“There is virtually nothing in which I delight more,” says Albert Ellis, “than throwing myself into a good and difficult problem.” Rational emotive behavior therapy is a direct and efficient problem-solving method, well suited to Ellis’ personality. His self-assurance — some would even say arrogance — enables him to confront his clients about their beliefs and tell them what is rational and what isn’t. The success of his clinical practice, his training institute, and his books testify that his methods work for many and that he is one of America’s most influential therapists.
Ellis was born in Pittsburgh in 1913 and raised in New York City. He made the best of a difficult childhood by using his head and becoming, in his words, “a stubborn and pronounced problem-solver.” A serious kidney disorder turned his attention from sports to books, and the strife in his family (his parents were divorced when he was 12) led him to work at understanding others.
In junior high school Ellis set his sights on becoming the Great American Novelist. He planned to study accounting in high school and college, make enough money to retire at 30, and write without the pressure of financial need. The Great Depression put an end to his vision, but he made it through college in 1934 with a degree in business administration from the City University of New York. His first venture in the business world was a pants-matching business he started with his brother. They scoured the New York garment auctions for pants to match their customer’s still-usable coats. In 1938, he became the personnel manager for a gift and novelty firm.
Ellis devoted most of his spare time to writing short stories, plays, novels, comic poetry, essays and nonfiction books. By the time he was 28, he had finished almost two dozen full-length manuscripts, but had not been able to get them published. He realized his future did not lie in writing fiction, and turned exclusively to nonfiction, to promoting what he called the “sex-family revolution.”
As he collected more and more materials for a treatise called “The Case for Sexual Liberty,” many of his friends began regarding him as something of an expert on the subject. They often asked for advice, and Ellis discovered that he liked counseling as well as writing. In 1942 he returned to school, entering the clinical-psychology program at Columbia. He started a part-time private practice in family and sex counseling soon after he received his master’s degree in 1943.
At the time Columbia awarded him a doctorate in 1947 Ellis had come to believe that psychoanalysis was the deepest and most effective form of therapy. He decided to undertake a training analysis, and “become an outstanding psychoanalyst the next few years.” The psychoanalytic institutes refused to take trainees without M.D.s, but he found an analyst with the Karen Horney group who agreed to work with him. Ellis completed a full analysis and began to practice classical psychoanalysis under his teacher’s direction.
In the late 1940s he taught at Rutgers and New York University, and was the senior clinical psychologist at the Northern New Jersey Mental Hygiene Clinic. He also became the chief psychologist at the New Jersey Diagnostic Center and then at the New Jersey Department of Institutions and Agencies.
But Ellis’ faith in psychoanalysis was rapidly crumbling. He discovered that when he saw clients only once a week or even every other week, they progressed as well as when he saw them daily. He took a more active role, interjecting advice and direct interpretations as he did when he was counseling people with family or sex problems. His clients seemed to improve more quickly than when he used passive psychoanalytic procedures. And remembering that before he underwent analysis, he had worked through many of his own problems by reading and practicing the philosophies or Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Spinoza and Bertrand Russell, he began to teach his clients the principles that had worked for him.
By 1955 Ellis had given up psychoanalysis entirely, and instead was concentrating on changing people’s behavior by confronting them with their irrational beliefs and persuading them to adopt rational ones. This role was more to Ellis’ taste, for he could be more honestly himself. “When I became rational-emotive,” he said, “my own personality processes really began to vibrate.”
He published his first book on REBT, How to Live with a Neurotic, in 1957. Two years later he organized the Institute for Rational Living, where he held workshops to teach his principles to other therapists. The Art and Science of Love, his first really successful book, appeared in 1960, and he has now published 54 books and over 600 articles on REBT, sex and marriage. Until his death on July 24, 2007, Dr. Ellis served as President Emeritus of the Albert Ellis Institute in New York, which provides professional training programs and psychotherapy to individuals, families and groups.
REBT is a therapy growing in popularity (thousands now practice it), but also a very old one. It owes at least as much to the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, as to Sigmund Freud. Yet REBT’s origin is not to be found simply in the logical temperament Ellis shares with a long line of rational philosophers. “The irrationalities — even in regard to REBT — which I have beautifully tolerated for many years of my life would tend to belie this hypothesis,” he says. But he loathes inefficiency and will not tolerate passivity, and these traits were important forces in REBT’s evolution. “I love my work and work at my loving,” Ellis says. “That is the secret of my present unusually happy state.”