As 2015 came to a close, so too did the 60th anniversary of Albert Ellis first presenting his widely influential approach to psychotherapy in 1955. Initially, his approach was severely challenged by many, and when he presented it to his peers at the annual American Psychological Association (APA) convention in Chicago in 1956, he was booed and jeered. But, ultimately, he won the respect he deserved. Today, Ellis is considered the originator of cognitive behavior therapy, although he used the term rational emotive therapy, later changing it to rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT).
This interview summarizes the life and work of Albert Ellis, but it also offers insights into another emerging legend who is carrying on his legacy: Debbie Joffe Ellis, Albert’s spouse, co-author and co-presenter.
Allen Ivey: Debbie, we first met in Borneo in 2013 when Mary [Bradford Ivey] and I keynoted on neuroscience and counseling and you presented on REBT. Mary and I then attended your workshop where you presented REBT and did live demonstrations. We were vastly impressed and felt that Albert Ellis was alive in you, but at the same time that you had also added some important new dimensions, clarifying his work.
Thank you for taking time to review your life with Albert and the importance of REBT today. Perhaps the way to start is for you to tell about how you and Albert met and your developing relationship.
Debbie Joffe Ellis: My pleasure. It brings me deep satisfaction to share about my incredible husband and our rare and remarkable connection and relationship. I first heard of Al when I was a child and saw some of his books in my psychologist aunt’s library. I read parts of those books, and what I read made good sense. I could understand it — even though I was young, somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12. Little did I know then, or when I was studying REBT some years later, that I would end up adoring and marrying its founder and creator.
Whilst studying psychology at the University of Melbourne (Australia), I attended lectures and workshops Al gave whilst on a teaching visit there. I felt deeply moved, both by him and his dynamic, yet deeply compassionate, approach.
During that time of his visit, we chatted briefly. I noticed that many people, including students and professors, felt intimidated by Al’s direct and full-on manner. I did not feel that way at all. Whilst in awe of his brilliant work, I felt fully at ease in his company, and I felt that I had known him for a very long time. Behind his public and, at times, confrontational manner and no-nonsense style, I felt the truly kind, caring and good-hearted man that he was. His outer manner did not fool me.
Following the completion of my studies and my licensing as a psychologist, I practiced REBT in my private practice and taught the approach in Melbourne. Al and I did not meet again until 15 years later at an APA conference. Our remarkably close friendship began at that time. We were in regular contact through mail and phone calls, and I would visit him in New York each year. Our love relationship began a few years later.
I recognized his warmth, authenticity, trustworthiness, no-nonsense attitude, brilliance, magnificent wit and wisdom, as well as his kindness and genuine caring about the well-being of others. He had a reputation among some for being loud, using colorful language and appearing abrasive, curmudgeonly and provocative. He simply chose that way of expression to help get his points across in a memorable way so that people would think about their thinking, learn and remember aspects of his approach, apply it and benefit. The abrasiveness was not representative of his authentically caring and humble character. In our personal lives, he was most gentle, sweet and considerate in his manner, with his oft-outrageous humor and wit a source of great enjoyment and laughter.
Some may be surprised to know that in his younger years, Al loved going to performances of classical music, Broadway shows and movies. He said that if he had not become a psychologist, he would have loved to have written music and lyrics in addition to writing fiction, including the Great American Novel.
AI: Albert maintained a rigorous and demanding schedule late into his life and in the face of some serious health problems. What do you think gave him such a strong passion and drive to help others?
DJE: He cherished life, despite the health and other adversities he faced from childhood until the end of his life, including managing his diabetes. His hope was that through adopting his philosophy and approach, others would choose to enjoy and live their lives intensely, despite and including their challenges — as he had succeeded in doing. He was aware of how quickly life passes and of the importance of living life to the full. Al reminded us that life inevitably contains loss and suffering but that by thinking in healthy ways, unchangeable adversities can be endured in healthier ways.
Throughout childhood, he experienced illness, was often hospitalized for lengthy periods and rarely was visited by his family. He chose to occupy his mind with things that prevented him from dwelling on thoughts that led to his feeling sad and depressed. He read books from the hospital library, spoke with children in his ward and their visitors, and fell in love with the pretty nurses. He used his imagination to create vivid scenarios of what he would do when he grew up. This “cognitive distraction” action became one of the oft-used methods in REBT.
As a teen and young man, he suffered from intense shyness. He was too afraid to speak to girls. In college he was voted president of his political group but felt very anxious when it came to speaking in public. He then forced himself to speak more often, with the understanding that deliberately and repeatedly pushing himself to do what was uncomfortable would result in his feeling more comfortable and capable at it. As he forced himself to give talks, he reminded himself that the worst that could happen would be far from tragic or the end of his life. In a short time, not only was he over his fear of speaking in public, but he discovered that he was good at doing so and enjoyed it too.
Another well-known example of Al applying his “just do it” approach was his giving himself the task of talking to 100 girls during the month of August. He made one date, and she didn’t show up, but he overcame his fear of talking with females. This practice of “in vivo desensitization” and the practice of vigorous, encouraging, positive and realistic self-talk became a core part
When Al was about 24, he fell madly in love with a young woman, Karyl, who gave him the on-again, off-again treatment. One evening after she told him she wanted a break, he felt deeply depressed. He went for a midnight walk and had a major epiphany. He realized that it was not the rejection by Karyl that caused his depression but rather his demands and insistence that she should love him as much as he loved her, that she should not reject him and his belief that he could never be happy without her in his life. He realized that it was his attitude, irrational beliefs and absolutistic thinking — not the circumstance of being rejected and without Karyl — that created his despair. Searching for demands — the “shoulds” and “musts” — and strongly disputing them with precision to create healthy rather than debilitating emotional responses to disappointing events, and doing one’s best to eliminate absolutistic thinking are core parts of REBT.
AI: Given that, could we explore how REBT became important over time and some of the key issues and findings in that process? And talk about Albert’s foundational work in cultural difference.
DJE: In the early years of REBT, peers and colleagues harshly condemned Al, calling him and his theory superficial, simplistic and worse. But he persisted in talking, teaching and writing about it. He succeeded in changing the world of counseling and psychology. REBT ideas have influenced and been incorporated into many types of cognitive therapy, including cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), positive psychology, coaching and more. Al’s qualities of persistence, applying high tolerance for frustration and not needing the approval of others contributed to getting his goals accomplished and his approach being increasingly accepted and embraced. They are attitudes that REBT encourages and recommends to one and all.
Al was also a controversial trailblazer because of his significant contributions to changing long-held archaic and uncivil societal attitudes toward sex, sexuality, diversity, racial prejudice and more. He loudly championed equal rights for women and gays back in the 1940s and onward; supported interracial relationships and marriage (banned in some states in the country at that time); testified in the Supreme Court against censorship; wrote his groundbreaking book Sex Without Guilt, helping many people develop acceptance of premarital sex, masturbation, practices considered “abnormal” and other nonharmful activities labeled “evil” by conservatives of the time — to name just a few of the causes he put effort and energy into.
AI: Yes, Albert became a hero to me early in my career for his forward thinking about human rights. Most people, including many CBT followers, still have much to learn from this early pioneering work. At the end of his life, Albert experienced a serious loss when he was removed from his role as president of the board of directors of the Albert Ellis Institute. Furthermore, he was banned from teaching and working in his own institute. How did he experience this? How did Albert — the professional helper — behave in this challenging situation?
DJE: In his final years, strange and unanticipated conflicts arose. There were some changes in his institute which he did not approve of, in addition to other circumstances which shocked him. He was removed from his role as president of the board there and was not permitted to participate in teaching or to conduct his famous Friday night live therapy demonstrations there, after nearly five decades of giving them. The Albert Ellis Institute was founded and mostly paid for through his teaching, writing and outside speaking earnings. He lived incredibly simply, received a most modest annual salary, and his commitment to the work and his institute was such that most of his earnings went into the institute. He rejected luxuries that were offered to him, saving money on what he considered unnecessary spending. For example, he refused to fly business/first class when offered.
In response to actions being carried out by some in the institute against his goals, he felt the deepest sadness he had ever experienced. He worked hard to change what was happening and fought to regain his roles and to bring about justice. He and I continued to see clients and give workshops in a large space that we rented in the building next door. Unfortunately, he did not achieve his goals, although a Supreme Court judge did reinstate him to the board. Unfortunately, this happened too late and, weeks later, he succumbed to pneumonia — the beginning of his most serious health decline, culminating in his death 15 months later. Doctors agreed that his illness was most probably a result of his exhaustion and fatigue from his strenuous efforts to regain his place and influence in his own institute.
Al hated what had been done, but he did not hate the people who carried out the actions. He felt compassion for them, truly practicing what REBT teaches: unconditional other acceptance. The “master” was put to the test and passed with honors. Up until his final weeks, he continued to help people who would visit him in the hospital, including groups of students. Al also showed compassion and gave help to various medical staff in the hospital, all while he himself was a patient in great physical pain, fighting hard to recover. He not only helped people through his words to them but also by modeling his principles. I often say that he practiced what he preached and preached what he practiced.
So, Al was passionate about and driven to help as many people as possible. He had faced and overcome many hardships and had experienced firsthand the fruit of stubbornly refusing to create or dwell in unhealthy emotions. He experienced the consequential joy of minimizing emotional suffering, which liberated energy to enhance effectiveness and enjoyment of life. He wanted others to know and experience that they too could create more productive, colorful and enjoyable lives by applying his philosophy. He was a remarkable, one-of-a-kind individual — a visionary.
AI: I’d like you to focus on the “E” in REBT. Cognitive psychologists all too often miss out on that. To me, backed by neuroscience research, it is clear that unless a client is emotionally satisfied, the decision or action will never be sufficient. Albert was also ahead of the game with his inclusion of homework in the therapeutic process.
DJE: One of the misconceptions that some people hold about REBT is that it is about feeling less emotion, or less unpleasant emotion, or that it mainly focuses on the cognition and behavior
of an individual and less on the emotions. These ideas and any like them are truly false.
One of the gifts that REBT offers is clearly distinguishing between healthy emotions felt in response to adverse circumstances — such as grief, sadness and concern — and the unhealthy emotions in response to adversity which we create when we think in irrational ways — such as depression, anxiety and rage. REBT encourages us to experience and accept those healthy emotions as enriching parts of this tapestry of life and its variety of events, disappointments and losses. REBT reminds us that we can choose to prevent changing healthy emotions into debilitating, unhealthy emotions. We encourage and embrace the experiencing of all healthy emotions in REBT, not only the “happy” ones. REBT teaches the difference between irrational and rational thinking, and its methods and techniques present the how-tos of doing so in clear and simple ways.
Al was likely one of the first, if not the first, to strongly emphasize the benefit of ongoing effort and homework for helping individuals maintain therapeutic and other gains. Even if a person feels comforted by empathy from another and regains hope, he or she will only maintain that comfort and hope and maintain lasting changes by persistently remembering the wise tenets of REBT and continuing to take appropriate actions after sessions to create the healthy emotions. That involves doing homework using REBT tools and techniques.
AI: How has REBT continued to evolve since Albert’s passing in 2007? I have attended your presentations and even participated in a workshop. It is clear that you understand REBT fully as well as he did — perhaps even better. It is exciting to see you continuing and expanding his work.
DJE: Al liked my way of communicating and wanted me to continue his work in my style and way, which I love to do. It is a part of me, in my blood.
In Al’s final years, we worked together in every aspect of his work. We were presenting and writing more on REBT and Buddhism than he had in earlier decades. I look forward to completing a manuscript on that topic that he and I started working on prior to his passing. As more people experience greater stress in these challenging times, many suffer from increasing anxiety and depression. Many people seeking relief turn to one form or another of spirituality. I talk and write about the commonalities and differences of Buddhism, other spiritual approaches and REBT. The “spiritual” components of adopting compassion, acceptance and kindness are actually not new parts of REBT, but as time goes on, I give stronger emphasis to such REBT aspects as unconditional acceptance, compassion and kindness, mindfulness, awareness and gratitude. In addition to their life-enhancing potential, these aspects can be basic to the therapeutic relationship and working alliance. Encouraging and emphasizing the benefits of practicing greater mindfulness, compassion and gratitude has become ever more important as the theory continues to develop.
In my work, I do my best to set the historical record straight in terms of Al’s place in the evolution of psychology, counseling and psychotherapy. I feel dismayed that since his passing, fewer of the main teachers of psychology and counseling practice are acknowledging Al and REBT’s pioneering place and role in their own work. I have met a number of students who think REBT came after CBT instead of realizing that cognitive therapy and CBT were first presented around 14 years following Al’s early works. A few letters of correspondence between Aaron T. Beck and Al can be read in Al’s autobiography, and Beck often respectfully acknowledges that Al’s work was significant as he developed his approach.
Aspects of Al’s work were also very influential in the development of positive psychology — a fact which Martin P. Seligman has respectfully acknowledged — and yet I have met people who embrace positive psychology who have no idea of that fact. Elements of REBT can be recognized in ACT, DBT, coaching and even heard in the preaching of certain popular television evangelists. Al would continually acknowledge in his talks and writings the works of Adler, Horney, Korzybski, ancient and contemporary philosophers and others who had influenced or contributed to
I do my best when I present, teach and write to keep REBT relevant to current times and issues — and to give credit where credit is due.
AI: I am aware that Albert’s influence lives on, as cognitive therapy rests on his shoulders. At the same time, I see you as a solid innovator, continuing and taking his ideas further. Mary and I have heard you talk and have participated in your excellent workshop. We love your energy and appreciate your scholarship. Let’s turn the topic to you, your accomplishments and what you visualize for the future.
DJE: I make a point of including live demonstrations of the application of REBT with volunteers whenever possible when I teach and in my many presentations. These live demonstrations are unrehearsed, authentic and in no way role-playing. Al entrusted me to carry on his ideas and work further, and it is my joy, my passion, my mission. I love presenting both to helping professionals and to members of the general public. There is a real need to present a full picture of REBT and its promise when it is applied for continuing to change and improve our work and daily lives.
As part of this, I present and conduct live workshops in New York, my home-base city, and in other places throughout the United States and the world. I am an adjunct professor at Columbia University. In the past 18 months, I have presented in India, Mexico, Hawaii, Australia, Jerusalem, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Toronto and San Francisco. I love these opportunities to share REBT and its continually expanding dimensions and to witness its relevance to people of the variety of cultures and religions to whom I present.
I trust that more research will be done to add to that which already exists on REBT. The excellent and voluminous published CBT research by Aaron T. Beck and colleagues supports REBT principles. However, there is need for more research that focuses on specific and unique REBT tenets, especially on the impact of the “musts,” the importance of the “E,” REBT’s philosophical assertions and the benefits of REBT’s vigorous mode of disputation of irrational ideas. I look forward very much to seeing findings from the ever-growing field of neuropsychology and neurophysiology incorporated and applied as appropriate to the existing REBT theory.
APA produced a DVD as part of its “Systems of Psychotherapy” DVD series in which I demonstrate the REBT approach with a client. APA also published the book Al and I wrote about REBT. Transcripts of 12 real sessions with a client that show the therapeutic progress have been made available by Alexander Street Press (2015), which also filmed three DVDs of me talking about various aspects of REBT. I continue to attend and present at major conferences on psychology/therapy and to write books, chapters, articles and reviews for various books and journals.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I do my best to live my life incorporating the REBT philosophy. I make effort to not only teach, talk and write about REBT and use it with clients and others I care about, but also to contribute in positive ways to as many other people as I can. I feel immense joy when doing so.
I do my best to remember to apply the tenets of compassion, acceptance and kindness. And I feel most fortunate and grateful each day as I do so.
Allen Ivey, distinguished university professor (emeritus), University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is a diplomate of the American Board of Professional Psychology and a life member of the American Counseling Association. He is the author or co-author of more than 45 books and 200 articles, translated into 25 languages. Many of these publications have been co-authored with Mary Bradford Ivey. The couple present around the nation and world on original work in microcounseling, developmental counseling and therapy, multicultural and social justice issues, and how to implement neuroscience into daily counseling practice.
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