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Review of "Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy"

By Albert Ellis
Prometheus, 2004
Review by Kelly Joseph Salsbery, Ph.D. on Jun 19th 2005
Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

My first reaction to Albert Ellis's book Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: It Works for Me -- It Can Work for You was one of disappointment. Here seems to be a book that is neither fish nor fowl. It contains a great deal of autobiography liberally mixed with discussions concerning the foundational elements of therapy along some focus on self-help. Upon further reflection, however, I believe that this book does contain many important insights for lay readers, philosophers, psychologists, and psychiatrists alike.

Most readers should be familiar with Ellis's pioneering work in REBT (Rational-Emotive-Behavior-Therapy). This therapy is based on the insight dating back to the views of the ancient Stoic philosophers that it is not events or circumstances in our lives that lead to unhappiness and associated unhealthy mental consequences, but rather our reaction to these events or circumstances. It is our irrational beliefs about and reactions to these events and circumstances that lead to unhealthy consequences. Ellis views the role of the therapist as someone who helps the patient discover, confront, and challenge these irrational beliefs and reactions and, in turn, replace them with rational beliefs and reactions. For readers unfamiliar with REBT, Ellis includes in his book a section listing some selected references on REBT, and an appendix with some pointers on how to apply REBT in ones own life.

I think, however, that the most important aspects of this book do not really involve the passages where Ellis is describing how he used REBT in some aspect of his own life. Instead I believe what is important is that we have an opportunity to see a major figure reflect on the genesis of his own ideas. For instance, Ellis credits and early and intense devotion to philosophy ( as a teenager) for exposing him to the ideas of the Stoics. In a number of passages he explicitly credits Alfred Korzybski (an early pioneer of the approach to language and meaning known as General Semantics). Also, Ellis clearly demonstrates just how much many of the events in his long and interesting life helped to shape his theories concerning REBT and his investigations concerning the psychology of love and sex.

Two chapters that I found especially interesting and important were chapters 9 and 10. In chapter 9, Ellis surprisingly discusses his failure as a writer. It turns out that he had long nurtured an ambition to write fiction (perhaps even the "great American novel"). Alas, all his efforts over the years met with nothing more than rejection. Dealing with such failures throughout his life seems to have been instrumental in his development of REBT.  Thus, it seems that one underlying message of this book is that Ellis views himself not simply as the developer and expositor of the theories underlying REBT, but rather in an important sense Ellis believes that his life is something of an embodiment of REBT.

In chapter 10, Ellis addresses his views concerning atheism and religion. Ellis has been an unapologetic atheist since his early youth. He describes his atheism as a sort of "probabilistic atheism" as opposed to a dogmatic insistence that God does not exist. Thus, Ellis admits that it is possible for there to be a God or other supernatural entities, but he believes that this is extremely improbable. Ellis also admits that his attitude towards religion has changed somewhat over the years. He went from viewing all conventional religion and religious beliefs as being irrational and psychologically unhealthy to viewing what he calls "religiosity" as the "real culprit." He identifies this religiosity as being the same sort of attitude as the "true believerism" addressed by Eric Hoffer. That is, he characterizes it as a dogmatic and totalistic attitude with respect to any sort of belief system that concerns itself with how we should live. Moreover, partly as a result of his interactions with religious practitioners of REBT, Ellis has come to believe that not all such "rigid beliefs" are harmful.  

Overall, I believe that Ellis's book is worth reading, but I believe that the reader should perhaps ignore the somewhat misleading title and simply be open to what this remarkable individual has to say. Ellis is not really presenting the events of his life as examples for some sort of self-help tome. Instead, he is giving us a valuable, rare, and very personal glimpse into the events, attitudes, and thinking in his life that helped shape one of the most important contemporary approaches to psychological therapy.


© 2005 Kelly Joseph Salsbery


Kelly Joseph Salsbery, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Department of English and Philosophy at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas (where he resides with his family).