What Is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)?

man in therapy session with psychologist
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Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) developed by psychologist Albert Ellis. REBT is an action-oriented approach that’s focused on helping people deal with irrational beliefs and learn how to manage their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in a healthier, more realistic way.

When people hold irrational beliefs about themselves or the world, problems can result. REBT helps people recognize and alter those beliefs and negative thinking patterns in order to overcome psychological problems and mental distress.

How Rational Emotive Therapy Works

According to REBT, our cognition, emotions, and behavior are connected. In order to understand the impact of events and situations that people encounter throughout life, it’s essential to look at the beliefs people hold about these experiences and the emotions that arise as a result of those beliefs.

The main goal of REBT is to help people respond rationally to situations that would typically cause stress, depression, or other negative feelings. When faced with this type of situation in the future, the emotionally healthy response would be to realize that it is not realistic to expect success in every endeavor. All you can do is learn from the situation and move on.

Main Beliefs

Rational emotive behavior therapy operates under a few main beliefs. The three main beliefs of REBT are:

  • You are worthy of self-acceptance no matter what even when you struggle or make mistakes; there is no need for shame or guilt.
  • Others are also worthy of acceptance, even when their behavior involves something that you don’t like.
  • Negative things will sometimes happen in life, and that doesn’t mean that things are happening in a way they shouldn’t be. Life is not positive all of the time, and there’s no rational reason to expect it to be.

ABC Model

A core concept of REBT is the ABC model. This model explains how, while we may blame external events for our unhappiness, it is our interpretation of these events that truly lies at the heart of our psychological distress.

"ABC" is an acronym for:

  • A: Activating event, which is when something happens in the environment around you
  • B: Belief, which describes your thoughts about the event or situation
  • C: Consequence, which is your emotional response to your belief

During REBT, your therapist will help you learn how to apply the ABC model to your daily life.

If you’re feeling depressed due to a conflict in your relationship, for example, a rational emotive behavior therapist may help you identify the activating event for your problem before encouraging you to figure out which beliefs led to your negative feelings. They would then work with you to change those beliefs and, ultimately, your emotional response to the conflict.

Common Irrational Beliefs Addressed With REBT

An important step in the therapeutic process is recognizing the underlying beliefs that lead to psychological distress. In many cases, these are reflected as absolutes, as in "I must," "I should," or "I can’t."

Some of the most common irrational beliefs addressed in rational emotive behavior therapy include:

  • Feeling excessively upset over other people’s mistakes or misconduct
  • Believing that you must be perfectly competent and successful in everything to be valued and worthwhile
  • Believing that you will be happier if you avoid life’s difficulties or challenges
  • Feeling that you have no control over your own happiness; that your contentment and joy are dependent upon external forces

Holding unyielding beliefs like these makes it almost impossible to respond to activating situations in a psychologically healthy way. Possessing rigid expectations of ourselves and others only leads to disappointment, recrimination, regret, and anxiety.

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Techniques

A couple of different techniques can be used during rational emotive behavior therapy.


One step toward changing your beliefs is undergoing a process called disputation. Disputation is meant to teach you life-long skills to help you manage your emotional response and overall mental health.

During disputation, your therapist will challenge your irrational beliefs using direct methods. They may question your beliefs head-on, causing you to rethink them, or they could ask you to imagine another point of view that you haven’t considered before. 

While each therapist may approach disputation differently, challenging your beliefs is part of the process. Ellis suggested that rather than simply being warm and supportive, therapists need to be blunt, honest, and logical in order to push people toward changing their thoughts and behaviors.

Targeting Emotional Responses

An important part of the REBT process is learning how to replace your irrational beliefs with healthier ones. This process can be daunting and upsetting, and it’s normal to feel some discomfort or to worry that you’ve made a mistake. 

While REBT uses cognitive strategies, it focuses on emotions and behaviors as well. In addition to identifying and disputing irrational beliefs, therapists and clients also work together to target the emotional responses that accompany problematic thoughts.

Techniques that might be encouraged include:

Conditions REBT Can Help With

REBT has some data to support its benefit for a variety of conditions, including:

REBT has also shown promise in sports psychology, where it can be used to help athletes overcome irrational beliefs that may be negatively impacting their mental health and performance.

Benefits of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

When developing REBT, Ellis’s goal was to create an action-oriented approach to psychotherapy that produced results by helping people manage their emotions, cognitions, and behaviors. Indeed, research suggests that REBT is effective at reducing irrational beliefs and changing behavior.

We see the same results in sports psychology, where REBT can decrease irrational beliefs and reduce anxiety for athletes.

Overall, REBT offers several behavioral benefits, like:

  • Reduced feelings of anger, anxiety, depression, and distress
  • Improved health and quality of life
  • Better school performance and social skills

Effectiveness of REBT

REBT has a wide range of potential applications. Because it’s focused on education and taking action, it may be effective for a variety of situations and mental health conditions. It may even lead to lasting change in those who undergo this form of therapy.

Burnout at School or Work

Researchers have studied the impact that REBT has on professional and academic performance. One 2018 study showed that this approach was effective in reducing symptoms of burnout for undergraduate students and continued to help even months after therapy concluded.

Another 2018 study showed similar results for nurses. Group REBT reduced their job-related stress and burnout while increasing their job satisfaction and commitment to their organization.

Depression and Anxiety

REBT may be effective in reducing symptoms for people with depression or anxiety. The positive effects also appear to last even after therapy ends.

REBT has also shown promising results for adolescents experiencing depression. This may be due to its emphasis on teaching techniques like:

  • Identifying cognitive errors
  • Challenging irrational beliefs
  • Separating individuals from their behaviors
  • Practicing acceptance

Sports-Related Issues

REBT is quickly gaining popularity as a treatment option for athletes who are experiencing mental health issues. It can be used to restore and maintain athletes’ mental health, helping them learn how to change their outlook and manage their emotions. This often improves their athletic performance, though the goal of REBT in sports psychology is to care for the athlete’s mental well-being first and foremost.

Factors to Consider With REBT

REBT can be a daunting process. For some, disputation may feel aggressive or confrontational, and facing irrational thought patterns can be difficult, as it’s not easy to accept these beliefs as unhealthy. The process of changing these thoughts can be even more challenging, as it may involve learning to let go of long-held beliefs.

REBT is meant to teach you life-long skills and, as such, it’s not a passive process. Your sessions may involve reading assignments and homework, and you’ll likely have to step out of your comfort zone to get the benefits of this form of therapy.

How to Get Started With Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

To begin REBT, check with your doctor for any recommendations of local therapists or search for mental healthcare professionals who offer this approach either in person or online.

During your first session, your therapist will likely discuss your goals and the activating event (or events) that prompted you to seek treatment. They may want to delve into REBT techniques right away; this form of therapy is very active and focused, so your therapist is not likely to spend a lot of time on casual conversation.

Throughout your treatment, you will probably receive homework assignments to complete and new behaviors to experiment with. Your willingness to try out new beliefs and different behaviors will impact how beneficial REBT is for you.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.