Albert Ellis and the Birth of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

John ArmstrongCounseling

Albert Ellis (1913-2007) died a few days age. He was the father of a counseling method called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. When he was only 19 years old he devised a therapeutic technique to help him deal with his personal shyness. He sat on a park bench at the New York Botanical Gardens and decided to speak to every woman who sat down alone. Over the course of one month 30 women walked away but 100 stayed and chatted with him. This direct approach led him to believe that emotional hang-ups could be altered by discipline and rational choices. The National Institute of Mental Health says that today more than two-thirds of all therapists in the U.S. use this method in their counseling. When you consider where we were before Ellis, with the influence of Freudianism so strong, this is nothing less than a massive shift. It was Ellis who famously referred to Freud’s doctrines as "horseshit." He got that right.

No matter what a person had suffered or struggled with in the past Ellis argued that "Neurosis is a high-class name for whining." This response: "Stop complaining and deal with it." His approach was rejected by most until about the 1980s. When I went to seminary he was not taken seriously, even by most Christians. By 1982 he was ranked by his peers as the second most influential person in their field, after Freud of course. (To be influential does not mean you are right or even that your peers think that you are right.) Ellis authored more than 75 books, many of them best-sellers.

Ellis has his detractors for sure. He was once called "the Lenny Bruce of psychology." What he lacked in human empathy he made up for in showing counselors that people had to take personal responsibility for their present and future actions. Christians can surely celebrate this advance in the field of therapy, one needed now as much as ever. Ellis was very often rude and always provocative but he was never boring. He helped pull back his profession from some very silly and dangerous developments. I would guess that he will still be remembered for some time to come. When Christian counselors argue for their own innovations in this field they should at least give some credit to this non-Christian for their own approach to getting patients out of Freud and back into personal responsibility for human choice.