Tag Archives: REBT

Singalong with Richard Watts: Teaching REBT through song

By Bethany Bray February 16, 2016

When Richard Watts’ counseling graduate students arrive to class for a unit on Albert Ellis and rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), they’re in for something a little different.

Watts, a professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, pulls out his guitar and sings songs he’s written to illustrate the irrational beliefs that Ellis in part developed REBT to combat.

Set to familiar tunes such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Oh Suzanna,” Watts’ song lyrics paint a picture of some of the self-sabotaging feelings and behaviors that REBT addresses, such as perfectionism, obsessive relationships, defeatism, victimhood and so on.

Ellis referred to such beliefs as “stinking thinking,” Watts says. REBT works to reverse negative, often paralyzing thoughts into rational beliefs, such as an acceptance that we are not perfect and that life won’t always go our way, but that is OK.

Through the years, Watts has written a slate of songs to highlight the self-defeating beliefs with which many people struggle. In most causes, the songs feature a good dose of humor. For example, the “Rejected Lover’s Refrain,” sung to the tune of “On Top of Old Smokey,” ends with the lines: “Oh

Richard Watts with his guitar.

Richard Watts with his guitar.

why did you leave me? What’s that all about? I guess that I’m worthless and you figured it out. I really deserve this, I know that it’s true. If I only could dear, why, I’d leave me too!”

Watts distributes the lyrics in class and encourages his students to sing along. He’s been singing about REBT in his classroom — as well as in group therapy settings and, occasionally, at professional conferences and events — for two decades.

“We sing the songs and they make us laugh, but many times humor also makes us think,” says Watts, a professor of counseling and director of Sam Houston State University’s Ph.D. program in counselor education. “[As] I’m teaching students, I’m trying to get them to think about their own irrational beliefs as well as their clients’.”

Watts is following in the tradition of Ellis, who wrote songs to illustrate irrational beliefs decades ago. Ellis led workshops every Friday night at his New York City institute for many years. Known for his big personality, wit and sometimes-irreverent style, Ellis would pull members of the audience on stage for live therapy sessions. He used the songs as a therapy tool, often encouraging the audience to sing along. In 1987, Ellis penned a chapter “The use of rational humorous songs in psychotherapy” in ‪William Fry and Waleed Salameh’s book ‪Handbook of Humor and Psychotherapy: Advances in the Clinical Use of Humor.

Watts decided to write songs of his own after discovering that today’s college students aren’t as familiar with many of the older tunes that Ellis’ songs are set to. At first, Watts says, his students are a little startled by seeing their professor in a new context — similar to seeing your teacher in the grocery store as a kid. But they soon warm up, he says, even laughing and singing along.

“I’m not [Eric] Clapton, but I can play pretty well,” Watts says with a chuckle. “I thought it’d be a clever way of introducing the material.”

When used in group therapy, especially in groups with men, the songs often get clients to open up, he says.

“Many times [in group settings], clients are reticent to share ideas that might be inhibiting their progress,” says Watts, a licensed professional counselor supervisor, American Counseling Association fellow and immediate past president of the North American Society for Adlerian Psychology. “But we’ll sing these songs, and I’ll see them laugh and whisper to their neighbor, ‘This is so me!’ … After they’ve sung and laughed together using those songs, they feel more at liberty to talk about and unpack the meaning that they saw in those songs for themselves.”

Similarly, the songs serve as an icebreaker in the classroom. They are also an effective, if nontraditional, way of helping students learn and remember Ellis’ points. The lessons stick with students much more so than if they were to simply read about the concepts in a textbook, Watts says.

In one case, a student who struggled with perfectionism printed out Watts’ song about the issue (the “Perfectionist’s Refrain”) and attached it to the visor of her car as a reminder. Other students have asked for recordings of the songs to use in sessions with their own clients.

“They sing about it, they laugh about it and then we talk about it,” he says. “It’s an application exercise. They’re not merely reading about the different [cognitive] distortions. In a sense, the songs are fun case studies. They learn to listen for the irrational belief theme underpinning [each] song. It sets them up for having an ear and an eye for the mistaken beliefs.”

After singing his songs, Watts urges students to start looking for irrational beliefs elsewhere, including in popular culture. Students are often surprised to discover how often irrational beliefs – from love lost to feelings of worthlessness – are embedded in their favorite music, he says.

Given Watts’ penchant for using clever lyrics as both a teaching and therapy tool, it perhaps comes as no surprise that he has a musical background. He came to the counseling profession after earning an undergraduate degree in music (choral conducting) and working as a church choir director. As an undergrad, he put himself through college by singing in piano bars.

Watts’ irrational belief songs proved so popular that some of his colleagues encouraged him to submit the songs for publication in the Texas Counseling Association’s academic journal. They were published in academic journals several times in the 1990s, including in the Journal of Humanistic Counseling.

Watts sent a copy of his song lyrics to Ellis prior to the influential psychotherapist’s death in 2007. Ellis responded with a letter, written on the letterhead of his Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy, and said that Watts’ songs were “right on the ball and can be very useful.”

 

 

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Richard Watts’ REBT song lyrics and recordings are available online at bit.ly/1PwpziW.

Contact Watts at rew003@shsu.edu

 

 

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Albert Ellis

Albert Ellis

Interested in learning more about Albert Ellis and REBT? See “Getting to know (and love) Albert Ellis and his theory,” Allen Ivey’s recent Q+A with Ellis’ widow, Debbie Joffe Ellis, that appeared in Counseling Today.

 

 

 

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

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Getting to know (and love) Albert Ellis and his theory

Interview by Allen Ivey December 23, 2015

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 Branding-Images_Ellishe 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
of REBT.

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
his work.

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.

 

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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.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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 www.rebt.ws, “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.

 

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