A Primer on Rational Emotive Behavior [Unconditional-acceptance Theory]*
(REBT- formerly RET, here REBUT)*
Complied, Edited and Expanded By Jimmy Walter
REBUT*, developed by Dr. Albert Ellis [click here for Albert Ellis Institute], has helped millions of people improve their emotions and overall lives. REBUT can be learned through hundreds of self-help books, tapes, and videos (click here) and is known as short-term therapy. Its principals are easy to understand, though they may seem counterintuitive at first. Its therapeutic effectiveness, with both short-term and long-term use, has been proven in many scientific studies.
When Dr. Albert Ellis first unveiled his revolutionary theories for REBUT in 1955, he was greeted with skepticism and outright hostility from the psychological community. Fortunately, Dr. Ellis stood by his ideas long enough for everyone else to realize their value, and REBUT has become one of the most influential concepts in the history of psychology. Dr. Ellis has won numerous awards in the field of psychology including being voted the second most influential psychologist ever. The Cognitive Therapy (CT) and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) are all based on his work. He has written 35 books, co-authored 38 books, and edited 13, which have sold millions of copies, and have been distributed throughout the world in 20 different languages.
All emotions are chemicals produced by our bodies. While pleasant or repulsive physical stimulation (including sounds and sights) can cause a variety of emotions, most emotions are unleashed in response to our thoughts and judgments about events and people – especially ourselves.
If we truly believe that something is bad, our body releases the chemical that makes us feel emotional pain, whether or not it is actually bad. If we truly believe something is good, we feel delighted about it, whether or not it is actually good. Most upsetting emotions stem from unchallenged exaggerations people tell themselves, consciously or subconsciously. It is the continual repetition of those exaggerations that sustains emotional problems.
“If thou art pained by an external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment [and therefore your pain] now.” The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius (121-180), Roman “Philosopher” Emperor (161-180).
REBUT is used to literally “rebut”, dispute, or challenge irrational, exaggerated attitudes, beliefs, and expectations, and replace them with sensible (rational) ones. This improves emotions and makes for happier, easier, healthier, more fulfilled lives. The irrational beliefs, attitudes, etc. are always based on shoulds, oughts, musts, and “I can’t stand it.” Ellis coined the term “musterbation” for what people do when they disturb themselves with self-imposed “musts.” When people give them up, they acquire high frustration tolerance, which encourages them to accept (not like) life's hardships and other people's imperfections. This leads to less emotional pain and greater perseverance, patience, and the ability to get along with others. We have little power to change others. But if we seriously practice using REBUT, we all have the power to change ourselves.
"It is foolish to see any other person as the cause of our own misery or happiness" Buddha (c. 566-480 BCE)
REBUT is a realistic approach that doesn’t try to eliminate all unpleasant feelings; rather, in understands that in important areas of one’s life, people are better off when they are appropriately sad or regretful at failure, rejection, or frustration since it will lead them to change for the better. REBUT aims to smooth off the sharp edges, the exaggerations that cause self-defeating, sometimes traumatizing, emotional pain. Practitioners strive to accept and expect imperfection – even in accepting imperfection imperfectly. This is the only realistic path to happiness, since we all are, and always will be, fallible human beings. REBUT trains people to accept themselves and others unconditionally, whether or not they are “successful” in life, whether or not they behave as they “should”, and whether or not anyone else in the world loves them.
“Worry is interest paid on trouble before it comes due.” William R. Inge, clergyman, scholar, and author (1860-1954)
REBUT affirms the value of achievement, but helps clients give up their upsetting demand for total success at all times. Instead, REBUT advocates a more realistic and satisfying system of values: One that encourages people to work toward their goals, but never to condemn or damn themselves when they fail.
REBUT observes and accepts that:
1. Human genetics make us emotional and somewhat irrational, especially as children and adolescents. Cognitions, emotions, and behavior are not distinct, separate functions. They are intertwined and interactive.
2. All parents, being human, are imperfect and have caused or passed at least some irrational, self-defeating, upsetting thoughts on to their children.
3. All societies, being composed of humans, are imperfect and some of their rules and morals are irrational or exaggerations. Moreover, the vast majority teach that certain behaviors are wrong and the individual should be condemned and even killed for committing them. Certainly, many of society’s morals were beneficial in that they helped the whole society survive. Since they did, their members believed all of their rules were divine. However, some rules or morals that helped the tribe as a whole were detrimental to some member’s survival and happiness; additionally, some the tribe’s beliefs were detrimental for the entire tribe in the long-run.
4. Emotional problems can be acquired at anytime in life, even if one had an “ideal" early upbringing.
5. Individuals misinterpret the thoughts and feelings of others and consequently feel and behave inappropriately.
6. Therefore, for our happiness, it is justified and necessary to forgive society, others, and ourselves for “bad” behaviors.
People experience pain from self-hate and guilt when they believe that they have behaved “badly”. Some construct defenses to protect them from the pain of guilt or self-condemnation, which admitting their “wrong-doing” would cause. Since such defenses are inconsistent, they ultimately break down and are overwhelmed with anxiety or hostility, becoming self-defeating and possibly self-destructive. Just as, with much work and practice, trapeze artists can overcome their innate fear of flying through the air, so REBUT can reduce innate tendencies to think crookedly, and help people understand how the past influences today’s emotions.
Many upsets will invariably arise from:
(a) the sentence: "I don't like a behavior," and;
(b) the unnecessary demand; "Because I don't like a behavior, it is absolutely wrong, and the person who committed it is damnable."
REBUT attempts to change this dialogue to: "Because I don't like someone’s behavior, I will avoid them. If I do have to see them for some practical reason, it is not horrible if they don’t behave the way I like. I didn’t die before, so I can stand it now. Calmly and without condemnation, I am going to try to convince that person to change. If I succeed, fine. If I don't, I lived through it. It is really just unpleasant or irritating, not terminal. Moreover, what this person does has no real affect on me. I can live happily and successfully in a world where it, and many people's behavior, is not as I like it or believe it should be.”
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned.” Buddha (c. 566-480 BCE)
While REBUT quickly removes specific emotional problems, because emotional disturbance is essentially ideologically or philosophically based, REBUT strives to thoroughly reorient a person’s philosophy, minimizing all anxiety rather than reducing some specific phobia. For instance, it minimizes the tendency to hate rather than just a particular hatred of one’s mother, mate, society, etc. If a person believes that they must be accepted and approved by others or they are worthless and are consequently afraid of making a fool of themselves by speaking in public, then helping the person get over his or her fear of public speaking will do them good. However, if they still believe that that they must be accepted by others, it will be virtually impossible for him not to have other manifestations of this belief, such as fear of approaching someone at a dance, or asking for a raise. In other words, it is the underlying irrational premise by which the person is operating that needs alteration.
REBUT has found that it is essential for people to forcefully practice thinking and acting more rationally. REBUT is not a set of magic phases that will transform anyone. While the insights gained are powerful, changing takes time and practice. For instance, high intelligence can help certain people analyze more quickly the ways in which their thinking is illogical when they are upset. However, just because you quickly see the irrational qualities of your thinking, doesn't mean you will use those insights to help yourself. Many very bright people equate their intelligence with their self-worth. Consequently, they are more motivated to argue the "rightness" of their beliefs than to consider they might be wrong. Moreover, they and many others wrongly believe that just knowing the theory is enough. They are wrong. Both accepting the principals and doing the homework are necessary. While REBUT is the fastest way to change, it still takes some time and daily practice, especially at first.
Learning new ways of thinking and beliefs can be compared to a horse-driven carriage, which has had the same driver and horse for years. The horse knows where to go without being told. Once you change the driver (new way of thinking), the horse still goes in the same direction (old emotions and behaviors), but the driver has to strain at the reins to produce a change in direction (new emotions and behaviors). The positive aspect of the strain you may experience in using REBUT is that it shows you are learning new ways of feeling and behaving and that you are taking charge of your own direction in life.
The homework revolves around disputing the “awfulness” of the problem or uncomfortable situation and then confronting it. First, a rational analysis is made. REBUT is as simple as ABC in a class where you only have to get a D, pardon the pun:
“A” is the activating event, most often some external event, but frequently a thought or memory. For instance, a man gets rejected for a date.
“B” is a belief or judgment about the activating event, the “A”. The belief always involves a “should,” “ought” “must” or “I can’t stand it,” and may be so automatic that one is not fully aware of them. In this case, the person is telling himself something like, “It is horrible that I have been rejected. I am worthless. This is horrible.”
“C” is the consequence, first the emotion and then the subsequent behaviors triggered by the belief, “B”, such as fear, rage, anxiety, depression, procrastination, etc. In this case perhaps shame and indignation followed by blaming and avoidance, “She hurt me. All women are the same. I’ll never ask another.”
“D” is disputing the irrational belief “B” and replacing it with a rational one. The accuracy and reality of one’s “shoulds, oughts, musts”, and/or “I can’t stand it” are challenged. Then more rational responses are brainstormed. These are then tested to find which diminishes the anxiety, rage, depression, etc. to a tolerable level that does not interfere with one’s life. In this case perhaps a little sadness and, “It’s unfortunate that she won’t go out with me. She is also a fallible human who may have many reasons and problems that have nothing to do with me. A woman can bring more enjoyment to my life. She is just one woman out of billions. I will try again.”
For the particular homework assignment :
1. Fill in the details for each letter on a piece of paper.
2. It is easier for the mind to accept and remember if it receives the information from more than one of our senses so it is helpful to:
i. Read each one aloud, then
ii. Repeat each from memory
3. It works faster if you:
i. Repeat the entire process each day
ii. Post the worksheet(s) on the bathroom mirror or refrigerator door.
4. Go out in the real world and do it
i. Immediately before the adventure, have the worksheet and repeat each item;
ii. Remember you won’t die or lose a limb, so just do it.
Some sample homework assignments follow. Doing easier ones first helps prove the process to one’s subconscious and encourages people to try harder ones. They are all activating events, “A’s”.
1. "Shame-attacking" exercises where the individual deliberately does something in public that would normally embarrass him, but is not illegal. Such as:
i. Walking down the street, saying hello, and offering to shake hands with everyone.
ii. Standing in the front of an elevator but turning around to face everyone and smiling.
iii. Wearing grossly mismatched or inappropriate clothing to an event
2. Dating a person whom you are afraid to ask for a date;
3. Looking for a new job;
4. Inviting someone to a meal or event that you really do not like much or find irritating;
5. Calmly standing up to someone that one finds intimidating.
Everyone’s life can be improved by challenging self-defeating, pain causing beliefs and thoughts. Here are some common examples of irrational, pain and problem causing thinking:
1. One should, must, etc. be loved by everyone.
2. One must succeed and/or be the best at anything, or worse, everything one does.
3. We have virtually no control over our emotions.
4. It is horrible when things are not the way we want them to be.
5. Taking a negative detail and magnifying it while ignoring all the positive aspects.
6. Things are black and white, totally good or totally bad.
7. Certain acts are awful or wicked and people who perform them should be severely punished.
8. “Horrible” conclusions with little or poor evidence.
9. Mind Reading: guessing how people feel about you.
10. Catastrophizing: exaggerating things into a disaster and expecting it to happen. Overly concerned with unlikely events.
11. Thinking that everything people do or say is related to you.
12. Comparing yourself to others you believe are better based on their achievements, possessions, or other standard.
13. Believing one is controlled by an outside source, thus feeling hopeless and a victim of fate.
14. Human misery is produced by external causes or outside events rather than by the view one takes of these conditions.
15. One needs something or someone stronger or more powerful than oneself to rely on.
16. Defining and demanding fairness, which may be incorrect and almost certainly somewhat different than someone else’s.
17. Refusing to take responsibility or, additionally, always blaming oneself.
18. Rigid rules that keep the person angry and resentful when anyone breaks them.
19. Believing what you feel must be true. For example, “I feel depressed, life must be depressing.”
20. You expect people to change if you just keep pestering them to do so.
21. Generalizing and extrapolating one or more qualities to the whole person. For example. “He lost. He is a loser, and always will be.”
22. Always trying to prove that your actions are correct.
23. All of your sacrifice will be rewarded in the end.
24. Happiness can be achieved by inertia and inaction. It is better to avoid life’s problems if possible, than to face them.
Therapists using the principles of REBUT (click here for list of professionals in your area) actively try to persuade, cajole, and urge the client to undertake such assignments as an integral part of the therapeutic process. Dr. David D. Burns, M.D., a therapist with expertise in this area, has found that requiring patients to sign a contract to do homework or quit therapy gets them to do it.
After first demonstrating how and why irrational beliefs exist and cause the problem, REBUT therapists remain very active. They talk a great deal rather than passively listening. Even during the first session, they directly confront the clients about their irrational thinking. They deduce what the irrational beliefs and/or thinking are to make the client feel badly. They actively dispute them and persuade clients out of their irrational beliefs. They keep pointing out that there is no other way to get better but to:
a. Continually challenge their own belief-systems, and
b. Repeat and practice new rational beliefs before and during real-life situations.
REBUT stresses the importance of therapists acting as a good models by demonstrating:
(a) He/she is not anxious about whether the client loves him or not, and has no neurotic need for the client's approval. The therapist does not react to the client's hostility with counter-hostility. He has the guts to face the client's problems and make a direct effort to get him to replace his irrational beliefs.
(b) His/her unconditional acceptance of others. The therapist never damns clients for even their worst errors or most heinous crimes, but continues to accept them as a worthwhile, even though fallible, human beings.
REBUT agrees with most other therapeutic schools that it takes time for people to change their basic personality structure--often two to three years. However, REBUT encourages clients to come for therapy just once a week, or even less, and to focus, during the last years or months, on group rather than individual therapy sessions.
Serious setbacks by successful clients are rare. However, as they are re-propagandized by the people with whom they intimately associate, their employer or clients, the media, etc., some REBUT clients who feel fine at the end of the therapeutic process gradually slip back to their own irrational ways of thinking and behaving, and consequently return for further therapy. They usually only need a few "refresher" sessions. Many clients are able to keep helping and changing themselves using the principles they learned during therapy.
REBUT has helped people with problems ranging from stuttering to suicidal thoughts, to alcoholism, rape, and/or depression. It is effective with children as young as five or six years old, as well as learning-impaired children. Psychopaths, psychotics, even the most severely impaired clients, can usually get something out of it.
The type of client for whom rational-emotive psychotherapy gets the poorest results is unmotivated and depressed individuals since they tend not to do the homework. Group rational-emotive therapy has sometimes been found effective with these clients, due to peer pressure, but if they are motivated enough to do the homework, they are helped as well.
Questions and Answers About Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy:
Q. Aren't feelings such as anger and anxiety normal and appropriate?
A. Normal yes. Appropriate no. It is the intensity that is important. Feeling irritation and displeasure when things go wrong can motivate you to change things. Rage, on the other hand, will stop you from thinking and often cause you to do (or not do) things that immediately or ultimately hurt you. A bit of anxiety or some degree of concern about facing the boss can add an edge of excitement that sharpens performance. Excessive anxiety, however, will interfere. REBUT tries to minimize debilitating, excessive emotions. It's healthy to experience sorrow or displeasure when you encounter misfortune.
Q. With REBUT's emphasis on reducing emotional upsets in the face of unfairness or misfortune; doesn't it encourage the preservation of the status quo? (Not to mention take away energy to make things better?)
A. REBUT's goal was expressed well by Reinhold Neibuhr: "Grant me the courage to change the things I can change, the serenity to accept those that I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference." When you get too upset, it is much more difficult to think and behave in constructive ways. By gaining better control over upsetting emotions, you become far more able to change things.
Q. With all this emphasis on "me," doesn't REBUT encourage selfishness? Don't we already have too much selfishness in this world?
A. Yes, many people are too “selfish” – even for their own good. Selfishness is a neurosis, a symptom of fear of worthlessness. To justify feeling good about themselves, selfish people are obsessed with proving themselves by getting what they want. The irony is that they cannot use, much less enjoy, all that they already have. Plus, they fear losing it. Yet they irrationally and destructively crave more. REBUT helps people dispute this neediness with unconditional self-acceptance. It teaches people to refuse to measure their intrinsic worth by their accomplishments, materialistic possessions, or by what others think of them. It teaches them to enjoy life rather than try to prove oneself. Thus, one learns to operate from responsible self-interest rather than trying to have it all.
I see how plenty surfeits oft,
“Frequently Asked Questions” by Theresa Exner, Ph.D. and Michael Bernard, Ph.D.
The work of Dr. Albert Ellis based on an outline provided by Dr. Daniel Brown.
Ellis, A. Outcome of employing three techniques of psychotherapy.
J. Clin. Psychol., 1957, 13, 334-350.
Ellis, A. Reason and emotion in psycho therapy. Secaucus, NJ:
Forer, B. Schizophrenia: The narcissistic retreat. J. Proj. Tech.,
1961, 25, 422-430.
Freud, S. Collected papers. London: Imago Publishers, 1924-1950.
Reich, W. Character analysis. New York: Orgone Institute Press,
Rogers, C.R. The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. J. Consult. Psychol., 1957, 21, 459-461.
The Albert Ellis Institute, nor any of the above authors, directly contributed to this article. For more information about the institute, see Albert Ellis Institute.
*Rational Emotive Therapy (RET) was the original name. Dr. Ellis later changed it to encompass behaviorism, REBT, and is the official name used by the Albert Ellis Institute. Moreover, its scope is more than therapy, it is a science, a theory of human behavior. Since Unconditional Self-Acceptance (USA), Universal Acceptance of Others (UAO), and rebutting irrational ideas are primary parts of REBT, the official name, this author is promoting the memorial acronym, REBUT.