Imagine you are going to see a therapist or counselor.
You’ve been having trouble dealing with stress, or maybe you’re struggling with some difficult emotions. Perhaps you have a diagnosed mental disorder and you’re having trouble keeping it in check.
You sit down in the therapist’s office and begin to discuss what brought you here.
The therapist asks you to describe the problem. You say something like “Well, lately I’ve been finding myself thinking –”
The therapist interjects, “Instead of telling me about what you’re thinking, tell me how you’re feeling.”
You tell the therapist how you’re feeling, and eventually you come back to how you’ve been thinking lately – your thought patterns and tendencies you’ve noticed in your train of thought.
Again, the therapist stops you and says, “That’s not really important in terms of your treatment here. It’s much more important to talk about your feelings or your behaviors.”
Now, this is not a scenario you will find in therapy today (especially with the therapist’s interruptions!), but it illustrates a trend in therapy that began with the rise of psychoanalysis and, later, behaviorism, and continued for several decades.
For many years, mental health professionals would focus their attention on emotions and behaviors, giving less thought to how their clients actually think. Psychoanalysis didn’t consider the client’s way of thinking to be especially problematic; instead, it aimed to penetrate the unconscious mind.
Behaviorism also largely ignored the way people think, but for different reasons – the focus was on the client’s behavior rather than their inner experience.
Albert Ellis noticed this gap in therapy work and hypothesized that the thoughts people have and the way they think could be much more vital for understanding and treating clients than current therapies assumed.
His work left a marked impact on the therapy world, and introduced a new type of therapy that contributed to the development one of the most popular and effective forms of therapy available today.
In this piece, you’ll learn about the foundations, theories, and techniques of this groundbreaking therapy: Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.
This article contains:
What is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy? A Definition
As suggested by the scenario above, rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) differed from the other mainstream therapies of its day, mainly in the importance it placed on discussing and adapting how clients think (Jorn, 2016).
It may sound obvious today, but Ellis’ idea that the way we think has a significant impact on the way we feel was not a popularly held belief before he introduced his form of therapy.
Not only does REBT rest on the belief that the way we think influences our emotions and behavior, it attempts to help clients change the way they think to reduce negative symptoms and improve their quality of life (Albert Ellis Institute, 2014).
“People are not disturbed by things but rather by their view of things.” – Albert Ellis
As this quote from Ellis shows, REBT assumes that many people with emotional or behavioral problems struggle due to the way they perceive their experiences rather than simply the experiences themselves. REBT aims to facilitate change in core beliefs and thought patterns that will clients more effectively deal with their problems and improve their ability to function and feel in a healthy way (Good Therapy, 2015).
REBT also differs from other early forms of therapy in its focus on the present; in fact, according to Ellis, a common irrational belief is that our past has a significant influence on our present life (McLeod, 2015)! While our past does, of course, shape who we are today, it is an irrational belief if you feel you cannot escape your past.
The goal of REBT is best summarized as “disputing” – challenging and questioning our irrational and dysfunctional beliefs and replacing them with more sensible and functional beliefs. The result is not just changes in a few thought patterns or reducing some problematic symptoms, but a new perspective on life (Albert Ellis Institute, 2014).
Theories Behind REBT
The theory underpinning this type of therapy is that humans are not entirely rational creatures. This should go without saying, but sometimes we can use a reminder that humans are not simple computers that take an input, read it logically, and produce an appropriate output; rather, we are complex “computers” with an unfathomably large number of inputs, complicated and mysterious internal processes, and an unfathomably large number of potential outputs.
While it is (as far as we know) impossible to be entirely rational, Ellis believed that approaching our problems in a more rational way could have a significant impact on our negative emotions and dysfunctional behaviors (Albert Ellis Institute, 2014). The most important challenge to tackle on the road to rationality is our dysfunctional or illogical thinking.
Ellis theorized that many of our emotional and behavioral problems spring from basic irrational assumptions, or assumptions that are not totally grounded in reality and influence people to act in ways that are inappropriate, unhelpful, or even destructive (McLeod, 2015).
Based on this idea, Ellis developed a model to help explain, describe, and treat emotional and behavioral disturbances.
The ABCDE Model of Emotional Disturbance
Ellis hypothesized that irrational beliefs are the result of a person’s goals or desires being inhibited or blocked. When we don’t get or accomplish what we wanted to, we may develop irrational beliefs about ourselves or the world that help explain what happened.
For example, imagine you are dead set on getting a job you applied for. You study up on the company, practice your interview answers, and make sure you’re looking extra sharp the day of the interview. Although you prepared extensively, the hiring manager decided to go with another candidate.
You may accept that this just wasn’t meant to be, or that you just weren’t the right fit for the job. However, you may also be heavily impacted by the decision and develop an irrational belief about why you didn’t get the job.
You might think, “I didn’t get this job because they can see that I’m a loser. I’m not good at anything and I never will be.”
Or, you might think, “The only reason I didn’t get this job is because the hiring manager had it out for me. It’s like the universe has it out for me!”
Both of these are thoughts that can help you explain why you didn’t get the job, but they are irrational and can lead to negative emotions and behavior down the road.
Using this scenario as an example, this is how the ABCDE model can explain the development (and the solution) of such problems:
A – Activating Event / Adversity
An activating event or adversity is something that triggers you to form an irrational belief, such as being turned down for the position. It is the first step in developing an irrational thought, because the irrational thought is formed to help you deal with the event.
B – Irrational Belief
The “B” stands for the irrational belief that is formed in response to the activating event. This is a belief that you use to cope with the event, such as “I’m a loser, I’m useless, and I wouldn’t be able to do the job anyway.” While this is, of course, an incredibly hurtful thought, it can still be more comforting than having no idea why you didn’t get the job. Irrational beliefs are surprisingly easy to develop!
C – Emotional and Behavioral Consequences
The third component is the consequences of this irrational belief. Irrational beliefs always have consequences, sometimes emotional, sometimes behavior, and sometimes both. In this case, the consequences may be that you lose your self-confidence or frequently feel sad (emotional) and stop applying to any jobs (behavioral).
D – Disputes or Arguments
At some point, you may realize that you have an irrational belief that is causing you problems. You notice your loss of self-confidence and negative thoughts about yourself and begin to argue against your irrational belief. If you’re working with a therapist, the therapist may help guide you in developing arguments against the belief and help you come up with evidence to the contrary, such as “I have an amazing spouse. My spouse wouldn’t be with a ‘loser’ so I must not be a loser.”
E – New Effect
When you have successfully countered the irrational belief, you will notice new (hopefully more positive!) consequences or effects. In our scenario, these effects might be increased confidence, applying to more jobs, and feeling good about your abilities. These effects are the positive outcomes of holding more rational thoughts, like “I just wasn’t a good fit for that job, but I’ll find another” or “Maybe the hiring manager really didn’t like me, but that’s her loss” (McLeod, 2015).
The ABCDE model can be extremely helpful in tracing the development of an irrational thought and providing a high-level outline of how to challenge and replace it.
Examples of REBT Exercises
There are many exercises, techniques, and interventions grounded in REBT and CBT theory that therapists use in treatment. There are also many exercises that can be completed individually if you are not currently working with a therapist.
This is a very small selection of the many great exercises available, but they provide a good representation of the kinds of activities that can help identify, challenge, and adapt harmful or destructive ways of thinking.
Identifying and Challenging Irrational Beliefs
This is a commonly used exercise in REBT and CBT in general, as it gets to the root of the problem according to REBT theory: the irrational belief.
This “Dysfunctional Thought Record” worksheet will walk you through the exercise. It includes a structured journal format in which the client can record their irrational thoughts and look for patterns or commonalities to get to the source of their problems.
The worksheet is divided into seven columns and includes enough space to note multiple irrational or dysfunctional thoughts.
- In the first column, the client is to write down the date and time.
- In the second column, the client should describe the situation they were in.
- The third column is for writing down the automatic thought that arose.
- In column four, clients should note the associated emotions they felt.
- Column five is where the client should list any cognitive distortions that came up during this situation and automatic thought.
- In the next column, the client should brainstorm effective alternative thoughts that can fight the dysfunctional automatic thoughts.
- Finally, the seventh column is for writing down the outcome of the situation.
This exercise will facilitate the identification of negative, irrational beliefs and the development of effective arguments against these beliefs. Keeping a record of these thoughts can help anyone to organize their thoughts, connect their beliefs to their reactions, and discover potential patterns of irrational beliefs.
You can view or download this worksheet here.
This exercise can help clients recognize the consequences of their irrational beliefs on the things that are important to them. It can also assist the client in developing a solution that goes straight to the source instead of applying an emotional “Band-Aid” to their symptoms.
This “REBT Consequences Analysis” form can guide you or your clients through the exercise.
The first section of the worksheet is labeled “Target.” It directs the client to identify a salient issue or problem they are struggling with. In addition, it directs the client to think about what their most important goals or values are, and to write these down as well.
The second section is labeled “Short-term consequences.” This section gives the client space to write down the benefits (gains, pleasures, comforts) as well as the costs (damages, harms, losses) of continuing with their usual behavior. Once they have identified the benefits and costs, they can rate each area in terms of personal importance on a scale from 0 (lowest importance) to 100 (highest importance).
The third section is in the same format as the second section, but focuses the client on long-term consequences instead of short-term consequences. Once again, clients are instructed to identify the benefits and costs of continuing with business as usual and rating the importance in these areas on a scale from 0 (lowest importance) to 100 (highest importance).
Finally, the worksheet asks the client, “What is the best outcome for you in the long-term?” Here, the client should consider the short- and long-term benefits and costs, and compare the expected consequences of continuing with their current thinking or behavior versus making some changes now.
This worksheet can be viewed or downloaded here.
Replacing Negative Beliefs with Positive Beliefs
This fundamental exercise helps clients confront negative and irrational automatic thoughts or beliefs. It encourages the use of reason and rationality to replace old, self-critical beliefs with new, more positive and more functional beliefs.
The Positive Belief Record worksheet can help clients complete this exercise.
It’s an extremely simple and straightforward method of challenging one’s beliefs with a scientific approach.
At the top of the worksheet, the client will find two boxes where he or she can write down the old belief and come up with a new belief to replace it.
Underneath the two beliefs is the heading “Evidence that supports the new belief (or isn’t entirely consistent with the old belief.” As you probably guessed, this is where the client can list the evidence that challenges their negative, irrational belief.
Enough space is provided to write down 10 pieces of evidence that support the new belief, or call the old belief into question. This evidence can include experiences you have had, something someone else has said to you, or anything else you can think of that supports the new belief or sheds doubt on the old belief.
You can view or download this worksheet at this link.
This is another exercise that uses a rational approach to connect a situation to the usual response that follows, and compare the usual outcome to the outcome if a more positive response occurred.
This worksheet outlines two types of emotional responses: unhealthy or problematic responses, and healthy (or target) responses.
In the first section, the client is instructed to identify and describe an activating event. This is an event that provokes an emotional response (the “A” in the ABCDE model). There are four subsections for the client to complete:
- Describe the situation.
- Isolate the critical factor (what it was about the event that affected you).
- Notice and accept bodily sensations.
- Invent a symbol/metaphor for the experience (one that explains how it felt).
Next, the client will describe the problematic response that follows this activating event (“B” and “C” in the ABCDE model).
The client is instructed to name the emotion, then list the thoughts and images associated with it (i.e., what was happening in your mind during the event?) and the actions and intentions that followed (i.e., how you reacted or wanted to react).
Finally, the client should describe what the healthy response would look like for him or her (the “E” in the ABCDE model).
The first component of the healthy response is the target emotion. Once the client has identified the target emotion, he or she should list the cognitive objectives (i.e., how the client would need to think in order to feel this emotion) and the behavioral objectives (i.e., what the client would need to do in order to feel this emotion).
This worksheet can help guide clients through a comparison of these two types of responses and help them recognize what a healthy response is. It can also help clients develop a plan to make the healthy response their default.
To view, download, or print this worksheet, follow this link.
How REBT Relates to Positive Psychology
While REBT was developed long before positive psychology arrived on the psychology scene (around 1998-99), they share many of the same goals and areas of focus. Of course, there are some areas of disagreement between the two, such as the strict focus on rationality in REBT versus the importance many positive psychologists place on feelings or even intuition, but in general they fit together quite well.
Upon review of REBT and positive psychology, it turns out they have a lot in common:
- They both focus on removing or challenging the negative.
- They both place great importance on not only removing the negative, but also on replacing the negative with positive.
- They both assume that people are competent and capable, and rely on guiding people through the process of finding better options for themselves and choosing the positive.
- They both recognize the vital importance of how people think, rather than focusing only on what they think.
- The ultimate goal for both REBT and positive psychology is to help people live better, more fulfilling, and happier lives.
Most importantly, even though there are theoretical differences and disagreements, they are not mutually exclusive. A client or practitioner in REBT will likely find much support and encouragement in positive psychology, and many positive psychologists recognize the importance of therapies like REBT and CBT. It would not be incongruent to find a form of therapy that draws from both REBT and positive psychology.
Ultimately, any theoretical or philosophical differences between REBT and positive psychology are not really relevant, since they share the goal of improving lives through enhancing positive emotions, positive thoughts, and positive behaviors.
A Take Home Message
Hopefully this piece has given you a useful introduction to the world of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Although REBT was developed several decades ago, it is still in use by psychologists and therapists around the world, and it helped lay the foundations for subsequent therapies that target the client’s cognition.
REBT remains an effective method for helping people challenge their dysfunctional thoughts, encouraging them to use reason to approach their problem-solving, and replacing their negative beliefs with new, positive, and life-enhancing beliefs.
Have you ever tried REBT? Would you? What are your thoughts on this type of therapy? Let us know in the comments!
Thanks for reading!
- Albert Ellis Institute. (2014). Rational Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy. The Albert Ellis Institute. Retrieved from http://albertellis.org/rebt-cbt-therapy/
- Good Therapy. (2015). Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT). GoodTherapy. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/rational-emotive-behavioral-therapy
- Jorn, A. (2016). Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/rational-emotive-behavior-therapy/
- McLeod, S. (2015). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. SimplyPsychology. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-therapy.html