Albert Ellis and REBT ten years later

Blog Post No. 156

21st July 2017 (Updated on 22nd April 2020)

Copyright (c) Dr Jim Byrne, 2017

Dr Jim’s Counselling Blog: The tenth anniversary of the death of Albert Ellis…

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Introduction

Ellis-video-imageAlbert Ellis, the creator of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), which is sometimes called Rational Emotive and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (RE&CBT), died on 24th July 2007.  So we are very close to the tenth anniversary.

Since that event, Renata and I have posted something on each anniversary about Albert Ellis and REBT.  Initially, those posts were very positive about the man and his theory of therapy.  But as time passed, and we found more and more problems with the man (from his autobiography, All Out!) and from our reflective analyses of his theoretical propositions, our posts became more and more distant, and more and more critical.

Books about Ellis and REBT

Wounded psychotherapistIn 2013, I published a book on the childhood of Albert Ellis, which was an analysis of the ways in which he was mistreated and virtually abandoned at times by his parents, and the effect of these early negative experiences on his psychological development.  Here are the basic details:

A Wounded Psychotherapist: Albert Ellis’s childhood and the strengths and limitations of REBT, by Dr Jim Byrne

A critical review of the childhood of Albert Ellis and the impact of his suffering on the shape of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT)

‘A Wounded psychotherapist’ is a critical enquiry by Dr Jim Byrne.  It is an analysis of both the childhood of Dr Albert Ellis (the creator of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy [REBT]), and how some of those childhood experiences most likely gave rise to certain features of his later philosophy of psychotherapy.  If you have ever wondered what the roots of REBT might have been, then this is the book for you.  it explores the childhood difficulties of Albert Ellis, and links those difficulties forward to the ways in which REBT was eventually shaped.  It also identified the strengths and weaknesses of REBT, and proposes an agenda for reform of this radical system of psychotherapy. Available now from Amazon, in two formats:

***This book is currently out of print.  I do intend to rewrite it, when I get the time, and to re-issue it.  In the meantime, here is a relevant extract, for your information:

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The aim of this book

“I’ve become a sort of accidental advocate for attachment parenting, which is a style of parenting that basically is the way mammals parent and the way people have parented for pretty much all of human history, except perhaps the last 200 years or so”.  Mayim Bialik

Jim and the Buddha, 2In this book I want to pursue a thesis of my own: That Dr Albert Ellis was a ‘wounded soldier’ – or psychologically injured person – from a very young age; and that he brought some of his psycho-logical wounds into the process of developing his system of therapy.  I want to explore his childhood for the roots of those wounds, and to show how they then track through to the development of his mature philosophy some years later.  In the process, I hope to rescue what is good about his philosophy from what is clearly untenable in a moral world – or in a society which necessarily must strive to maintain some kind of legal and moral system of rules of social behaviour, if it is to survive.

The main resource that I will use to produce this book is Albert Ellis’s autobiography – All Out! An autobiography, by Albert Ellis with Debbie Joffe-Ellis. New York: Prometheus Books – which was published in 2010.  In addition, I will use the Sage Publications’ biography of Albert Ellis, by Yankura and Dryden (1994)[i].  Plus two or three online sources of information about Albert Ellis’s childhood; and any other sources of general psychological or philosophical thinking – such as attachment theory, or health studies – which throws any light on the subject under review; which is: the impact of childhood neglect on Albert Ellis’s later theories of human behaviour and his principles of emotional self-management.

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The problem of the status of autobiographical narratives

Of course, an autobiography is just that: a story by the author about the author.  In Cognitive Emotive Narrative Therapy (CENT)[ii], because we explicitly deal with our clients’ narratives and stories, we have to have an understanding of the ‘status’ of autobiographical narratives – meaning ‘the truth’ (or ‘ontological status’), or veracity or accuracy of self-narratives.  This is explored in CENT Paper No.5[iii]: and a six page extract from that paper is attached as Appendix B, below.  It turns out that human memory (or rather, recall) is much more fragile and imperfect than most people imagine.  It also involves reconstructing memories, rather than playing them back like videos or audio recordings.  Human memory is also not like a photograph album.  Here is a metaphor which is closer to the truth:

“If any metaphor is going to capture memory, then it is more like a compost heap in a constant state of re-organization”.  (Hood, 2011, page 59).

I will now present a couple of indicative extracts from Appendix B.  They are meant to help the reader to make a personal judge-ment about the reliability of Albert Ellis’s memories of his own childhood.

The first one is based upon a description, (from Eysenck and Keane, 2000)[iv], of audio recorded conversations between President Richard Nixon and John Dean, which are contrasted with Dean’s recollection (before he was confronted with the taped evidence!)

“Our autobiographical memories are sometimes less truthful than has been suggested so far.  Dean’s memory for the conversations with the President gave Dean too active and significant a role.  It is as if Dean remembered the conversations as he wished them to have been.” (Cf: Chancellor, 2007[v]). “Perhaps people have a self-schema (or organized body of knowledge about themselves) that influences how they perceive and remember personal information.  Someone as ambitious and egotistical as Dean might have focussed mainly on those aspects of conversations in which he played a dominant role, and this selective attention may then have affected his later recall. As Haberlandt (1999, p.226)[vi] argued, ‘The auto-biographical narrative…does preserve essential events as they were experienced, but it is not a factual report; rather, the account seems to make a certain point, to unify events, or to justify them’.”

This shows clearly that autobiographical memory is unreliable.  (Because it is unreliable, we, in CENT, have developed a multi-stranded process for conducting an analysis of autobiographical narratives).[vii]

I discovered this problem of the unreliability of autobiographical memory when I was conducting my own doctoral research, back in 2004 or 2005; when I was proposing to interview doctoral students about their own memories of learning the subject of ‘research ethics’. The problem here was this: if human memory is as fragile as suggested above, then how can I trust the word of anybody, including research participants?  What follows is an expression of my attempt to move forward:

“…the premise upon which I have returned to ask questions of some postgraduate students and one tutor (is this): that their accounts will preserve some essential events as they were experienced by them, but they will not be giving me a factual report, in the sense in which ‘factual’ is used in the natural sciences.  However, even in the natural sciences, facts are records of events which are no better and no worse than the person or device registering the event. (Source: Novak and Gowin, 1984[viii]).  And inevitably, scientific facts are ‘transformed’ by a process of imperfect human interpretation.”

In CENT Paper No.5 (Byrne, 2009e), I then go on to talk about the autobiographical stories and narratives of my counselling clients:

“And this is also how I will understand my own narrative in CENT Paper No.4; and the stories that my CENT clients present to me.  They are stories that conform to the felt recollections and meaning-making activities of individuals who, as humans, have imperfect, mood dependent, recon-stitutive memory systems (Bartlett, 1932[ix]).”

And all of the above applies to the mood-dependent, recons-titutive reconstructions of Dr Albert Ellis’s story of his own life.  (See further detail in Appendix B).

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Did young Albert develop an insecure attachment to his parents?

“Albert Ellis … had a very distant emotional relationship with his parents, and described his mother as a self-centred woman who struggled with bipolar disorder. After (his) raising his younger brother and sister and dealing with many personal health issues, Ellis left his family to study at the City University of New York”.  Good Therapy website[x]

Long before his autobiography appeared, in 2010, Dr Ellis had revealed certain facts (or claims) about his childhood – certainly as early as 1991[xi].  From memory they included the following points: That he had been a sickly boy, frequently hospitalized with nephritis, sometimes for months at a time[xii]; That he had grappled with serious problems of shyness and social anxiety; That his mother and father neglected him – rarely visiting him during his hospital stays; That his mother (who was an egotistical, manic-depressive and severe woman of German Jewish origin) would often be away playing cards with her friends, or visiting her temple, when he got home from school with his two younger siblings; That she was so neglectful that he had to acquire an alarm clock himself, when he was about eight years old, which he used to get himself and his siblings up in the morning (while she lay in bed); That he fed them and got them ready, and took them to school; That his father worked away from home most of each week, seeing his children only at the weekends (and then only briefly!) – and divorced Ellis’s mother when young Albert was just twelve years of age (and entering puberty!); That young Albert enjoyed school so much more than home life that he wished school would open at the weekends; And so on.

(Please note the lack of mother-bashing in the list of problems above.  I am saying that Albert Ellis was neglected by his parents – his mother and his father, in roughly equal proportions.  I do not go along with any residual tendency of attachment theorists to over-emphasize the role of the mother.  The father is equally important to the emotional development of the children. [See Macrae, 2013, in the Reference list near the end of this book])[xiii].

How severe was the degree of childhood neglect that Little Albert Ellis experienced?  According to Yankura and Dryden (1994):

“…Albert and siblings were exposed to a degree of parental neglect that, in this day and age, might have prompted a phone call to Child Protective Services by some concerned school teacher or neighbour…” (Page 3)[xiv].

What I intend to do in this book is to review the first 162 pages of Dr Ellis’s autobiography, to try to put some flesh on these bare bones of his childhood. Part of my argument will be that Little Albert was so neglected by his parents that he developed avoidant attachments to them, and that this predisposed him to a lifetime of insecure, unsatisfactory relationships with significant others.  Because this is central to my argument, I must now present some contextual material on the subject of attachment theory.

[i] Yankura, J. and Dryden, W. (1994) Albert Ellis.  London: Sage Publications.

[ii] See my CENT Paper No.2(a), which describes the theory of CENT, in Byrne (2009/2013), in the Reference list, above.

[iii] Byrne, J. (2009e) The status of autobiographical narratives and stories.  CENT Paper No.5.  Hebden Bridge: The Institute for Cognitive Emotive Narrative Therapy (I-CENT).  Available online: http://www.abc-counselling.com/id167.html

[iv] Eysenck, M.W. and Keane, M.T. (2000) Cognitive Psychology: A student’s Handbook. Fourth edition.  East Sussex: Psychology Press.

[v] Chancellor, A. (2007) It’s a strangely human foible – we all rewrite history to make our roles in it more interesting.  The Guardian, Friday April 6th 2007.  Available online:       http://www.guardian.co.uk/print/0,,329770492-103390,00.html

[vi] Haberlandt, K. (1999) Human Memory: Exploration and application.  Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

[vii] Byrne, J. (2009f) How to analyze autobiographical narratives in Cognitive Emotive Narrative Therapy.  CENT Paper No.6.  Hebden Bridge: The Institute for CENT. Available online: http://www.abc-counselling.com/id173.html

[viii] Novak, J.D. and Gowin, B. (1984) Learning How to Learn.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[ix] Bartlett, F.C. (1932) Remembering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[x] From: Good Therapy Org: Available online at: http://www.goodtherapy.org/famous-psychologists/albert-ellis.html

[xi] Ellis, A. (1991) My life in clinical psychology.  In C.E. Walker (ed): The History of Clinical Psychology in Autobiography, Vol.1.  Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

[xii] Ellis was hospitalized about eight times between the ages of five and seven years of age, once for about ten months!

[xiii] It seems to me that the reason early attachment theorists emphasized the role of the mother in establishing a secure base for the child was this: Capitalism promotes a ‘division of labour’ between men and women, making women responsible for reproduction and home life, and men for industrial and commercial work, business activities, etc.  But nature was not consulted about this deal; and children continue to need the loving attention of both of their parents, and are disadvantaged if they do not get it. (See Macrae, 2013, in the Reference list).

[xiv] Yankura, J. and Dryden, W. (1994) Albert Ellis.  London: Sage Publications.

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honetpieHowever, in that book, I was still very soft on some of Ellis’s major errors, such as his false definition of ‘awfulizing’, and his mistaken assumption that, just because ‘demandingness’ is often a ‘sufficient condition’ for human disturbance, therefore it is also a ‘necessary condition’, which, the Buddha’s followers would argue, it is not.  Any significant degree of desiring that the present be different from how it is, could, in theory, cause significant levels of negative affect.

Also, when I wrote about the childhood of Ellis, I had not yet developed my understanding of him as an Extreme Stoic – that is to say, somebody who exaggerates the degree to which a human being can live their life as if they were a lump of wood!

This was corrected in my current critique of REBT, which is described below.

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Tenth Anniversary of the Death of Albert Ellis:

On this anniversary, I have today posted some feedback from Dr Meredith Nisbet of my book on the childhood of Albert Ellis.  This is what she wrote:

Book Review – by Dr Meredith Nisbet:

“I learned so much about human nature reading your book (Jim) about (Albert) Ellis. I also learned from your book about Jim Byrne. The similarities are obvious. The differences are where most of the learning comes. You overcame your childhood experiences; he lived with his experiences, but the differences were that he needed help to conquer his experiences, but he never was able to “normalize” as you did. I’d like to hear your comments on what made the difference for you  – something within you or the people who helped you? Was his problem something he missed or didn’t think he needed? I think it was more the latter. What do you think?”

To see my response to her questions, please go here: https://abc-counselling.org/albert-ellis-a-wounded-psychotherapist/

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Since 2013, my thinking about Albert Ellis and REBT has moved on again, into a more detailed critique of the foundational ideas underpinning his basic conclusions about human disturbance.  This work of mine is described in my latest boon on Ellis and REBT:

A Major Critique of REBT:

Revealing the many errors in the foundations of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy

Front cover3 of reissued REBT book

Also, we have added a reference to the research which shows that emotional pain and physical pain are both mediated and processed through significantly overlapping neural networks, which contradicts Dr Ellis’s claim that nobody could hurt you, except by hitting you with a baseball bat or a brick.

This is a comprehensive, scientific and philosophical  critique of the foundations of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, as developed by Dr Albert Ellis; including the dismantling of the philosophical foundations of the ABC model; and a decimating critique of the concept of unconditional self-acceptance. Almost nothing is left of REBT when the dust settles, apart from the system called Rational Emotive Imagery, which Dr Ellis borrowed from Maxi Maultsby.

Available in paperback and eBook formats.

Learn more.***

Price: £23.58 GBP (Paperback) and £6.99 GBP (Kindle eBook).

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Front cover3 of reissued REBT book

Albert Ellis was a man of his time, which was a long time ago.  He modelled his philosophy of psychotherapy[y on the idealistic notions of a Roman slave, instead of on modern theories of social psychology, developmental psychology, neuroscience, and so on. He grossly oversimplified the nature of human disturbance; blamed the client for ‘choosing’ to upset themselves; and denied the value of moral language.

We no longer need to reflect upon the contribution of Dr Ellis.  It was very small.

His contribution is evaluated in the book above: A Major Critique of REBT.

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That’s all for now.

Best wishes,

Jim

Dr Jim Byrne

Doctor of Counselling

ABC Coaching and Counselling Services

Telephone: 01422 843 629

Email: drjwbyrne@gmail.com

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