How Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Works

man in therapy session with psychologist
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Rational emotive behavior therapy, also known as REBT, is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy developed by psychologist Albert Ellis. REBT is focused on helping clients change irrational beliefs.

History of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

As a young man, Ellis found himself longing for companionship yet experienced a severe fear of talking to women. In order to tackle his fear, Ellis decided to perform an experiment. For a month, he visited a nearby park and forced himself to talk to 100 different women.

Over time, Ellis found that his fear of speaking to women had diminished considerably. This experience served as a basis for developing his approach to therapy, combining behavioral strategies with assessing underlying thoughts and emotions.

Ellis had trained as a clinical psychologist. As he treated patients, he became increasingly dissatisfied with the results offered by the traditional psychoanalytic approach to therapy. While his patients were able to become aware of their underlying problems, their behavior did not necessarily change. Simply becoming conscious of the problem was not enough, he concluded.

By the 1950s, Ellis had started experimenting with other types of psychotherapy. He was heavily influenced by philosophers and psychologists including Karen Horney and Alfred Adler, as well as the work of behavioral therapists. Ellis's goal was to develop what he viewed as an action-oriented approach to psychotherapy designed to produce results by helping clients manage emotions, cognitions, and behaviors.

"People are not disturbed by things but rather by their view of things," Ellis said. The fundamental assertion of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is that the way people feel is largely influenced by how they think.

When people hold irrational beliefs about themselves or the world, problems can result. The goal of REBT is to help people alter illogical beliefs and negative thinking patterns in order to overcome psychological problems and mental distress.

Rational emotive behavior therapy was one of the very first types of cognitive therapies. Ellis first began developing REBT during the early 1950s and initially called his approach "rational therapy." In 1959, the technique was renamed "rational emotive therapy," and then became "rational emotive behavior therapy" in 1992. Ellis continued to work on REBT until his death in 2007.

The ABC Model

Ellis suggested that people mistakenly blame external events for unhappiness. He argued, however, that it is our interpretation of these events that truly lies at the heart of our psychological distress. To explain this process, Ellis developed what he referred to as the ABC Model.

  • A — Activating Event: Something happens in the environment around you.
  • B — Beliefs: You hold a belief about the event or situation.
  • C — Consequence: You have an emotional response to your belief.

The events and situations that people encounter throughout life are only one piece of the puzzle. In order to understand the impact of such events, it is also essential to look at the beliefs people hold about these experiences as well as the emotions that arise as a result of those beliefs.

The Basic Steps of REBT

In order to better understand how REBT looks, it is important to take a closer look at the therapeutic process itself.

Identify Irrational Thought Patterns and Beliefs

The very first step in the process is to identify the underlying, irrational thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that lead to psychological distress. In many cases, these irrational beliefs are reflected as absolutes, as in "I must," "I should," or "I cannot." According to Ellis, some of the most common irrational beliefs include:

  • Feeling excessively upset over other people's mistakes or misconduct
  • Believing that you must be 100% 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 such unyielding beliefs makes it almost impossible to respond to activating situations in a psychologically healthy way. Possessing such rigid expectations of ourselves and others only leads to disappointment, recrimination, regret, and anxiety.

Challenge Irrational Beliefs

Once these underlying feelings have been identified, the next step is to challenge the mistaken beliefs. In order to do this, the therapist disputes these beliefs using very direct and even confrontational methods.

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.

Gain Insight and Change Behavior

As you might imagine, REBT can be a daunting process for the client. Facing irrational thought patterns can be difficult, especially because accepting these beliefs as unhealthy is far from easy. Once the client has identified the problematic beliefs, the process of actually changing these thoughts can be even more challenging.

While it is perfectly normal to feel upset when making a mistake, the goal of REBT is to help people respond rationally to such situations. 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. You made a mistake, but that's okay. Everyone makes mistakes. All you can do is learn from the situation and move on.

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. Clients are encouraged to change unwanted behaviors using strategies such as meditation, journaling, and guided imagery.

A Word From Verywell

Rational emotive behavior therapy can be effective in the treatment of a range of psychological disorders, including anxiety and phobias. It can also help people manage specific behaviors, such as severe shyness and excessive approval-seeking.

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  1. Froggatt W. A brief introduction to rational emotive behaviour therapy. Updated February 2005.

  2. Turner MJ. Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), irrational and rational beliefs, and the mental health of athletes. Front Psychol. 2016;7:1423. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01423

Additional Reading
  • Ellis A, Dryden W. The Practice of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Springer Publishing Company, 1997.

  • Ellis A. Reflections on rational-emotive therapyJ Consult Clin Psychol. 1993;61(2):199-201. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.61.2.199

  • Ellis A. Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Carol, 1991.