eccentric and left so many memories for all of us.

No one worked harder than Al — seven days per week, 20 hours plus each day. He was always available to help patients or colleagues. I frequently asked Al to create articles, write endorsements or just share some thoughts on a difficult case. He never said no and managed to respond within a day or two.