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.

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  1. Helen August 7, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    Ellis did a wonderful thing for secular psychology by taking the profession by proposing a different way from Freud.
    Ellis’ book has been very helpful to me. (I have heard that in person he could be rather abrasive) At the time I was reading it I would have loved to find such clear thinking in Christian books but I couldn’t. At a time when I needed to read things which made sense, his book absolutely made sense to me. I love his made-up words like “awfulizing” and “catastrophizing”. I think we would be surprised at how much traces back to the foundation he laid, if we were able to track such things. At the time I was reading Ellis, all the Christian authors I read thought all secular psychology was still Freudian. Even though Ellis’ book had been out for decades.
    That Christians were so out of touch in this area was an eye-opener and a caution to never assume that the Christian perspective on something was going to provide me with correct accurate information.
    I appreciate Ellis and all he did even though I don’t condone abrasiveness. His book was there for me when I needed help.

  2. Nick Morgan August 8, 2007 at 10:50 pm

    Thanks for this post John,
    I haven’t read Ellis, but a therapist I know had me read a book coming from the same basic perspective called “Reality Therapy”. The author’s name escapes me at this moment. It has been very helpful, along with seeing a counselor who uses this approach, though not harshly. I too have grown in the area of taking personal responsibility for my actions, choices, and behaviors, and not making excuses or blaming others. This will be a lifelong growing process, but it is making a big difference in how I live and relate to others. The only Christian Psychologists that I know of who take a similar approach are John Townsend and Henry Cloud, though I’m sure there are others. It can be a very difficult process sometimes, but growing pains always are. God bless!

  3. Mike Clawson August 9, 2007 at 12:11 am

    It really seems to me that this is another one of those questions that calls for a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” approach. Rather than “personal responsibility” vs. “healing deep seated neurosis” why not admit that both are needed? To focus on the just the latter will likely lead to fatalism, but to focus exclusively on the former could err on the side of blaming the victim. I’d also worry about a superficial handling of problems and not dealing with them in a wholistic way. Some people really are damaged in ways deeper and more complicated than a mere “suck it up and deal with it” attitude can handle.

  4. John H. Armstrong August 9, 2007 at 11:09 am

    Ellis did not suggest people “suck it up and deal with it” from any of the work I know. This may be a fundamentalist Christian stereotype but not that of Ellis at all.

  5. Julie Clawson August 9, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    Sorry John, but you yourself characterized Ellis’ approach as the following:

    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.”

    Forgive me, but how is that different than “suck it up and deal with it?” I thought I was just quoting you (almost) verbatim. I don’t anything about Ellis except what you’ve written here, so I was just going off of your description.

  6. Mike Clawson August 9, 2007 at 1:36 pm

    Sorry, that last post was by me, not Julie.

  7. Helen August 9, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Mike, the problem with Freud isn’t that he said deep healing was needed, but – as best I understand his theories – that he taught every problem is in the unconscious and needs to be ‘randomly’ brought to light by free association that takes years and years.
    Ellis set people free from being at the mercy of their unconscious minds and their Freudian psychoanalysts.

  8. Helen August 9, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    Mike, here’s a page outlining REBT, which Ellis invented
    I assume what John meant was ‘deal with it’ as in “I can equip you with tools to deal with it, unlike your Freudian psychoanalyst”, not ‘deal with it’ as in the invalidating “there’s nothing really wrong with you, so go away”.

  9. Mike Clawson August 9, 2007 at 8:42 pm

    I see. Thanks for the clarification.

  10. John H. Armstrong August 10, 2007 at 10:03 am

    Good exchange Helen and Mike. I can see how I used a short hand phrase for Ellis’ approach assuming some things that could clearly be read as “just suck it up.” You were right to challenge me Mike and Helen also has the measure of the situation about right, as much as I understand this myself. I am no expert on Ellis for sure. Ellis was a huge corrective to Freud we can safely assume. We can also assume any therapy can be misused and abused by popularizers, which in many cases are Christians borrowing from these ideas and then often acting as it they borrowed nothing at all.

  11. Helen August 16, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    I just posted about Albert Ellis on my blog, since his teachings helped me significantly when I was looking for help:

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