REBT Unfit for Therapeutic Purposes

Albert Ellis did not understand the nature of human emotions…

Cover444In this book, I have presented a range of critiques of Albert Ellis’ system of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT).  For those who think that this is ‘impossible’ (because Albert Ellis can do no wrong!) , or self-delusional (because I must be mistaken to think that REBT is actually unfit to be a mainstream system of psychotherapy), let me present in full, below, one of my key critiques.  This is a brief extract from Chapter 2 of my book, Unfit for Therapeutic Purposes: The case against RE&CBT – Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, 2017:


A case illustration from Ellis’s work

Let us now present an example of how Ellis applies his ABC model in a therapy encounter.  (I have numbered each statement to make it easier for me to refer back to them in my subsequent analysis, and I have substituted the word ‘client’ for the word ‘patient’; and I have substituted the word ‘Ellis’ for the word ‘Therapist’.) This is how Albert Ellis introduces the topic on page 126 of Ellis (1962):

“An illustration of the use of this theory is shown in the following dialogue that I had with a (client) who said that he was terribly unhappy because, the day before our session, he had played golf with a group of men and they obviously hadn’t liked him.

  1. Therapist (Ellis): You think you were unhappy because these men did not like you?
  2. (Client): I certainly was!
  3. (Ellis): But you weren’t unhappy for the reason you think you were.
  4. (Client): I wasn’t? But I was!
  5. (Ellis): No, I insist: you only think you were unhappy for that reason.
  6. (Client): Well, why was I unhappy then?
  7. (Ellis): It’s very simple – as simple as A, B, C, I might say. A, in this case, is the fact that these men didn’t like you. Let’s assume that you observed their attitude correctly and were not merely imagining they didn’t like you.
  8. (Client): I assure you that they didn’t. I could see that very clearly.
  9. (Ellis): Very well, let’s assume they didn’t like you and call that A. Now, C is your unhappiness – which we’ll definitely have to assume is a fact, since you felt it.
  10. (Client): Damn right I did!
  11. (Ellis): All right, then: A is the fact that the men didn’t like you, C is your unhappiness. You see A and C and assume that the A, their not liking you, caused your unhappiness, C. But it didn’t.
  12. (Client): It didn’t? What did then?
  13. (Ellis): B did.
  14. (Client): What’s B?
  15. (Ellis): B is what you said to yourself while you were playing golf with those men.
  16. (Client): What I said to myself? But I didn’t say anything.
  17. (Ellis): You did. You couldn’t possibly be unhappy if you didn’t. The only thing that could possibly make you unhappy that occurs from without is a brick falling on your head, or some such equivalent. But no brick fell.  Obviously, therefore, you must have told yourself something to make you unhappy.
  18. (Client): But I tell you… Honestly, I didn’t say anything.
  19. (Ellis): You did. You must have. Now think back to your being with these men; think what you said to yourself; and tell me what it was.
  20. (Client): Well… I…
  21. (Ellis): Yes?
  22. (Client): Well I guess I did say something.
  23. (Ellis): I’m sure you did. Now what did you tell yourself when you were with those men?
  24. (Client): I … Well, I told myself that it was awful that they didn’t like me, and why didn’t they like me, and how could they not like me, and … you know, things like that.
  25. (Ellis): Exactly! And that, what you told yourself, was B. And it’s always B that makes you unhappy in situations like this. Except as I said before, when A is a brick falling on your head. That, or any physical object, might cause you real pain.  But any mental or emotional onslaught against you, any word, gesture, attitude or feeling directed against you – can hurt you only if you let it. And your letting such a word, gesture, attitude, or feeling hurt you, your telling yourself that it’s awful, horrible, terrible – that’s B.  And that’s what you do to you.
  26. (Client): What shall I do then?

26b. (Ellis): I’ll tell you exactly what to do.  I want you to play golf, if you can, with those same men again.  But this time, instead of trying to get them to love you or think you’re a grand guy or anything like that, I want you to do one simple thing.

26c. (Client): What is that?

  1. (Ellis): I want you merely to observe, when you’re with them and they don’t love you, to observe what they say to you. That’s all: merely watch your own silent sentences. Do you think you can do that?
  2. (Client): I don’t see why not. Just watch my own sentences, what I say to me?
  3. (Ellis): Yes, just that.

The client went away, and returned a week later (I [JB] infer): Then, Ellis continues:

“When (this client) came in for his next session, I asked him if he had done his homework and he said that he had”.

  1. (Ellis): And what did you find?
  2. (Client): It was utterly appalling, utterly appalling. All I heard myself tell myself was self-pity; nothing but self-pity.
  3. (Ellis): Exactly. … That’s what you keep telling yourself – nothing but self-pity. No wonder you’re unhappy!”

…End of extract.  (Ellis, 1962: pages 126-128).


Some reflective thoughts

So, while the dialogue is fresh in our memories, allow me to go back and analyze some of the key lines in this dialogue, by referring to the line numbers, and my comments upon those lines:

Lines 1-5 illustrate Albert Ellis’s conviction that the client:

(a) Does not know why he’s upset;

(b) That Ellis does know why this client is upset, even without asking for much detail of the incident that preceded the upset!

(c) And that the client is definitely not upset because of what happened to him!

This suggests a kind of ‘mind reading’ ability on Ellis’s part.  But that’s not the proper explanation.  The proper explanation is that he believes that all six billion humans (the world population at that time) are wired up identically.  That every one of us is born with an innate set of irrational beliefs; and that it is always and only those specific irrational beliefs that upset us!  Edward Erwin (1997)[i] – among others – rejects this idea.  Erwin writes: “Without having certain beliefs and desires, people would not get upset when they lose their jobs, or get sick, or lose a loved one, but it is extremely misleading to say that it is not the life events that made them unhappy, that rather they upset themselves”. (Page 109).

Ellis’s approach is hugely unempathic, because it not only refuses to recognize that the client is in pain, and deserves our sympathy, but also it involves blaming the client for their own distress.  (If they have really ‘upset themselves’ in any sense, then it is via their non-conscious life-programming; their habitual ways of being; which come from their cultural conditioning and family shaping.  They are not aware of how they are wired up, and as such they are not culpable: not actually ‘doing it to themselves’! It is ‘happening’ inside of them, automatically and spontaneously).

Line 6 shows the client adopting a passive role in the encounter, suggesting Ellis has won the first round.

Lines 7-11 introduce Ellis’s ABC model, which says: People are not upset by what happens to them, but rather by the belief (or ‘attitude’, properly speaking) that they adopt towards the thing that has happened to them. This (claim by Ellis) is itself a Belief!  A belief that Ellis adapted, or borrowed, from Epictetus (See Epictetus, 1991).

(I will show later that Ellis adapted this extreme Stoical belief from Epictetus because he, Ellis, was a very damaged child [because of extreme parental neglect – including ten months on his own in hospital, at the age of six years, with hardly any family visits! {See Byrne, 2013}]. And that damage stayed with him for the whole of his life, making him avoidant of intimacy in his very limited social relationships; cool and Aspergerish in his work relationships; and substituting workaholism for a balanced life).

Line 12 shows the client compliantly going along with Ellis.

Lines 13-15 introduce the B – or the client’s Belief about A. (Clearly, some kind of emotive-cognitive processing went on inside of the client to cause him to be upset about not being liked by his golfing peers, but the fact that they did not like him was the initiator of that processing. And that processing is mostly non-conscious, mainly electro-chemical signalling; and habit-based; derived from past socialized-experiences: Byrne [2016a]: but affected by the present state of the body in terms of diet, exercise, etc.]. This kind of emotive-cognitive processing cannot realistically be called ‘a belief’).

Line 14 implicitly shows that the client was completely unaware of having any kind of Belief about what had happened to him at the golf game.

In Line 15, Ellis defines the B as “What you said to yourself”.  He does not include the idea of ‘signalling yourself’ (nonverbally), but insists the client ‘talks to himself’ about what happens to him.

Line 16 shows that the client has no sense of any such ‘inner dialogue’ or ‘self-talk’.

Line 17 is Ellis’s most outrageous statement:

(a) He insists that he knows better than the client what happened on the golf course.

(b) He insists that the client could not be unhappy unless he actually spoke to himself (using internalized sentences).

(c) And he claims that that self-talk is ‘the only thing’ that could possibly make the client unhappy.  Thus, Ellis is ruling out:

(1) Internal images;

(2) Gut feelings;

(3) Non-conscious self-signalling;

(4) Restimulation of an earlier experience (or experiences) of being disliked by male peers; Plus:

(5) The innate fight or flight response, and attachment mechanism (which can underpin fear of rejection).

However, Ellis’s ideas are mainly derived from behaviourism and individual cognitivism (of the type promoted by Piaget and proto-Piagetians), combined with harsh, Stoic extremism – and could not (in 1962) take advantage of modern insights from neuroscience (Hofstadter, 2007); interpersonal neurobiology (Siegel, 2015); and Affect regulation theory (Hill, 2015).

Let us briefly look at the IPN (Interpersonal Neurobiology) perspective on emotion causation, and contrast that against Albert Ellis’s simplistic ABC model:

IPN “…sees emotions as the flow of energy, or states of arousal and activation, through the brain and other parts of the body.  This process emerges from and directly affects the further processing of information within the mind by way of the appraisal of meaning.  Three phases can be identified.  First, a stimulus (internal or external) evokes a state of initial orientation, creating a sensation of ‘Something important is happening: pay attention now!’  This focus of attention is automatic and does not need to involve conscious awareness.  Next the value systems of the brain continue to appraise the meaning of that stimulus and that initial orientation itself by means of elaborated appraisal and arousal processes and the activation of certain (brain) circuits. At this point, the sensation may become ‘This is good’ or ‘This is bad’. These first two steps of an emotional response contain activation profiles, such as surges of energy, that can be defined as primary emotions. In their essence, primary emotions are the beginning of how the mind creates meaning”. (Page 183-184, Siegel, 2015).

In this model, an automatic attention and perceptual mechanism of mind spots a significant signal, and responds by becoming activated and energized, releasing an innate feeling response (called a primary emotion, or primary affect).  No self-talk is involved.

In the next step, socialized ways of responding to that arousal – which are habitual patterns from the past – kick in.  These are encoded in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC: which straddles the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex), and are called ‘categorical emotions’ or categorical affects. (Hill, 2015).

Our golfing client (in Ellis’s case study) did not need to ‘tell himself’ anything; nor even to hear any words spoken by his golfing peers.  The interpersonal transmission of emotion arousal is largely non-conscious and habit-based.  As stated by Hill, 2015:

“The interpersonal transmission of affect (or feeling/ emotion – JB) is often processed too quickly for consciousness, which requires from a quarter to half a second of focused attention.  Affect is conducted nonconsciously from brain to brain – neuroceptively – (see Porges, 2012[ii] – JB) – in, for example, an ever so slight pause or a barely perceptible change in pitch, or a split-second, subliminal facial expression.  Such implicit transfers of affect transmit meaning.  If we are defended against its reception or read it wrong, we suffer a costly social disadvantage.  Affect tells us another’s subjective state – crucial information for cooperation and competition”. (Page 8).

So our golfer may have picked up some valuable emotional information which Ellis is asking him to dump.  (Anybody who has ever studied non-verbal communication knows that, in face to face social interactions, most of the information is transmitted nonverbally, and picked up subliminally!) Ellis has clearly oversimplified his explanation of how a human might become disturbed when disliked by a group of peers.

Emotions, or affects are not caused by what the golfer ‘told himself’ – though his habitual attitudes and experiences are relevant here. According to Hill, 2015:

“Affect is the conscious or nonconscious registration of the ebbs and flows of energy infusing the organism – an expression of the body read by the mind.  Damasio (1994)[iii] provides a neurobiological understanding. The brain is an information-processing machine, with modules performing specialized functions that are organized into systems.  The limbic system is continuously mapping the state of our vital organs – registering the status of the heart (especially important for affect), lungs and digestive organs.  When the heart is racing, we register hyperaroused (or over-aroused) affect (or emotion – JB); when it is slowed, we experience hypoaroused (or under-aroused-) affect (or emotion – JB). So, affect is somatic-based information signalling the arousal level of the vital organs.  To regulate affect is to regulate the body”. (Page 6).


Up to this point (Line 18), Ellis also has not shown any empathy for the client’s unhappiness at being disliked.  But this is par for the course in REBT, which shuns being “overly warm” with clients, which suits Ellis’s cool, Aspergerish, detached way of relating. (See Ellis and Dryden, [1999: page 28-29][iv]; and Dryden and Yankura [1995: pages 3-4])[v].

In Line 19 above, Ellis (1962) argues with the client’s statement from Line 18, rejecting the client’s view out of hand.  This is further evidence of his lack of empathy, plus lack of sensitivity to the client.  And it also shows poor communication skills, ignoring the fact that the model which this client will apply to being confronted in this way is going to come from the client’s past experiences of being reprimanded by an authority figure: (mother, father, teacher, priest, rabbi, mufti, etc.)  The client might go into ‘conformity mode’ (or ‘Adapted Child ego state’), and kowtow to Ellis; or go into ‘resistance mode’ (or ‘Rebellious Child ego state’), and fight back. Either of these results would be less useful than “hooking the client’s ‘mature self’” (or ‘Adult ego state’). (See my web page on Transactional Analysis – Byrne, 2016b[vi])


By Line 22, the client has been coerced into ‘admitting’ that he ‘guesses’ he did say something (to himself) – which Ellis has suggested caused his upset.  But humans have very little capacity to introspect (or ‘look into’ their own thought processes).  When humans are asked to introspect into their own thought processes, they most often make up stories about what they think they thought. (See Maier 1931; Gladwell, 2006; Gray 2003; and Shermer 2012 [page 128]).

On Line 24, the client infers that he told himself “that it was awful that they did not like me”. Etc.  Perhaps he did; and perhaps he did not.  Perhaps the word awful was given to him earlier, and not recorded in this edited transcript.

But from this statement by the client, Ellis would have inferred that it was the word (”awful”) that upset this client, because that is Ellis’s thesis (at this time in history.  Later it will become “should” first, and then “awful”).  But in Chapter 6 below, I present my analysis of the word ‘awful’, and show that it just means ‘very bad’, or ‘very unpleasant’.  There is nothing irrational about this client describing his experience of being cold-shouldered by his golfing companions as ‘awful’; and that word, alone, could not have caused him to feel so upset.  And most people would understand perfectly why this client is upset about not being accepted by his golfing peers.  We like to be liked; to belong; to fit in. And we feel upset when this does not happen. In other words, in this case, the ‘A’, or activating event, is sufficient explanation for why this client is upset.  (The intensity of his upset, however, does seem to be amenable to alteration [after the event!] by adjusting his attitude towards being cold-shouldered by his peers).

However, in Line 25, Ellis says “It’s always B” – (the client’s Belief about A – JB) – that makes people unhappy.  In other words, it’s never the thing that happens to you that upsets you, but your ‘belief’ about it!  Again, this is Epictetus’s extreme Stoicism, as I will demonstrate below, in Chapter 4.  And just as extremely, Ellis now alleges that the ‘A’, or Activating event, cannot harm you, unless the A is “a brick falling on your head”!

This statement by Ellis is directly equivalent to my coming home from school, upset, at the ages of 4 to 8 years, complaining about my school peers calling me names, and being told by my mother: “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you!” Pure tosh, as you will be able to confirm yourself, based on your own experience.  It hurts very badly when we humans are not accepted by our peers: unless and until we find some way to ‘make it okay’ that they do not like us.  For example, by realizing that it tells us more about the cruelty of our peers than it does about our innate worth, value or likability.


Albert Ellis is implying here (in line 25) that a person cannot have a legitimate negative feeling about a symbolic loss or failure, threat or danger, frustration, insult, or other kind of negative experience.  (Such symbolic negative experiences would include somebody scowling at you, scolding you, waving their fist at you, speaking unkindly to you, and so on). But furthermore, even a real, concrete loss, failure, threat or danger, frustration or insult, etc. – which does not involve something like a brick falling on your head – cannot upset you (according to Ellis), because it is always B (your Belief) that upsets you! (Such concrete experiences could include: being fired from a job; ousted from your own company’s board [like Ellis was, in 2004!]; cheated on by your marriage partner; and so on). As far as Albert Ellis is concerned, none of those symbolic or concrete experiences could upset you, since it is always and only your Belief (B) which causes your emotional disturbances!

This is positively inhuman, because humans are wired up by nature to feel a strong sense of grief when they think-feel that they have lost someone or something close to them.  They are wired up by nature to feel a strong sense of happiness when they find they are loved, accepted, admired, or liked by significant others.  And they are wired up by nature to feel a strong sense of fear or anger in the presence of a symbolic sign of an approaching predator, or other threat or danger. (This was originally argued by Darwin, 1872/1965[vii]; and later confirmed by Paul Ekman’s international, multicultural research, in the 1960’s[viii].)

These innate human emotions do not require that anybody should have to think something ‘irrational’ first.  We know this, because the roots of our own emotional systems can be found throughout the animal kingdom, where no language-based thinking, or thinking about thinking, takes place!

Albert Ellis’s approach to understanding human emotion puts the cart before the horse, in proposing that people think first, and then feel.  The ABC model is false to facts.  In practice, there is a quick and slow route to emotion arousal – according to LeDoux (1996)[ix] – and the quick route does not involve any thinking.  And according to Daniel Kahneman (2012)[x], and Daniel Goleman (1996), most of our responses to our environments are of the quick, automatic, relatively emotional variety. Here’s Goleman’s explanation:

“The emotional mind is far quicker than the rational mind, springing into action without pausing even a moment to consider what it is doing.  Its quickness precludes the deliberate, analytic reflection that is the hallmark of the thinking mind.  In evolution this quickness most likely revolved around that most basic decision, what to pay attention to, and, once vigilant while, say confronting another animal, making split-second decisions like, Do I eat this, or does it eat me?  Those organisms that had to pause too long to reflect on these answers were unlikely to have many progeny to pass on their slower-acting genes”[xi].

And Edward De Bono (1995) argues that most of our ‘thinking’ goes on at the level of relatively automatic perception, as discussed in Chapter 1, above.  This position is also shared with Bargh and Chartrand (1999)[xii]; Gladwell (2006)[xiii]; and Gray (2003)[xiv].

Furthermore, when people think, their thinking cannot be separated out from feeling; and it is better to think of us as ‘perfinking’ beings – beings that perceive-feel-think all in one grasp of the mind.  And it may be that Daniel Siegel (2015) has identified the location in the brain – from extensive neuroscientific studies – where the socialized culture of the individual bears down upon the limbic surges of automatic emotionality – the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC)[xv].


The ABC model of REBT – which asserts that only a belief (B) intervenes between an incoming stimulus (through the eyes, ears, nose, mouth or skin) and an outgoing emotional response – is too simple to be sustainable in the context of what we know today about how the human brain-mind-environment interact to create a unique, socialized-individual. (In interpersonal neurobiology it is said that a mind is created by the interaction of a [baby] body and a socializing mother [or significant other].  And the limbic system [or emotional centre of the brain-mind] is at the core of a system which integrates the neocortex (or outer layer of the brain), the body, and the social environment: (Siegel, 2015)

The APET model from the Human Givens School – (See Griffin and Tyrrell, 2004)[xvi] – is a step up from the ABC model. This model states that when an Activating Event (A) is apprehended by a human being, there follows a quick, automatic search for a pattern (from the past) which matches this stimulus.  Hence:

A = Activating event;

P = Pattern matching process;

E = Emotional response; and:

T = Thinking (which follows more slowly).

The main problem with this model is that it would lead counsellors and therapists to expect an invariable response to a fixed stimulus; or at least a limited range of responses to choose from, all determined by previous experience.

However, in E-CENT counselling, we use a modified and updated, holistic S-O-R model – which stands for Stimulus – Organism – Response.  And we see the whole organism participating in the selecting and outputting of a response.

Why do we think the ‘whole organism’ is a preferable variable to ‘pattern matching’?  Because the outputted response depends on much more than a ‘filed pattern’ from the past.  It depends at least to some [variable] degree, for examples, upon:

# 1a. What you ate (or did not eat) for your breakfast; and how healthy your diet is overall;

# 1b. The overall balance between friendly and unfriendly bacteria in your guts (your microbiota);

# 1c. Whether or not you take vitamin and mineral supplements;

# 2. Whether you drink enough water throughout the day; and whether or not you drink too much alcohol, or sugary drinks; or caffeinated drinks;

# 3. How well you slept last night (and on previous nights); and how relaxed your body tends to be throughout the day;

# 4. Whether you do enough physical exercise on a daily basis; whether or not you get enough sunlight for vitamin D production; and whether or not you lead a sedentary lifestyle;

# 5. How secure you feel in your life; your loves; relationships; work; career; income; and so on;

# 6. The peaceful or non-peaceful nature of your home environment;

# 7. Your family of origin, and the attachment style you formed there; and also your personality adaptations to your parents and other key individuals;

# 8. The balance between your moral side and your immoral side; how principled or opportunistic you tend to be in your relationships; and:

# 9. Your philosophy of life; values; attitudes; beliefs.

These and many other factors are relevant to how a particular individual can and will respond to a particular incoming stimulus (or experience).  But only # 9 is considered relevant by Albert Ellis and his system of REBT.  And, as far as I can tell, only the patterns from the past are taken into account by the Human Givens School (which excludes the present state of the client’s body-brain-mind).

It seems most likely that Ellis’s focus on item # 9 is a result of being overly influenced by the Stoic perspective, which claims that humans are by nature ‘reasoning’ beings, and it is our nature to reason. (Page 33, Irvine 2009)[xvii]. Therefore, it could be inferred (by Albert Ellis) that everybody should be able to reason their way out of ever becoming upset about anything.

However, Epictetus was not so sure of this Greek belief, and he tended to promote the idea that Stoicism should substitute the goal of tranquillity for the goal of being a perfectly reasoning being.   And tranquillity – he believed – followed from living a ‘virtuous life’ (meaning self-centred-but-wise living). But he also famously claimed that people are not upset by what happens to them, which is what Ellis believes!  So, if people are not upset by what happens to them, how are they upset?  By their attitudes, says Epictetus.  By their beliefs, says Albert Ellis.

However, we have already seen that emotions are based in the body, and are modified by socialization.  That humans are creatures of habit-based emotional-evaluation in their creation of meaning.

It turns out that Epictetus was wrong, and has been shown to be wrong by at least one expert on Stoic philosophy: Professor William Irvine. This is discussed in Chapter 4, below.


The Holistic S-O-R model

In E-CENT counselling we use our own, holistic version of the SOR model:

(S) Incoming Stimulus (or experience);

(O) The complete state of readiness of the Organism, (based on items #1-9 above, and other factors);

(R) The automatically outputted emotional Response, dictated by the interaction of (S) and (O) above.

This Holistic SOR model is very different from the ABC model. And the idea, (from Epictetus, the Buddha, and Albert Ellis), that people are not disturbed by what happens to them – like losing a child, a lover, a job, a home, a career, etc. – is simply false, as I will show in Chapter 4 below.  Such an approach to life could only be proposed by a very damaged – i.e. emotionally damaged – individual. It is a recipe for living life like a lump of wood, or a stone: (or, more precisely, trying to live like a stone or a lump of wood).  However, as I will show in Chapter 4, it cannot be done in practice, by a fleshy human being.

Of course, many readers will want to leap to the defence of Dr Albert Ellis, and remind me that Ellis (later) talked about (or wrote about) the importance of feeling; and how it was okay, and even valuable, to feel ‘reasonably upset’, by sticking to a preferential philosophy of life.


Point 1: I am commenting on a specific case – the first example of his application of the ABC model, in his 1962 book (which formed the substantive foundation of REBT; and which was not overwritten by Ellis (1994), but merely modified in parts.  And:

Point 2: All too often, Albert Ellis has said and written things in response to his critics, in order to defend REBT (in the moment!) from being undermined.  But all too often, he then failed to build those defences into his philosophy of counselling and psychotherapy (as modifications of his theory and practice), and simply went back to doing what he had always done, despite claiming that he had taken a particular criticism on board!

To support my claims in Point 2 above, I will present three points:

…End of extract. (From ‘Unfit for Therapeutic Purposes’.  See below).

[i] Erwin, E. (1997) Philosophy and Psychotherapy: Razing the troubles of the brain. London: Sage.

[ii] Porges, S. (2011) The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotion, attachment, communication, and self-regulation.  New York: Norton.

[iii] Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ Error: emotion, reason and the human brain, London, Picador.

[iv] Ellis, A. and Dryden, W. (1999) The Practice of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy.  Second edition.  London: Free Association Books.

[v] Dryden, W. and Yankura, J. (1995) Developing Rational Emotive Behavioural Counselling.  London: Sage Publications.

[vi] Byrne, J. (2016b) What is Transactional Analysis, and how is it used in E-CENT counselling? Online resource at ABC Coaching and Counselling Services website:

[vii] Darwin, C. (1872/1965) The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[viii] Ekman, P. (1993) Facial expression and emotion. American Psychologist 48 (4): Pages 384-392.

[ix] LeDoux, J. (1996). The Emotional Brain: the mysterious underpinnings of emotional life, New York.  Simon and Schuster.

[x] Kahneman, D. (2012) Thinking Fast and Slow.  London: Penguin Books.

[xi] Goleman, D. (1996) Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ.  Page 291.

[xii] Bargh, J.A. and Chartrand, T.L. (1999) The unbearable automaticity of being.  American Psychologist, 54(7): 462-479.

[xiii] Gladwell, M. (2006) BLINK: The power of thinking without thinking.  London: Penguin Books.

[xiv] Gray, J. (2003) Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals.  London: Granta Books.

[xv] Siegel, D.J. (2015) The Developing Mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are.  London: The Guilford Press.

[xvi] Griffin, J. and Tyrrell, I. (2004) Human Givens: A new approach to emotional health and clear thinking. Chalvington, East Sussex: HG Publishing.

[xvii] Irvine, W. (2009) A Guide to the Good Life: The ancient art of stoic joy.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.



by Jim Byrne, Copyright (2018)

In Line 17 of Ellis’s counselling session with his disturbed golfing client, above, Albert Ellis made this strange claim, when the golfer said he had not “said anything” to himself to make himself feel upset about being rejected by his golfing peers:

“(Ellis): You did. You couldn’t possibly be unhappy if you didn’t. The only thing that could possibly make you unhappy that occurs from without is a brick falling on your head, or some such equivalent. But no brick fell.  Obviously, therefore, you must have told yourself something to make you unhappy”.

This statement has been used by Ellis many times, and I heard him say it to a ‘demonstration client’ during a demonstration of REBT, in Sheffield, in December 1999.  He says it with such assurance, and it is such an unusual kind of statement, that it tends to go unchallenged.  (However, as I wrote above, it is really a version of ‘Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you!’)  But I am challenging it now, using recent research on how the brain processes both physical pain and emotional pain.  Here is the abstract of a scientific study from 2003:


“A neuroimaging study examined the neural correlates of social exclusion and tested the hypothesis that the brain bases of social pain are similar to those of physical pain. Participants were scanned while playing a virtual ball-tossing game in which they were ultimately excluded. Paralleling results from physical pain studies, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was more active during exclusion than during inclusion and correlated positively with self-reported distress. Right ventral prefrontal cortex (RVPFC) was active during exclusion and correlated negatively with self-reported distress. ACC changes mediated the RVPFC-distress correlation, suggesting that RVPFC regulates the distress of social exclusion by disrupting ACC activity”.

(Eisenberger, Lieberman and Williams (2003))[1].

What this means is that Ellis was wrong.  Social exclusion or rejection hurts in much the same way – and in much the same brain areas – as does physical hurt.

But what does it tell us about Albert Ellis?

  1. He is in denial about psychological pain.
  2. He is low on empathy for people who report psychological pain.

Those two stances in life should be enough to exclude anybody from practicing counsellor or psychotherapy!


[1] Eisenberger, N.I., Lieberman, M.D., and Williams K.D. (2003) Does rejection hurt? A fMRI study of social exclusion.  Science, Vol. 302, Issue 5643, pp 290-292.  Available online:


Postscript – Sunday 6th May 2018

Yesterday morning, I stood up from my desk, and for no apparent reason, I looked up at one of our higher bookshelves.  These words leapt out at me from the spine of a book: “Social Encounters”.

I was so intrigued that I reached up and took the book down.  It is an old book, edited by Michael Argyle. The full title is this:

Social Encounters: Readings in social interaction. Penguin, 1973/1978.

I don’t believe I bought this book.  I think it is one bought by Renata.  I also don’t recall ever reading it.  But suddenly it had a huge significance for me; because if brought up the paucity of Albert Ellis’ model of the human being.

Ellis (1962), pages 60-61, Albert Ellis makes the only significant reference in this entire book to the social aspect of the shaping of human individuals (or what we call ‘the social individual’). But his references, in this one and a quarter pages, emphasizes what he sees at the ways in which people learn “societally inculcated superstitions and prejudices”.  He thinks this is about the “basic ideational or philosophic outlook of modern men and women”.  He does not grasp that the biological/neurological nature of each social-individual is shaped by socialization experiences: good, bad and indifferent.  This is not really a simple matter of a philosophy which can be unlearned or discarded.  It is about the biological-social-emotional outcome of years of experience of being shaped – inevitably and unavoidably – by our family and our society.

According to Richard Videbeck (‘Self-conception and the reactions of others’, in Argyle (1973/1978):

“According to the hypothesis (which I am presenting), the principal source of (the) cues (to engage in self-rating) lies in the reactions of other people to the individual”. Remember the golfer above.  He was responding to the reactions of other people; but for Ellis, it’s the client who causes the upset! “Commonly in the course of social interaction, other persons will express some degree of approval or disapproval of the individual or his behaviour. The expressed. The expressed degree of approval or disapproval is such a cue.  In so far as these expressions represent reward or punishment for the individual, the other’s reactions reinforce a particular self-rating response”.  (Pages 331-332).


This is automatic, emotive-cognitive, non-conscious processing of social cues.  Nothing to do with beliefs as such!

After the event, the individual can spot that they have been wired up by social experience to have particular feelings about their social acceptability; and they can work at learning to see themselves differently.

However, it is most likely that they will need to avoid people who make them feel bad; and spend time with people who like them, and are on their side; instead of internalizing Ellis’s criticism of himself (the disturbed golfer) as the source of his own disturbance.

The A (or Activating Event) is much more powerful and affecting than the B (or Belief).  All forms of therapy should help the client to work on the A first, and only work on re-framing those aspects of the environment which cannot, quite definitely cannot, be changed.

In summing up his empirical research studies on self-conception and the reactions of others, Richard Videbeck writes:

“The findings of this study tend to support the general view that self-conceptions are learned, and that the evaluative reactions of others play a significant part in the learning process.  … The findings also tend to support the hypothesis that one’s self conception is an organization of discrete self ratings …”

We tend to internalize the ratings of others, from the beginning of our lives, and to live from those.  Some of those internalizations were perhaps originally narrativized (or storied) – but are now forgotten and not readily available to conscious memory; and some were never narrativized, but stored as paired visual images and visceral/aversive reactions.


The book that reveals the fundamental falsehoods at the heart of REBT/CBT

Cover444Many of this author’s criticisms of REBT apply equally to all forms of CBT which utilise the ABC model of human disturbance.

Dr Byrne begins by showing that Dr Ellis was wrong on two major counts:

Firstly, Ellis’s claim that there is a difference in degree of disturb-ability of humans and other animals, and that the cause of that difference is the existence of language, and the capacity that provides to humans to think about their experiences, and to think about their thinking.  Dr Byrne presents scientific evidence to refute this line of reasoning by Dr Ellis.

And secondly, Ellis’s claim that he had evidence (in the form of a foundational case study) that people are upset by their thinking, plus their thinking about their thinking.  In a line by line analysis of the relevant text from Dr Ellis’s 1962 book, Dr Byrne destroys the basis of this false claim.

Byrne then explores the value and veracity of some of the core principles of Stoicism , which are built into REBT/CBT, and finds that they do not stand up to scrutiny!

There are at least seven key errors in the foundations of REBT, many of which overlap CBT practice.

drjim-counsellor9For anybody to practice these forms of therapy, without taking Dr Byrne’s critique into account, would be a grave error and a serious miscalculation.

These systems of therapy are enjoying a short-lived popularity which will end in tears.

If you are an REBT or CBT therapist, then you need to review the content of this book, to understand the errors at the heart of this system of philosophising about human emotional and behavioural disturbances.

And if you are a student who is considering using some elements of REBT in your future counselling or therapy work, then you need to read this analysis.  You need to know that it is based on some serious errors which, it is not too strong a claim to state, are forms of madness!

It is madness to deny the impact of the social environment upon the body-brain-mind of the client.  It is madness to blame the client for their emotional disturbances.  And it is madness to copy the delusions of a first century Roman slave, instead of being informed by the research evidence of modern social psychology, neuroscience, and interpersonal neurobiology!

Get this book today, if you want to eliminate these errors from your own thinking and your own work.  Or you want to avoid learning them in the first place.  This book will also inform you of the importance of fairness and morality in counselling and therapy, and improve your capacity to think about the human body-brain-mind, and the true causation of emotional disturbances.

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However, because of the time required to read a 518 page book, which costs £21.99 GBP, there is an understandable barrier.

For these reasons, we have now produced a 70 page summary of the book, in the form of a PDF pamphlet, which can be bought, via PayPal, for just £4.99, and delivered to you within 24-48 hours, as an email attachment.

PayPal Buy Now button2To make your purchase,

please use the following PayPal ‘Buy Now’ link: Please send me my copy of the 70 page pamphlet on REBT/CBT


REBT has been found by this author to be unfit for therapeutic purposes, because it omits the body; blames the client for their upset; uses a naive realist view of the client as a freely choosing mind on legs; and because it is based on a harsh, extreme form of Stoic philosophy, which denies the impact of the environment on the body-brain-mind of the counselling client.


Unfit for Therapeutic Purposes:

The case against Rational Emotive and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (RE & CBT)

By Dr Jim Byrne


Edited by Renata Taylor-Byrne


Published by the Institute for Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy – (E-CENT) – Hebden Bridge – 2017

Distributed by the CreateSpace Publishing Platform (An Amazon Company)



Published by the Institute for E-CENT Publications, Hebden Bridge, UK

First published in 2017

Copyright © Jim Byrne, 2017

The right of Jim Byrne to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.


All rights reserved.  No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted or utilized in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photo-copying, recording or otherwise, without permission in writing from the Publisher.


Published by the Institute for Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy (E-CENT), 27 Wood End, Keighley Road, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, HX7 8HJ, UK.

Telephone: 01422 843 629


Distributed by the Create-Space Publishing Platform (An Amazon Company)


Cover design by Charles Saul.


ISBN-13: 978-1545379592



Summary  7

Preface  11

Foreword  23


Chapter 1 – Theories of Human Disturbance  33

Chapter 2 – The ABC Model and extreme Stoicism   51

Chapter 3 – Comparing the ABC model to the SOR model 83

Chapter 4 – The nature of extreme Stoicism   93

Chapter 5 – Understanding Human Emotion  111

Chapter 6 – Summary critique of the ABC-D-E model 159


Introduction to Part 2  177

Chapter 7 – The Psychological Models Underpinning REBT  181

Chapter 8 – Beyond REBT: The case for moving on  207

Chapter 9 – Additional Limitations of the ABCs of REBT  227

Chapter 10 – Fairness, Justice and Morality in REBT and E-CENT  243

Chapter 11 – Self-acceptance, Competence and Morality issues 283

Chapter 12 – Clarifying my Split from Albert Ellis 329

Chapter 13 – Some strengths and weaknesses of REBT  347

Chapter 14 – My final farewell to Dr Albert Ellis 367

Reflections upon these historical documents 377


Chapter 15 – Reflective Summation  385

References 443


Appendix A – On the largely non-conscious nature of human beings 461

Appendix B – The Six Windows Model of E-CENT  465

Appendix C – The E-CENT Emotional Needs Assessment Checklist 473

Index 479

Footnotes 485



I would like to acknowledge my debt to Renata Taylor-Byrne for her editorial feedback and advice; and for her research and writing input on the relationship of diet and exercise to emotional functioning.  To Brian Marley for his significant inputs on the structure and content of the index.  To Dr Michael Edelstein for his willingness to debate the REBT position on fairness with me. To Charles Saul for his elegant cover design. And to all those authors from whom I have drawn inspiration for both my critique of REBT, and my development of a new philosophy of counselling psychology.  Those authors are too numerous to mention here, but I would be remiss if I did not mention the crucial contributions of Alice Miller, Antonio Damasio, Eric Berne, Joseph LeDoux, Nicholas Humphrey, Douglas Hofstadter, John Bowlby, Lavinia Gomez, Oliver James and David Wallin.

I stand on the shoulders of giants!

Jim Byrne, July 2017


About the author

Jim Byrne has a doctoral degree in counselling from the University of Manchester (UK); a master’s degree in education; and a diploma in counselling psychology and psychotherapy.  He was originally trained as a rational therapist, but has since diversified by amalgamating about fifteen different systems of counselling and therapy into a new, holistic approach to helping client’s with problems affecting their body-brain-mind-environment complexity. Dr Byrne, who is a Fellow of the International Society of Professional Counsellors, has been in private practice, as a professional counsellor, for more than eighteen years, and during that time, he has written extensively on the subject of counselling and psychotherapy, and in particular, how to understand the mind of the counselling client; and how to promote secure attachment, and effective emotional self-regulation, in counselling clients. One of his long-term projects, from about 2003 onwards, has been to try to understand the REBT model of human emotion, which he has finally achieved in this book.

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This book contains a summarized account of the author’s journey through Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) – from beginning to end.  He began, in 1992, as a fanatical supporter of REBT, which is the original form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Then, while trying to rescue REBT from two critics (Bond and Dryden, 1996), in the period 2001-2003, he accidentally uncovered several flaws in the foundations of this theory of therapy.

Next, he wrote a series of papers, exploring some of the weaknesses of REBT – all the time hoping he would be able to salvage a defensible core of the therapy.  But eventually, this led him to the development of a completely new theory of therapy, which rejects virtually all of the major theoretical and practical elements of REBT – apart from those moderate Stoical and moderate Buddhist influences that went into the origin of Dr Albert Ellis’s theory. (See Byrne 2013 and 2016a).

The intellectual journey described in this book took twenty-five years to complete.

The whole of Part 1 was written in 2017.  This is a critique of the fundamental flaws in REBT (and in all forms of CBT which are based on the ABC model; and in much of extreme Stoicism and extreme Buddhism).

But most of Part 2 – which contains the historical documents – was written between 2009 and 2012, apart from the Introduction to Part 2 and the Reflections upon those historical documents, which were both written in 2017. And Chapter 7 which was written in 2003.

Although this book is a critique of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (sometimes called Rational Emotive & Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), some of the key criticisms apply just as much to all forms of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which utilize the ABC model (which includes Beck [1976] and Burns [1990]); and which subscribe to a famous (or infamous) statement from Epictetus to the effect that “…humans are not disturbed by what happens to them”.  (Epictetus was a first century CE slave, of Greek origin, who grew up in slavery in Rome, and gained his freedom because of his learning of philosophy. [Irvine, 2009; and Epictetus, 1991]).

Chapter 1, below, establishes a fundamental flaw in the core concept of REBT, (which it shares with most systems of Cognitive Therapy and CBT therapies [including those of Beck, Burns, Maultsby, Meichenbaum, and others]): the idea that humans are disturbed, and disturbable, because of their thinking, and their thinking about their thinking.  This theory was borrowed from Epictetus, an ancient Roman philosopher, and then re-created, or somewhat modified, by Dr Albert Ellis, on the basis of a bit of ‘pure reasoning’, (Ellis, 1962), which Dr Byrne has discovered was then – historically – invalidated by an extensive piece of empirical research by Dr Martin Seligman. (See: Peterson, Maier and Seligman, 1995).

This claim (that people are upset by their thinking) is clearly irrational – meaning “not logical or reasonable” (Soanes 2002), for three main reasons:

  1. Humans are mainly emotional or feeling beings from birth, and our thinking, in socialized language, is grafted on to our affective states.
  2. Humans are not often (and certainly not normally) disturbed in the absence of a real, noxious, activating event [or a recollection or anticipation of a real noxious activating event]. Take away the noxious event or stimulus, and the disturbance normally abates.
  3. The idea that humans are not disturbed by what happens to them comes from an ancient Roman philosopher (Epictetus), and is not supported by modern psychological studies. Modern psychological studies, in behaviourism, attachment theory, existential studies, social psychology, and many other sources, support the idea that people are shaped by their experiences; affected by their relationships; and that emotional disturbances are inherent in human existence.

Dr Byrne’s book could have ended at that point, but he goes on to examine Dr Ellis’s further attempt to support his theory with a case study – illustrating the use of his ABC model to help a disturbed therapy client. (The ABC model says: ‘A’ is an Activating event [normally a negative experience], which triggers a ‘B’ which is a Belief [normally an ‘irrational belief’]. The belief, then, ‘more directly causes’ the person’s outputted ‘C’ or Consequent emotional and behavioural response).

However, Dr Byrne has shown, by meticulous analysis of that case study, that it did not provide any significant support for Ellis’s theory – which was borrowed from Epictetus – which claims that the client was not upset by his negative experience, but rather by his ‘irrational beliefs’ about the experience.

Then, in Chapter 3, Dr Byrne compares Dr Ellis’s ABC model with the SOR model of neobehaviourism, (which says this: A Stimulus [S] impacts an Organism [O] producing an outputted Response [R]).   As a result, he (Byrne) finds that it is essential to ‘add back the body’ to the ABC model; and once that is done, the core theory of REBT falls apart, because now we are dealing with a whole-body-brain-mind-environment-complexity, rather than a simple ‘belief machine’.

Furthermore, this complex-body-brain-mind engages in ‘warm-perfinking’ – (which means, perceiving-feeling-thinking) – which is coloured by emotion from beginning to end), rather than cool thinking and reasoning.

Again, this book could have ended there, and REBT would have been broadly invalidated as a theory of human disturbance.  But Dr Byrne goes on to link the ABC model to the concept of ‘extreme Stoicism’, which is ‘a philosophy of wishful thinking about impossible goals’!

In Chapter 5, Dr Byrne reviews the research on innate emotional wiring; higher cognitive emotions (which are socially shaped); and culturally specific emotions. He looks at the fact that emotions evolved, to guide our actions, long before our ancestors could communicate with speech.

We know that those guiding emotions reside in the most primitive parts of the brain, and that they control the development of our thinking, in interaction with our earliest social environment (meaning mother, father, and significant others).  And our thinking depends upon our feelings.  Feelings, it seems, are both regulated and regulating.  (Hill, 2015). Language is woven into our socialized experience, but only as one of many strands, the most fundamental one of which is innate feelings about everything we see, hear and apprehend.

In Chapter 6, Dr Byrne presents a succinct refutation of the various REBT positions, and a restatement of his own (emotive-cognitive embodied narrative therapy) E-CENT position on:

  1. The ABC model;
  2. The concept of ‘awfulizing’;
  3. The concept of ‘Demandingness’;
  4. The idea that ‘I can’t stand it’;
  5. The REBT process of ‘disputing’ irrational beliefs;
  6. And, the so-called ‘Effective new philosophy’.

At the end of this process of critical analysis, very little is left of the philosophy of REBT.

Then, in Part Two of this book, in Chapters 7 to 14, the author sums up his long journey from his early attempts to rescue REBT and its ABC model from their critics (Bond and Dryden, 1996), and shows how the whole theory fell apart in his hands, over a period a several years, as he wrote seven papers of critical reflection.

Finally, in Chapter 15, he produced an extensive, reflective summation of the entire book’s content.


Hebden Bridge, July 2017


Copyright (c) Dr Jim Byrne


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For more information about this book please take a look at this page: What’s Wrong with REBT?***