Updated on 11th January 2022
The limitations and erroneous conclusions of Albert Ellis’s system of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy
By Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling, 17th October 2021
Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) is a simplistic theory of human disturbance.
It is fundamentally based on the most extreme statement that was made by Epictetus, a first century CE philosopher, who was the son of a slave – born into slavery – and given his freedom for ‘services to philosophy’. Epictetus foolishly, and inaccurately, asserted that people are not upset by the things that happen to them; which lets every oppressor on the planet off the hook. “If you are upset, then you upset yourself by your interpretation of our wonderfully unequal and stressful capitalist system!” scoff the heartless neoliberals! (Thank you Albert Ellis and Epictetus, for nothing!)
According to Albert Ellis – a seriously, traumatically neglected child, who grew up to become one of America’s most notable Extreme Stoics – all human disturbance can be understood using his simplistic little ABC model:
A = Activating Event = Something happens which is picked up by your senses.
B = Belief system = You choose to believe something (rational or irrational) about the thing/event that you picked up by your senses.
C = Consequence = You have a Consequent feeling; which triggers a linked behaviour.
Ergo, all human disturbances can be solved by blaming the stupid (irrational) interpreter of events; and teaching them to stop upsetting themselves about external events.
(Historical note: When Albert Ellis was kicked out of his own institute, in 2004/5, he was not quite able to apply his little ABC model to the situation. He felt he had been treated unfairly (despite denying all previous interlocutors [in REBT therapy contexts] the right to raise “unfairness issues” with him); so he sued his persecutors; and he wanted their leader “dead, dead, dead”.)
I (Jim Byrne), with help and support from my wonderful wife, Renata Taylor-Byrne, have produced a major critique of REBT, showing many of the major flaws in the foundations of this philosophy of Extreme Stoicism; this simplistic Theory of human disturbance.
Here are the details:
A Major Critique of REBT:
Revealing the many errors in the foundations of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy
Nothing is left of the ABC(DE) model, as such. Of course, REBT was constructed from a number of strands of philosophy, plus some behaviour therapy, and cognitive psychology. So let me clarify my critique. The main elements which have been demolished by this book are:
The ABC(DE) model; and:
The extreme elements of Stoic philosophy.
Those elements of moderate Buddhism and moderate Stoicism, which were built into REBT theory have not been invalidated; and indeed they are seen as extremely valuable aspects of a philosophy of sanity in an insane world.
There was a need to clarify the bottom line of this critique of REBT, and that has been done in a 22 page Preface to this reissued, 2019 edition of our major critique.
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 with a baseball bat.
If you want to know the essence of our critique of REBT, but you don’t want to have to read 500+ pages, then this 150 page summary should appeal to you:
Discounting Our Bodies:
A brief, critical review of REBT’s flaws
This book is a brief, summary critique of the main errors contained in the foundations of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) theory. And especially the invalidity of the ABC model, which asserts that nothing other than beliefs intervenes between a negative experience and an emotional-behavioural reaction. (The body is ignored!) It is based on material from the major critique, above.
Paperback only (at the moment). Price £9.50 GBP
Apart from being a marked dogmatist, Albert Ellis was an moralist. He did not subscribe to any system of morality, and he taught his clients to accept themselves unconditionally, “even if you go out and kill a few people…”
The Amoralism of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT):
The mishandling of self-acceptance and unfairness issues by Albert Ellis
This book is an extensive, detailed critique of two of the central ideas of REBT:
(1) The concept of ‘unconditional self-acceptance’; and
(2) The idea of life as being fundamentally unfair, and that it should be accepted as such, and never complained about.
In the process we also deal with Albert Ellis’s idea that people should never be blamed for anything; that praise and blame are bad; that guilt and shame are to be eliminated, and never taken to be indicators that we’ve done something wrong. Along the way we have a debate with Dr Michael Edelstein about the role of fairness in couple relationships. (This material is also based on chapters from the major critique above).
Albert Ellis and the Unhappy Golfer:
A critique of the simplistic ABC model of REBT
By Dr Jim Byrne
The unhappy golfer is in Dr Albert Ellis’s office, in New York City, somewhere around the end of the 1950’s. He tells Dr Ellis that he feels terribly unhappy about being rejected by his golfing peers, and Dr Ellis tells him: This is something you are doing to yourself!
Ellis uses the unhappy golfer to introduce his readers to his simple ABC model of REBT, which claims that a person cannot be upset emotionally in any way other than by their own beliefs! That this poor man’s golfing peers would have have to assault him with a baseball bat in order to “make him feel” anything! (Sheer madness, given that physical pain and psychological pain are both processed through largely overlapping neuronal networks in the brain).
This book sets out to refute this simplistic idea.
The Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy model of human disturbance
Here are some of the key features of E-CENT. In recent years, I (Jim Byrne) set out to boil my learning down into a limited list of key principles. This is what I produced:
Firstly, I do not make the mistake of extrapolating from adult functioning in order to understand the psychology of human nature. Instead, I begin with the baby in the mother’s womb (where the mother may be more or less stressed, and more or less well nourished, depending upon the actual circumstances of her life). I then move on to the baby post-birth, which is colonized by a carer (normally mother) who may be more or less sensitive to the baby’s signals of comfort and discomfort; more or less responsive to the baby’s needs; and more or less caring. And I also take account of how stressed the mother was, by her life circumstances, even before the baby was conceived. These are the foundations of human psycho-logical functioning.
Secondly, I accept the Attachment theory proposition, that the baby is born with an innate attachment drive, which causes it (after some period of weeks of development) to seek to attach itself to a main carer. The attachment bond that is formed becomes either secure or insecure, depending upon whether the mother (or main carer) is “good enough” – meaning sensitive, responsive, and caring enough to soothe the affective (or feeling) states of the baby. Later, father and siblings become important attachment figures for the baby. And the baby forms a set of internal working models of relationship based upon those earliest relationships.
Third, the first five or six years of life are taken to be the prime determinants of what kind of life the individual will live. Very largely, the emotionally significant narratives, scripts and frames that the child learns and forms during this period – which manifests in the form of moods and emotional states, expectations, beliefs and habitual patterns of behaviour – will determine its trajectory through life, all other things being equal. There is, of course, some degree of malleability of the human mind, and so what was once shaped badly (by negative relationship experiences) can to some extent be reshaped into a better form by subsequent ‘curative experiences’, with a love partner, or with a counsellor or psychotherapist.
For more information about this book, please see Holistic Counselling in Practice.***
>>> Update >>>
Fourth: With regard to the narratives, stories, schemas, scripts and frames that the individual learns and/or creates: these are, as J.S. Bruner said, enactive (or experiences of doing); iconic (or experiences of seeing); and semantic (or language based abstractions and interpretations of events and objects).
In cognitive psychology, the development of the child and later adult is mapped through studies of attention, perception, memory, language and thinking; and emotion only gets a brief mention at the end of standard textbooks – as an afterthought. However, in E-CENT, I teach that a human being is essentially and unavoidably an emotional being. It is an emotional being that pays attention; it is an emotional being that perceives; it is an emotional being that forms memories; it is an emotional being which uses language; it is an emotional being that thinks. And even the most abstract of academic thinking cannot be totally separated from the (strong or weak) emotionality of the person engaging in it.
In other words, the human brain-mind is an emotional brain-mind. Human beings are emotional beings, at their very foundations, and they can also think (to some limited extent!) They are not ‘cognitive beings’, if by cognitive beings we mean ‘computer like’. Computers do not have emotions. And humans are not computers! (This is why I developed emotive-cognitive therapy, because cognition and emotion cannot ever be separated!) Indeed, we could say that human beings are not thinking beings at all. They are actually perfinking beings (Glasersfeld, 1989): or beings who perceive-feel-and-think all in one grasp of the mind. And the feeling component never sleeps! You cannot leave it at the door on your way into school or work.
Fifth: We accept that temperamental differences are detectable in new born babies; that an individual may be born with a tendency towards introversion or extraversion; and that the new born baby may also be more emotionally disturbable, or less emotionally disturbable. We accept that there are fundamental differences (emotionally and behaviourally) between boys and girls. (For example, the case of John Money and David Reimer). We accept that the innate nature of the baby will influence and impact the mother in how she relates to the baby; and the mother’s personality and character and temperament will also influence and impact the baby.
But in general the mother has much more influence than the baby. “Genetic determinism” has been replaced by “epigenetics”, which accepts that genes have to be “switched on” by an environment, and that the genes of identical twins can be changed – as often as not – by placing them in two different home environments. And even where identical twins are raised in the same home, they may well develop different personalities. (See the case of Ladan and Laleh, monozygotic (single egg) twin sisters, with significant personality differences: (Spector, 2013).
Returning to the dialectical (or interactional) cross-influence between mother and baby: this will eventually settle down into a stable pattern of relating, which will be experienced by the baby (and the mother) as more, or less, satisfactory.
Depending upon whether or not the mother can function as a ‘good enough’ mother (in terms of being sensitive, caring, responsive and in good communication with her baby), the child may develop either a secure or an insecure ‘attachment style’. And these attachment styles play out in all significant future relationships.
Sixth: E-CENT theory takes into account that we are bodies as well as minds, and so diet, exercise, sleep, relaxation/ stress, social connection and relatedness, meditation/ mind-fulness/ detachment, drugs and other physical inputs and stimuli, are seen as important factors in determining the emotional-thinking-perceiving state of the individual client. That is to say we are body-minds, and our body-mind has needs – both physical and emotional.
Seventh: We need to be loved, liked and accepted by some significant others, if we are to live fulfilling lives. (This need is very strong when we are babies, and it continues to be strong throughout our lives. However, it is not as strong as our need for oxygen or food. If we fail to get oxygen, we will die in seconds; if we fail to get food, we will die within days; and if we fail to give and get love, we will wither and die more quickly than those individuals who do learn how to give and get love. This fundamental reality was denied by Dr Albert Ellis, who had a very sever insecure attachment style, which caused him to deny his own need for love, and then to generalize that to all other adults! – Byrne, 2013)
Eighth: E-CENT starts from the assumption that we are primarily social animals, and not solitary individuals. We are social to our very roots, especially from the moment of birth, when we are handed into the arms of our mothers. Everything that happens from that point onwards – and also including the original birth trauma – is significant for the development of the so-called ‘individual’ (who is really a psychological amalgam of significant other ‘individuals’ with whom we are related from birth onwards, and who we ‘internalize’ as ‘models’). In particular, our mothers and fathers are electro-chemically braided into the very foundations of our personality and character (in networks of neurons): Byrne (2009b).
Ninth: From the Object Relations school, E-CENT takes the view that the first three phases of development of childhood can be disrupted, between birth and about the age of six years – or the first four sub-phases from birth to age three – resulting in specific forms of relationship dysfunction in later life. The solution to these problems tend to include a mixture of ‘being with’ the client in relationship; ‘holding’ the relationship in a suitable dialogue; helping the client to make conscious, and then to process, their un-experienced or resisted emotions; providing analysis and models as feeling-thinking ways forward; and providing a ‘secure base’ for the client, so they can learn how to have a secure relationship, perhaps for the first time.
Tenth: E-CENT theory represents the new born baby as containing two fundamental potentials: to develop pro-social and caring attitudes (or virtues); and to develop anti-social and destructive egotistical attitudes (or vices). One of the functions of the process of socialization is to ensure that the new person mainly develops their ‘good side’ (or what the Native American Cherokee people called the ‘good wolf’) through the moral teachings of their parents, teachers and others; and that their ‘bad wolf’ is constrained and contained. (It cannot ever be totally or permanently eliminated. We each contain the capacity for significant levels of evil [or immoral and criminal acts] to the ends of our days!) But the happy functioning of social animals depends upon the extent to which we develop our pro-social, moral virtues, and resist our anti-social, immoral or amoral vices. Some clients are clearly operating mainly from ‘good wolf’ and some are significantly operating from ‘bad wolf’. That latter client group needs coaching in moral philosophy; and encouragement to operate mainly from ‘good wolf’, for both the sake of their community and the sake of their own happiness. (See Appendix H, below).
Eleventh: E-CENT sees humans as primary non-conscious beings, who operate tacitly, automatically, from layers of cumulative, interpretative experience, stored in the form of schemas and stories, in long-term memory, and permanently beyond direct conscious inspection. At least 95% of all of our daily actions are executed non-consciously and automatically. So change is not easy; delusion is our normal state (i.e. our perceptions of ourselves, others and the world are false to facts); and we project our own ‘stories’ onto our environments, and judge them accordingly. To wake up to a more accurate understanding of life – with our adult-functioning in the driving seat – is not easy, but it is possible.
Figure 3.1: The PAC model of TA
Twelfth: We mainly operate from one of three so-called ‘ego states’, or ‘ways of being’ (as described in Transactional Analysis [TA]). These are:
(P) Parent ego state: When we are in this ego state, we think, feel and behave just like some parent figure from our past experience, we are said to be in Parent ego state;
(A) Adult ego state: Which is the logical, reasonably cool and rational (but still emotive/ feeling), or language-based part of the personality. And:
(C) Child ego state: Which is characterized by our thinking, feeling and behaving just like we once did as a young child.
Thirteenth: We seem to be emotional story tellers in a world of stories. Language is the sea in which we swim, unknowingly; as fish swim in water without ever ‘spotting’ the water. And so our neurotic reactions often tend to be outgrowths of old, illogical, unreasonable and unhelpful narratives and stories, scripts, schemas, beliefs and attitudes – all of which have feeling components. (The exceptions to ‘narrative disturbances’ tend to be when our neurotic feelings are a result of unprocessed experiences from the past; or when we are trying to control the uncontrollable; or we are rejecting the truth of our situation).
Fourteenth: One of the major sources of emotional disturbance among humans is unmanageable stress and strain. Throughout the whole of the life of the individual, the external environment will continue to exert an impact on the moods and emotions of the individual. Only the most highly trained and committed Stoic or Zen practitioner could ever come close to ignoring (or being largely unaffected by) their external environment! Indeed, only a rock, or lump of wood, or other inanimate object, ever achieves complete indifference to its environment.
Fifteenth: It may be that we each have a (socially induced) vulnerability towards angering, panicking or depressing ourselves when we are stressed by external events or objects; and E-CENT tries to help the client to work on curing those vulnerabilities, by (1) changing elements of their beliefs, attitudes, schemas and stories; or (2) by learning to reframe problematical activating stimuli; or (3) by integrating the feeling and thinking sides of the brain. Significant stories, which we explore, include: The story of origins, including birth and birth-family; The story of personal identity; The story of key relationships (mother/ father); Stories of transitions; The story of career/ wealth/ success/ poverty/ failure; The story of present problems; The connections between the story of origins, the story of relationships, and the story of present problems; and so on.
Sixteenth: Our clients may be distressed because of their illogical, unreasonable, unrealistic or insupportable beliefs and attitudes about themselves, other people and the world, and we try to get them to reframe those beliefs and attitudes, using the Six Windows model. (See Chapter 4). From the Buddha and (moderate) Stoicism we learned that people often disturb themselves by having unrealistic desires; goals that cannot be achieved; and those goals might be about self, other people, or the wider world. For examples: “I want to be more like this; I wish I could be less like that; and the world should be different from the way it is!” But we do not make the simplistic mistake of thinking that the problem here is the word “should”. The problem is desire or appetite, taken to unachievable levels. And we need the word ‘should’ to define our moral rules!
Seventeenth: Our clients may be distressed because they have failed to process some earlier emotional experience, which is now stuck in the basement of their mind, causing neurotic symptoms to emerge in the form of distorted thoughts, feelings, behaviours, relationship conflict, or physical symptoms. In this kind of situation, the E-CENT therapist’s role is to help the client to dig up that part of their past, to process the unprocessed experience, which we call ‘completing your experience’ of what happened, or what failed to happen. In order to do this successfully, we have found that they need to be able, simultaneously, or concurrently, to reframe those previously unprocessed experiences, so they do not merely re-stimulate the distressing feelings which caused those felt experiences to be denied, rejected and buried in the first instance, all those years ago.
Eighteenth: Our adult relationships (such as marriage and living together) are strongly coloured, shaped and driven by the original drama between our babyhood-self and our mother and father, and sometimes key siblings. We repeatedly re-enact our family drama, until we work on it and resolve it. We have to ‘complete’ our relationships with our parents (and sometimes key siblings) before we can grow up and move on. And completing those relationships means allowing them to be, exactly as they were – accepting them, feeling the related feelings, and getting over our judgemental attitudes about our parents, who were just ‘blokes and birds doing their (highly imperfect) jobs’. And our most oppressive siblings were little, ignorant kids! (But it can take a lot of processing time to get to the stage of forgiving them all).
Nineteenth: When the relationship between the client and his/her parents is too damaged, E-CENT offers the client the option to engage in a ‘puberty rite’, in which they ‘cut their ties’ to their parents – divorce them, as it were – and in this way clean up their psychological baggage about their parents. (This is a fourteen day process of visualization of cutting the ties with the parent(s) – one at a time – and allowing both the client and the parent(s) to be free to live their own lives). The client then feels much freer to run their own lives from their Adult ego state, based on present time realities, instead of constantly wrestling with emotional ties from the past. And the relationship with the parent from whom the client has cut the ties often becomes much better and more satisfactory in the present moment. (Even if the parent or parents are dead, it is still possible, and often necessary, to cut the ties in the case of relationship damage).
Twentieth: When the client is very distressed about their early childhood experiences, we deploy a process of ‘externalizing’ the inner child, so the client can nurture and heal their own childhood self in the present – in the form of a physical referent or symbolic self. This process gradually changes the perceptions-feelings-thoughts of the client, as the inner child gradually ‘grows up’ and becomes more content with its lot.
These twenty principles are the bare bones of E-CENT theory. We could probably identify a few sub-principles within each of those main principles. We could also identify some intermediate principles that reside between those core principles. And we will undoubtedly keep expanding this list as the theory unfolds.
These twenty principles are abstracted from our book, Holistic Counselling in Practice. Here are the basic details:
Holistic Counselling in Practice:
An introduction to the theory and practice of Emotive-Cognitive Embodied-Narrative Therapy
With Renata Taylor-Byrne BSc (Hons) Psychol
This book was the original introduction to Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy (E-CENT), which was created by Dr Jim Byrne in the period 2009-2014, building upon earlier work from 2003. It is of historic importance, and still a good introduction to our theory of whole body-brain-mind-environment counselling. It has been somewhat superseded by and updated version, with the title, Lifestyle Counselling and Coaching for the Whole Person, (which is described next).
But you can still buy Holistic Counselling in Practice, to understand our basic system of holistic counselling.
Prices from: £5.83 GBP (Kindle) and £15.18 (Paperback)
Or you can get the updated book, which follows:
Lifestyle Counselling and Coaching for the Whole Person:
Or how to integrate nutritional insights, exercise and sleep coaching into talk therapy.
By Dr Jim Byrne, with Renata Taylor-Byrne
Because diet, exercise and sleep are increasingly seen to be important determinants of mental health and emotional well-being, it is now necessary to rethink our models of counselling and therapy. This book will show counsellors how to incorporate lifestyle coaching and counselling into their system of talk therapy. It will also help self-help enthusiasts to take better care of their own mental and physical health, and emotional well-being.
Prices: from £4.26 GBP (Kindle) to £12.64 (paperback)
 Bruner, J. (1986) Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
 (For example: John Money’s failure to ‘reassign’ the sexual identity of David Reimer. Source: https://samanthakatepsychology.wordpress.com/ 2012/ 04/ 28/david-reimer-possibly-the-most-unethical-study-in-psychological-history/. Accessed: 30th December 2015.)
 Spector, T. (2013) Identically Different: Why you can change your genes. London: Phoenix.
 Bargh, J.A. and Chartrand, T.L. (1999). ‘The unbearable automaticity of being’. American Psychologist, 54(7): 462-479.
 Gray, J. (2003) Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals. London: Granta Books.
 Gladwell, M. (2006) BLINK: The power of thinking without thinking. London: Penguin Books.
 Stewart, I. and Joines, V. (1987) TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis. Nottingham: Lifespace Publishing.