The Enlightenment premise that the average person can deal rationally with life’s demands invites a question: what might a psychotherapy that foregrounds critical thinking habits look like?
Enter Albert Ellis (1913-2007) and his Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Ellis, an atheist and humanist, believed that rational life habits could be taught, and he did just that. He was a popular cognitive behavioral therapist in New York City for more than half a century, and for 46 years, at his Institute for Rational Living (later named the Albert Ellis Institute), he led Friday night workshops teaching reason-based cognitive behavioral therapy and self-help.
In April 2009, American Psychologist ran an obituary to Ellis, and I think that this paragraph in the obituary, written by Frank Farley of Temple University, explains Ellis’s cognitive behavioral therapy with superb concision and clarity:
A central conception in REBT is the ABC model. In summary, this refers to A, an activating event that one does not like; B, one’s belief about A; and C, the consequence, in which one might experience healthy emotions and behavior or unhealthy emotions and self-defeating behavior, depending on whether one’s beliefs (B) are rational or irrational. People often blame A as the cause of C, but B is to blame. Their belief (B), which is their interpretation of A, is the culprit. At B one chooses how one feels about A, that choice leading to C. If one is unable to change A, rationally accepting that fact can produce appropriate emotions one can deal with. However, if one demands irrationally that A must be changed when it cannot be, unhealthy emotions are created. Disputing (D) the irrational beliefs, which will lead to effective (E) new beliefs, emotions, and behavior, is what is required in therapy and self-help. Thus, points B and D become essential foci for progress. Related to the foregoing, Ellis fought the influence of the ‘musts’ and the ‘shoulds’ and emphasized unconditional self-acceptance, unconditional other-acceptance, and unconditional life-acceptance.
Ellis’s ABC model, of course, is a contemporary gloss on Hellenistic philosophy. Both Seneca and Epicurus would have recognized Ellis as a fellow traveller—as one of them. As Martha Nussbaum writes of Roman philosophy (in The Therapy of Desire, p. 15):
[T]here is in this [Hellenistic] period broad and deep agreement that the central motivation for philosophizing is the urgency of human suffering, and that the goal of philosophy is human flourishing, or eudaimonia. . . . All three schools [Epicurean, Skeptic, Stoic] . . . could accept the Epicurean definition of philosophy: ‘Philosophy is an activity that secures the flourishing [eudaimon ] life by arguments and reasonings.’
In other words, Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics all believed that rational arguments delivered to the mind could counter its suffering. But Nussbaum quotes Cicero as being dubious of this solution to what ails us (p. 15-16):
Their narrow little syllogistic arguments prick their hearers like pins. Even if they assent intellectually, they are in no way changed in their hearts, but they go away in the same condition in which they came. The subject matter is perhaps true and certainly important; but the arguments treat it in too petty a manner, and not as it deserves.
Presumably Cicero, were he alive today, would express a similar skepticism of Albert Ellis’s REBT. And in an age of biochemistry, wherever people are ill at ease, perhaps they would be wise to join Cicero in his skepticism, looking more to Prozac than to talk.
Still, Albert Ellis is a compelling figure in psychology, and here he is outlining some of his key ideas to an interviewer:
And this chart from Wikipedia presenting Ellis’s three musterbations (the “musts” by which we disturb ataraxia—peace of mind) is interesting. The categatories under which the “musts” fall are the following: (1) “I must”; (2) “people must”‘; and (3) “the world must”:
|“I absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, perform well (or outstandingly well) and win the approval (or complete love) of significant others. If I fail in these important—and sacred—respects, that is awful and I am a bad, incompetent, unworthy person, who will probably always fail and deserves to suffer.”||“Other people with whom I relate or associate, absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, treat me nicely, considerately and fairly. Otherwise, it is terrible and they are rotten, bad, unworthy people who will always treat me badly and do not deserve a good life and should be severely punished for acting so abominably to me.”||“The conditions under which I live absolutely MUST, at practically all times, be favorable, safe, hassle-free, and quickly and easily enjoyable, and if they are not that way it’s awful and horrible and I can’t bear it. I can’t ever enjoy myself at all. My life is impossible and hardly worth living.”|
|Holding this belief when faced with adversity tends to contribute to feelings of anxiety, panic, depression, despair, and worthlessness.||Holding this belief when faced with adversity tends to contribute to feelings of anger, rage, fury, and vindictiveness.||Holding this belief when faced with adversity tends to contribute to frustration and discomfort, intolerance, self-pity, anger, depression, and to behaviors such as procrastination, avoidance, and inaction.|