Developed by Dr.Albert Ellis in 1955, Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy has spawned a variety of other cognitive-behaviour therapies. Its relative effectiveness, short-term nature, and low cost are major reasons for its popularity. REBT's approach works best for individuals desiring a scientific, present-focused, and active treatment for coping with life's difficulties.

Ellis' slogan was a quote from Epictetus, "what disturbs people's minds is not events, but their judgement of events.' This reflects Ellis' disappointment with Freudian approaches. Having trained as a psychoanalyst and 'lost faith', he observed that when clients saw him only once a week or even every other week, they progressed just as well as when he saw them daily. When he began to take a more active role, interjecting advice and direct interpretations, clients seemed to improve more quickly than when he used passive psychoanalytic procedures. He linked this to his observation that before he himself had undergone analysis; he had worked through many of his own problems by reading and practicing the philosophies of rationalist thinkers. So he began to teach his clients the principles he had gleaned from Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Spinoza and Bertrand Russell, that had worked for him.

By 1955 Ellis had given up psychoanalysis entirely, and instead concentrated on changing people's behaviour by confronting them with their irrational beliefs and persuading them to adopt rational ones.

REBT is based on a few simple principles:

  • People are responsible for their own emotions and actions.
  • Harmful emotions and dysfunctional behaviours are the product of irrational thinking.
  • People can learn more realistic views and, with practice integrate them into appropriate behaviours.
  • People experience a deeper acceptance of themselves and greater satisfaction in life by developing a reality-based perspective.

REBT distinguishes between two types of difficulties in life: practical problems and emotional problems. Unproductive or inappropriate behaviour, unfair treatment by others, and undesirable situations, represent practical problems. Our human tendency is to upset ourselves about these practical problems, thereby creating a second order of problems -emotional suffering.

REBT addresses the latter by helping clients to:

  • Take responsibility for their distress: people upset themselves about an event--the event itself, no matter how undesirable, can never upset them.
  • Recognise that neither another person, nor an adverse circumstance, can ever disturb someone - only they themself can: others may cause physical pain - or frustration. But people create their own emotional suffering, or self-defeating behavioural patterns, in response to what others do or say.

REBT operates by identifying the client's musts. Once they can see that they distort their own emotions and actions, then the therapy proceeds by determining precisely how that occurs. The culprit usually lies in one of the three core musts:

  • "Must" #1 (a demand on the client themselves): "I MUST do well and get approval, or else I'm worthless." This demand causes anxiety, depression, and lack of assertiveness.
  • "Must" #2 (a demand on others): "You MUST treat me reasonably, considerately, and lovingly, or else you're no good." This "must" leads to resentment, hostility, and violence.
  • "Must" #3 (a demand on situations): "Life MUST be fair, easy, and hassle-free, or else it's awful." This thinking is associated with hopelessness, procrastination, and addictions.

REBT determines what the client demands of themself, of their significant others, or of their life circumstances. Not until the client discovers these core beliefs can they then go on effectively to reduce their distress. REBT asserts that the only way a client can remain disturbed about adversity is by vigorously and persistently agreeing with one of these three "musts." Thus, once they've been revealed, then the client is encouraged to confront and question these demands. Therapy begins by asking: "What's the evidence for this must?" "How is it true?" "How does it play out in my life?" Then the client is encouraged to see: "There's no evidence." "My must is entirely false." "It's not carved indelibly anywhere." "This belief causes me suffering." Make your view "must"-free and then your emotions will heal.

Next REBT reinforces the client's preferences, therefore reframing the attachment to the injunctions around a "MUST":

  • Preference #1: "I PREFER to do well and get approval, but even if I fail, I will accept myself fully."
  • Preference #2: "I strongly PREFER that you treat me reasonably, kindly, and lovingly, but since I don't run the universe, and it's a part of your human nature to err, I, then, cannot control you."
  • Preference #3: "I strongly PREFER that life be fair, easy, and hassle-free, and it's very frustrating that it isn't, but I can bear frustration and still considerably enjoy life."

Assuming that the client takes these suggestions to heart and thereby greatly reduces their anxiety, hostility, depression, and addictions, what remains? Without their turmoil contending with the circumstance of their lives, they will more easily experience love, involvement, and joy. Without their addictions, they will be free to engage in the gratifying experiences of spontaneity, commitment, and self-actualisation. Thus, REBT appeals to those who wish to take control of their own life, rather than remaining dependent upon a therapist for years. By giving the client the tools for identifying and overcoming the true source of their difficulties, it prepares them to act in many ways as their own therapist. By reinforcing realistic self-benefitting beliefs, it eliminates existing emotional and behavioural concerns, and the means to avoid future ones.