Wednesday, July 25, 2007

RIP Dr. Ellis

I was at work all day and just saw the news at Instapundit and Ann Althouse's blog that Albert Ellis has died. I have followed Ellis's work since I was in grad school in New York and he gave free Friday night seminars to students and others on his rational emotive behavior therapy techniques:

As a practicing psychoanalyst from 1947 to 1953, Dr. Ellis grew increasingly doubtful about the efficacy of that form of psychotherapy, concerned that no amount of talk would help his clients if they failed to take action against their habitual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. By late 1953, he had stopped calling himself a psychoanalyst and begun developing Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), an action-oriented therapy aimed at making emotional and behavioral change through challenging self-defeating thoughts.

REBT is today widely acclaimed as a pioneering approach to psychotherapy and the foundation of all modern cognitive behavior therapies. In 2003, the American Psychological Association named Dr. Ellis the second most influential psychologist of the 20th century, second only to Carl Rogers. In 2005, Dr. Ellis’s 78th book, The Myth of Self-esteem, was published.

My favorite Ellis book is How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable about Anything: Yes Anything! The main theme of the book is that "No matter how badly you act, no matter how unfairly others treat you, no matter how crummy are the conditions you live under--you virtually alway (yes, A-L-W-A-Y-S) have the ability and the power to change your intense feelings of anxiety, despair, and hostility. Not only can you decrease them, you can practically annihilate and remove them." His book goes on to explain his methods for doing so.

Does it always work? No, but I have used his methods in my work at times and have found it moderately successful with certain individuals. What I admired most about Ellis is not the fact that he wrote 78 books, but that he was rejected many times in his life and did not let it cripple him in any way:

“I was hated by practically all psychologists and psychiatrists,” he recalled. They thought his approach was “superficial and stupid,” he said, and “they resented that I said therapy doesn’t have to take years.”

In 2005, Dr. Ellis sued the institute after it removed him from its board and canceled his Friday seminars. He and his supporters claimed that the institute had fallen into the hands of psychologists who were moving it away from his revolutionary therapy techniques.

In a recent short interview in Psychology Today, Ellis talks about self confidence, having a happy existence and learning to accept rejection no matter what and he encourages people to "keep moving, moving, moving and to try scary things and not to give a s**t when they are rejected." He practiced what he preached and was an authentic individual.

He will be sorely missed.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't worry, be happy?

4:19 PM, July 25, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, they have drugs for that now. This is about something different.

4:26 PM, July 25, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Such a loss...but then, in time all of us must succumb to death.
I first learned of both Ellis and Rogers back in the 70s when I was counseling with Marines in inhouse rehabilitation.
Sadly, the push seems to be to return to the Freudian way of working with clients. At one point I applied for a drug counseling position in the civilian world, and when asked what my position on counseling was, I responded primarily Rogerian, as I am client centered and believe no rehab can take place if the client is not willing to own it, and want to change.
Thanks for who you are and what you do.

4:30 PM, July 25, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I had studied psychology in college, I was struck by the fundamental lack of ethics among practitioners of psychotherapy.

You have multiple competing schools, none of which produce results superior to simple counseling*. Yet, knowing this, practioners still claim the right to diagnose patients and attempt to enforce these diagnoses. They often go even further, to pathologize society as a whole based on models that rest on little more than predjudice and mysticism.

What's especially galling to me, as someone with a background and broad interest in the sciences, is the attempt by the psychotherapeutic community to portray psychotherapy as an empirical discipline, like medicine.

* I'm aware that CBT has demonstrated results marginally superior to counseling, but is CBT really like psychotherapy?

4:57 PM, July 25, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...


Well, CBT is a type of psychotherapy and used by psychologists and others to change beliefs or behavior. It has been found beneficial in many cases such as treating depression, OCD, and anxiety disorders.

5:10 PM, July 25, 2007  
Blogger Cham said...

I'm no psychologist but I would fathom to say that REBT definitely has a place in psychotherapy but it should not replace making an effort to understand what triggers behaviors and their sources. There is a happy medium in there somewhere. I can see that there comes a point in time that ruminating about problems and issues will only get you so far and positive action must be the order of the day.

6:29 PM, July 25, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm guessing the notion of taking person responsibility for and control of one's life and feelings, and changing the things one doesn't like, is rather unpopular on the looney Left. Perpetually resentful "victims" would have to surrender the resentment and give up the shallow excuses, or admit they really don't want to be healthy and happy.

7:16 PM, July 25, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

CBT is not the only empirically-supported treatment. EMDR is relatively new but it is generally accepted as superior to other treatments for PTSD. The problem is that nobody is quite sure of the mechanism by which it works - is it simply exposure therapy? Or is there a neurological basis that has yet to be figured out? But the idea that all modalities are equal is an assertion without basis... For instance: would anybody seriously compare "re-birthing therapy" with CBT?

9:25 PM, July 25, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many of the techniques he pioneered are used daily in AA Beginning with the idea that there is no calamity in the world which can make you drink.

9:43 PM, July 25, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

EMDR is a hoax. There's no scientifically creditable data to suggest that it's anything but snake oil.

9:59 PM, July 25, 2007  
Blogger a psychiatrist who learned from veterans said...

Appreciate knowing more about his background. Certain things like the mechanisms of defense have grown out of psychoanalytic thinking and I think are generally accepted; the concept of the primary pleasure ego which is where when there is a conflict the blame is spit out as it were on the other one finds to be a characteristic in mania. It is one thing to be able possibly to define things and another to have an alliance and a route to take to change them. There is no doubt that Ellis or psychoanalysis have helped some people. Dr. Helen's modest claims are to be appreciated.

10:31 PM, July 25, 2007  
Blogger Shawn Levasseur said...

"Anonymous said...
Don't worry, be happy?"

Actually this sounds more like

"Get over it!"

11:29 PM, July 25, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Ms. Smith: I don't know anything about Ellis's politics. But I wish I could have asked him about Richard Nixon. It would be hard to argue Nixon as a successful exemplar of a good human being. Yet he lived his life by Ellis's principles, e.g. this note to himself in 1970:

"A man is not finished when he's defeated. He's finished when he quits."

Pure Nixon, and at least 190 proof Ellis. Nixon lived his life by this motto. Was he a success? I wish I could have asked Dr. Ellis.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

2:09 AM, July 26, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems like the same thing, without referencing Ellis:

Or did I not understand one of them?

3:08 AM, July 26, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now why did that link look okay in preview and fail in posting? Sigh.

(same "anonymous" as above)

3:09 AM, July 26, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

3:10 AM, July 26, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Psychology Today interview mentioned is available here. A much longer, earlier one (2001) is also available.

12:10 PM, July 26, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...

Anonymous 12:10:


1:47 PM, July 26, 2007  
Blogger Eric said...

To Nixon, I'd add Churchill:

"Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."

3:35 PM, July 26, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those inclined to be skeptical about the integrity of the psychological enterpri$e, I would recommend the book - HOUSE OF CARDS: PSYCHOLOGY & PSYCHOTHERAPY BUILT ON MYTH, by Robyn Dawes.

(Amazon's editorial review):

"Dawes (social and decision sciences, Carnegie Mellon Univ.) presents a strong argument, based on empirical research, that psychotherapy is largely a shill game. He argues that while studies have shown that empathetic therapy is often helpful to people in emotional distress, there is no evidence that licensed psychologists or psychiatrists are any better at performing therapy than minimally trained laypeople. Nor are psychologists or psychiatrists any better at predicting future behavior than the average person--a disturbing conclusion when one contemplates the influence such "experts" have on the U.S. judicial system. While other books have criticized the psychologizing of our society, none has been so sweeping or so convincingly argued."

7:23 PM, July 26, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just got back from the bookstore, where among other things I picked up a copy of How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable about Absolutely Anything (Yes, Anything!). I'll let you know whether I'm still miserable when I finish it.

I also browsed through his The Road To Tolerance: The Philosophy Of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. It goes into some detail about his personal background as well as his thoughts on the application of REBT ideas to politics, economics, religion, terrorism, and other current issues. He was an atheist, rational humanist, sexual liberationist, and pretty far to the left politically. Had some serious issues with Ayn Rand. His views on dealing with 9/11 contain a lot of "love begets love, hate begets hate" verbiage. It appears he believed that REBT principles could save mankind from self-destruction.

However, this book actually has a chapter in which he dissects his own beliefs in REBT terms - examining his own preconceptions and "shoulds." He had enough clarity to recognize that his beliefs were not all arrived at rationally. He notes the phenomenon in which ones beliefs seem so self-evident, so "right," that others holding contrary beliefs appear ridiculous or insane. (Sound familiar?) He makes a good-faith attempt to disentangle his REBT philosophy from the rest of his ideas. It's to his credit that he's open about himself and his background rather than posing as the completely impartial psychologist.

I think he had some good, practical advice on thinking clearly. You'll find similar ideas in Marcus Aurelius and the teachings of Buddha, but Ellis makes them accessible to ordinary Westerners - not just philosopher-kings and monks. Whether he could have saved the world - no idea.

8:01 PM, July 26, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...


Let me know what you think of the book. I think Ellis's work is good for some people who have problems with anxiety, social phobia, depression and unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. I like Ellis's focus on action as opposed to talking and ruminating.

However, I do not think he could "save the world." Human nature will always be what it is--there will always be people who want to do harm to others--that will not change and all the love in the world might make the situation worse. When you deal with people who are truly violent and/or psychopathic, you realize that there are some people who need supervision, not treatment. To think otherwise is to dismiss reality and is extremely egocentric. Often, violent people have a different way of thinking and there are some who I truly believe cannot be reached.

8:15 PM, July 26, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I need to read more about him and more of his work to understand his "save the world" side. His therapy is based on complete acceptance of things as they are - including the ugly stuff. On the other hand, there's a strong Utopian current in what little I've read so far.

I guess a psychologist's ultimate dream would be a whole world full of mentally healthy people. Maybe for a pioneering psychologist it's not just a dream - it's a goal. If it kept him going and he didn't commit genocide in pursuing it, more power to him.

If you read the Tolerance book, you might understand it better than I do. I'm starting with the "self help" titles...

10:22 PM, July 26, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anonymous said:

"EMDR is a hoax. There's no scientifically creditable data to suggest that it's anything but snake oil."

this is an ignorant comment. emdr is the most highly researched treatment for ptsd and has been accepted as a true "evidence-based treatment" by most in the field (at least those who are willing to review the literature before making ill-informed comments). it is true that the mechanisms by which it works are still not understood, but there is no doubt that it does work. for a review of the current literature, including numerous randomized, controlled studies, check here:

2:07 PM, July 27, 2007  
Blogger Jungle Jim said...

Al Ellis was a brilliant man. His ideas and writing halped millions. He will be sorely missed.

4:53 PM, July 27, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think I mentioned in a previous comment that one of my next-door neighbors was a therapist who didn't have dinner with Ellis...but DID have lunch with him. Jack is pretty computer literate & he's still only a long hike/short drive away.

He also has the gift of gab, as they say & if you'd like I could relay your link to him if you'd like to hear the story of their luncheon in his own words.


6:58 PM, July 27, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ellis' personality definitely comes out in his writing. Very enthusiastic, not dry at all. Halfway through How to Refuse..., I think some editing would have helped the book. Good info, interesting techniques, though.

3:15 PM, July 30, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed "A Guide To Rational Living." I wish I could have traveled to NYC to watch him on Friday nights.

1:10 AM, August 01, 2007  
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2:57 AM, June 08, 2009  

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