What’s wrong with Rational Emotive and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (RE&CBT)?

Irrational Therapy:  

A critical analysis of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy as a form of extreme Stoicism

rebt-whats-wrongI am in the the process of writing a new book on REBT.  I have made a lot of progress so far.  I want to present two extracts from the Preface here; plus Chapter 1 and an extract from Chapter 2, as a foretaste of things to come.


In practice, Chapter 1 will be preceded by a preface and a foreword:


Here are two extracts from the preface to this new book:

Extract 1:

About the author

honetpieA book can be a great power for good, or it can be a power for ill, or have a negative impact on the mind of the reader, and perhaps even on the mind of a whole generation of human beings. In this sense, we should be very careful what we read, and always read critically.

When I first discovered the writings of Dr Albert Ellis, outlining his system of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), I was in crisis – to be precise, I was 47 years old and heading into what felt like a terminal career crisis.  I grabbed at Ellis’s theory of human disturbance with both hands, and used it to the best of my ability to handle that crisis, which went on for some years.

In the process, I taught REBT to anybody who would listen, and then trained as an REBT therapist with Dr Al Raitt, who ran, at that time, the Institute for REBT in Bristol.

That, I suppose, is the first part of my ‘credentials’.  But you should still read this book critically.  More critically than I read Ellis’s books!


Today is Thursday 23rd February 2017, and I am writing my Morning Pages in my journal.  This is how the entry began:

jim-portrait-003bI am feeling sad – I think – perhaps grieving… for… something.  Some loss of the part of myself that was involved in REBT – or even created by REBT! To the degree that people (or individual humans) are ‘storied beings’ – products of internalised and self-created narratives about lived experience – then, to that degree, I am in the process of demolishing part of my own philosophical and cultural scaffolding.

REBT came into my life at too late a stage to be seen as part of my foundations  – (unlike the Catholic Church, which was there from the start!) But REBT was a huge part of me, from 1992 to 2007’ish.  A period of about fifteen years out of a life (at that time) of some sixty years.  That equals a quarter of my life up to that point; and more than a third of my adult life to that point.  So – yes! – I am grieving.  I am disintegrating my ‘self’, and creating a new, storied-self, while still getting on with my daily life.

I feel a bit like a robot who is disassembling himself in order to change some of his fundamental gears – because they are rusted and broken.  I am, in a sense, ‘in bits’. But I am not a robot at all!  I am a fleshy-feeling-being who seems to run on storied-experiences – (plus glucose, oxygen, hormones, water, amino acids, electro-chemical signalling along nerve pathways, in the brain and body; plus a whole host of alien bacteria; plus an elusive element with which science cannot deal: my ‘aliveness’!)

REBT (and Zen) tried to teach me that I can become as unemotional (unattached, disengaged, undesiring) as a log, or an unfeeling ‘belief machine’.  But I am so much more than my beliefs, or my attachments.


I was introduced to REBT in 1992…

…End of extract No.1


Extract No.2:

About the book

This book is a critical analysis of the foundations of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), which is sometimes called Rational Emotive and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (RE&CBT).

When I first published my earlier book on the childhood of Albert Ellis, and how his childhood had shaped the later-development of Dr Albert Ellis’s Rational Therapy, I was asked by one of Ellis’s fans: “But what about his legacy?”

Here is my answer to that question:

To the degree that Dr Albert Ellis was promoting moderate (or reasonable) Stoicism, he was to that degree being helpful and therapeutic, for his direct clients, his book readers, and the wider world which got to hear his proclamations. Reasonable or moderate Stoicism is, for me, typified by the statement that there are certain things we can control and certain things we can’t. And that our freedom and happiness depend upon distinguishing those two categories from each other, and then training ourselves to only try to control what seems realistically likely to be controllable in practice.

However, to the degree to which he was promoting extreme (or unrealistic) Stoicism, he was to that degree being unhelpful and anti-therapeutic, for his direct clients, his book readers, and the wider world which eventually would hear his pronouncements. For me, extreme or unrealistic Stoicism is typified by that statement which claims that people are not upset by what happens to them, but rather by the attitude they adopt towards what happens to them.  The best critique of this extremist viewpoint that I have seen was presented by Bertrand Russell, who said that this kind of viewpoint could never be offered by anybody who had spent a small amount of time walking into a force nine gale with icy rain, and in an underdressed condition.  Such a person could not maintain their equanimity, or be happy, or be anything less than totally miserable and feel as if they were soon to die a miserable death.  And that would not be exclusively or even significantly a function of their beliefs or attitudes, but rather of the adverse effect of the environment upon the whole body-brain-mind of that individual.

In this book, I will argue that Dr Albert Ellis was to a significant degree an extreme Stoic, and that to that degree he was a destructive, harmful influence, not just within the world of counselling and therapy, but – because there are no Chinese walls between the therapy room and the wider society – also on the political-economic discourse of the period 1975 onwards, when some of the worst forms of neoliberal insensitivity to the suffering of the poor arose in the US and Britain.


Beyond that point, on the legacy of Dr Ellis, I would add that, to the degree that he was popularising some forms of emotional desensitisation, he was performing a helpful role.  But, to the degree that he was promoting in vivo flooding – or ‘throwing clients into the deep end of the emotional swimming pool’ – he was probably often making a mistake, and promoting a cruel form of exposure, when gentler forms exist.

And his system of Rational Emotive Imagery – where the client is encouraged to get in touch with a feared memory from the past, and then to reduce its intensity – which he borrowed from Maxie Maultsby Jr – was a good contribution.

To the degree that he helped some individuals to think about their reactions to noxious stimuli – he may have been helpful – but only in those cases where the individual was able to process their thinking, and it was not ‘walled off’. (Joines and Stewart, 2002).  According to Stewart and Joines system of personality adaptations, only certain clients can benefit from being helped to improve their thinking about their behaviour.  Others need to be helped to integrate their feelings with their behaviour. (Rewrite this piece >>>)

Then there’s his amoralism.  This was written into his system of REBT, in that he discouraged the use of ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘ought’, etc.; but these words are essential for the maintenance of any moral discourse.

And, perhaps his biggest negative contribution: His ABC model suggests that people are always and only upset by their Beliefs ((B) in the model) and that they choose their B’s, and therefore they choose to upset themselves.  In fact, the ‘A’, or Activating Event, triggers the problem, as shown by Bertrand Russell in his force nine gale example above.

So what is the legacy of Dr Albert Ellis?

…End of Extract No.2



To be added later…

Chapter 1 –   Theories of Human Disturbance

Copyright (c) 2017, Jim Byrne

The beginning

rebt-evaluatedSigmund Freud was one of the first major theorists of human disturbance in the modern world, at least in the sense of spending a lot of time thinking about it, and writing about it in case studies.  Of course, as Anthony Storr has written, almost everything he said was wrong, especially his core organizing principle of relating human emotional disturbance to their biologized stages of sexual development. Because Freud got it so badly wrong, the post-Freudians moved off into more productive directions, especially the ‘object-relations’ innovation, in which the relationship between mother and baby was taken seriously.  But did not become really useful until they began to incorporate some of the insights of Dr John Bowlby on attachment systems in humans – beginning with secure or insecure attachment bond between a mother and her baby.

Around the same time that Freud was developing his theories, a Russian researcher was investigating the digestive system in dogs, when he accidentally discovered learned associations between a stimulus and a response which previously had no association.  This development was taken up by various American researchers, and the field of behaviourism, and later behaviour therapy, was born.

The ‘cognitive turn’

piagets-schemasThen, in Switzerland, in the 1920’s, Jean Piaget, a clinical psychologist, who was investigating intelligence in children, accidentally stumbled upon the idea that the thinking abilities of children are age and stage related, and thus began the ‘cognitive turn’, which was to displace the psychodynamic and the behavioural therapies.

One problem with Piaget’s theory was that he only considered children as thinking/learning beings, and not as feeling beings; and he saw them as discrete individuals, rather than social beings.  (Much later, Lev Vygotsky, a Russian theorist, would correct the social aspect, by clarifying that human learning is significantly dependent upon instruction, but that idea did not arrive in America until long after the cognitive turn had been completed). Part of that cognitive turn was down to one Albert Ellis, who had originally trained as a psychoanalyst in the Karen Horney (pronounced Horn-eye) School of analysis, in New York City.

Ellis’s innovation was to drop the emphasis on the client’s feelings and personal history, and to focus on their language, and the logic, or lack of logic, of their conclusions.  This gave rise to Rational Therapy (RT).

The development of Rational Therapy

albert-ellis-childhood-imageRational Emotive and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (RE&CBT), as it is sometimes called today, was previously known as Rational Therapy (RT), then Rational Emotive Therapy (RET), and then Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). This system was created by Dr Albert Ellis, in the decade between 1952 and 1962. (Ellis, 1962, page 8-9)[i]. In subsequent pages (10-17) Ellis reviews his disenchantment with classical psychoanalysis, and shows how he went back to the behaviourists to understand why some of his clients were strangely passive in holding on to their earlier acquired neurotic wounds, and why they failed to let them go when the environment had obviously changed. (His reasoning was this: They have no justification for holding on to these old thoughts and feelings now that the environment has changed! No good reasons.  No reinforcement. Nothing was tying them to these thoughts!)

He contrasts his disturbed clients’ behaviour (in holding on to their neuroses) against the behaviour of dogs in Pavlovian experiments, which, he claims, tend to lose their conditioned responses when the reinforcement is withdrawn.  (In other words, when the meat is not delivered after the bell is rung, the dog learns to disconnect bell-ringing from food time [according to Ellis, 1962: pages 12-13].)

Front CoverEllis asks himself why this same process of ‘extinction’ does not occur in neurotic patients.  Why don’t they ‘forget the god-awful past’? And he answers the question by concluding that, “…as man’s complex or secondary self-signalling processes arise, a new factor comes into play that may enormously change the simple going-toward or avoidance equations made by lower animals.  This factor may be called self-consciousness or thinking about thinking”. (Page 15).

But this is a false premise, as I will now show.  I will demonstrate that in some important animal research, it has been found that dogs who are subjected to classical conditioning do not forget their god-awful pasts; so there is no justification for Ellis’s claim that humans should forget theirs.

Learned helplessness and other ‘mind benders’

It is not at all clear that lower animals will always, or even normally, experience extinction of learned patterns of association.  The evidence for my rejection of Ellis’s premise (that they always, or normally forget their god-awful pasts) is to be found in Dr Martin Seligman’s work on ‘learned helplessness’.[ii]

Just three years after Ellis’s book came out (in 1962), Dr Martin Seligman was doing some research on classical conditioning, of the kind to which Ellis was referring above.  The association they were creating in the brain-mind of their experimental dogs was between the sound of a bell and a light electric shock.  The association became so strong that they dogs eventually began to react to the shock before it happened, just as the bell sounded.

Seligman then developed a refinement of the experiment.  He would put a dog, which had previously been conditioned to expect a light shock when the bell rang, into a kind of crate, or box, which has a low wall down the middle, dividing the crate in half.  The floor on one side was electrified, but not on the other side of the wall.  Seligman reasoned that, when the bell was sounded, the dogs would jump over the wall to escape from the shock, but they failed to do so.  From this result, produced many, many times, Seligman inferred that dogs, and by extension, humans, acquire what he called ‘learned helplessness’ when they are frequently subjected to noxious stimuli over which they have no control.  Eventually, the idea of escape, of controlling the situation, become inaccessible to them.

To further refine his understanding, and to support his theory of learned helplessness, Seligman then used dogs which had not previously been subjected to a no-escape exposure to electric shock, and they all jumped over the wall to escape.

Making our minds up

How does this relate to humans, and human disturbances?  Attribution theorists have argued that when humans have a particular kind of negative experience, they form some kind of attributional belief about it.  Attributional beliefs apportion blame or responsibility for the negative experience.  Individual humans who attribute blame to themselves – to their deficiencies, or badness, or unlovability, etc. – tend to develop a sense of learned helplessness. (Peterson, et al., 1995)

Attribution theorists, of course, are in the cognitive tradition; which was itself a false start, in that Jean Piaget (its progenitor) omitted the importance of human emotion as motivators of childhood actions and development.[iii]

And modern Interpersonal Neurobiology[iv], and Affect Regulation theory[v], both emphasize that humans are born with emotions as guides and aids to survival, and that those emotions become socialized, and the socialization process is stored in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), as hardwired (though somewhat malleable) neurological networks.

Ellis’s foundational error

So Ellis was quite wrong in the premises he used to arrive at the conclusion that humans ‘talk to themselves’ about their positive and negative experiences, and that it is this conscious self-talk – or our thinking about our thinking – that causes us to become not only disturbed emotionally, but resistant to letting that disturbance go.

His argument is false. (He claims that dogs forget their learned associations; but Seligman shows that this is not true!)

This mistake led Ellis into a misleading (or misdirecting) discussion (and exploration) about human thinking, and away from innate human emotions. And away from the power of socialization.

A more productive modern trend is towards the emotional revolution of Allan Schore and others[vi].  In this view, humans are primarily emotional beings, who are wired up by their social-relational experiences to have more or less durable personalities, or ways of being, which cannot simply be ‘forgotten’ or ‘dumped’, because they are hard-wired into the brain-mind-body. They can of course be changed over time, not least by effective psychotherapy, but this will be hard work, and time consuming, and based on new relational experiences, not directions and injunctions.

But Albert Ellis heads off in the wrong direction, by concluding that “…if disturbed human beings are continually forced to do the thing they are afraid of (such as being in the same room with an animal or ride in a subway train) they will soon come to see that this thing is not as fearful as they think it to be, and their fear will thereby become deconditioned or extinguished”. (Page 11, Ellis [1962]).

Sometimes this seems to be the best way to help a counselling client, but there is a lot more to human disturbance than learned fears.  (In E-CENT counselling we do a fair amount of gradual desensitization, but it is far from being the only approach we use.  We probably more often help clients to feel secure; to learn to reframe their experiences; and to complete their experiences by digesting them in the form of re-written stories of the old, distressing experience).

This error leads Ellis to build a system of psychotherapy based on ‘in vivo flooding’, or dropping people into the deep end of the pool, in order to help them to get over their fear of swimming.  (By contrast, in my system of Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy [E-CENT: {See Byrne, 2016}], I only practice gradual desensitization, to avoid further traumatizing clients!)  the other element is his decision that it is necessary to talk them, and even impel them, to abandon their current view of their difficulties.  This is called the ‘active directive’ approach.

Humans have a range of innate emotions

The other unfortunate feature of Ellis’s thought processes in this section of his 1962 book, is that he is using ‘fear’ as the archetypal form of human disturbance.  But humans have three major dimensions of emotional disturbance, each of which is an elaboration of an innate system, designed to help us to survive. These are: Anger; anxiety; and grief (or sadness/depression).

Human disturbance, which comes out of an activation of our socialized-innate tendencies to fight, flee or freeze, depending upon the nature of the noxious stimulus we are encountering, cannot be adequately mapped by focusing in on fear alone.  Humans have a tendency to regulate their emotions (or affects) on the basis of their learned experiences, in their family of origin.

Some of us are (habitually) good at regulating our affects (automatically and non-consciously), and keeping them within a range of ‘reasonable upsets’; while others of us are (habitually, non-consciously) prone to crank our emotions or affects up into anger or anxiety, or down into grief/ sadness/ depression; where they are then considered to be ‘dysregulated’.  (Hill, 2015).

For a detailed discussion of the origins of human emotions, please see Byrne (2016[vii]: pages vii, 73, 75, 76, 81, 83, and 98).


Consciousness, language and thinking

So Albert Ellis formed one false conclusion: that experimental animals forget their conditioned reflexes, once any positive reinforcement is withdrawn, which Martin Seligman showed to be wrong, in his experiments on learned helplessness.  But, we can infer, humans do not just acquire ‘learned helplessness’, but also learned fear, learned anger, learned depression, and so on (all extrapolated from our innate tendencies to respond with those basic emotions when faced with particular stimuli).  In other words, our innate emotions are shaped by our social experiences, and stored in our body-brain-mind!

But he then went on to conclude that humans are less able to forget their learned associations between a particular stimulus and a particular response because of our consciousness; our use of language (or linguistic signalling); and our capacity for (and tendency to) think about our thinking.  These conclusion also seem to be just as false as his conclusion about animals forgetting their learned associations.

Albert Ellis, instead of relating to his distressed client as a body-brain-mind – with socialized experiences stored in a highly durable form in long-term memory – instead relates to ‘a person’ who he thinks of as being conscious, and normally actively thinking about their circumstances, and thinking about their thinking about their circumstances.  And choosing what to think! This is a form of ‘naïve realism’ (or being taken in by culturally shaped definitions of what an ‘individual human person’ is assumed to be), combined with the delusion that human beings have an ongoing consciousness of our ‘choices’ (instead of operating from non-conscious habits).  Let’s take a brief look at each of these ideas:

(a) Are humans normally conscious?

By contrast with Ellis’s view, we (in E-CENT counselling) think of human beings as largely non-conscious beings (Byrne, 2016: page 52); and primarily social animals (Byrne, 2016: page 51).  Humans also seem to be story tellers – Byrne, 2016, pages 35, 53, 161 and 164) – who live in a sea of stories.  However, we are not normally conscious of the stories that are running our lives, and it is the function of E-CENT counselling and therapy to help the client to infer, or guess at, or patch together, some insights into the stories that are most likely running their lives. And then to try to revise those stories, perhaps by re-framing old experiences, or by facing up to repressed knowledge of disturbing experiences.

While Ellis sees humans as largely conscious, Freud argued that we repress much of our experience out of conscious awareness.  For Freud, that repression mainly serves the function of hiding our sexual fantasies from our punitive conscience (or super-ego).  By contrast, in the view of this author (JB), and many others, the function of repression seems to be the hiding of painful material of any kind from conscious awareness (Storr, 2001)[viii]. And painful experience includes being negatively appraised and evaluated by significant others; or being rejected by them. Plus our negative appraisals and evaluations of ourselves!

In 1931, Norman Maier, an experimental psychologist, at the University of Michigan, came up with an interesting experiment – called the two cord puzzle – which effectively shows that human problem solving goes on wholly at the non-conscious level, but that we (delusional beings [Gray, 2003])[ix] are then capable of making up plausible stories regarding how ‘we’ (consciously) solved it! (Maier, 1931)[x].

But there is an even more profound reason why most of our thinking goes on at the level of non-conscious processing, and that is that we simply do not have adequate ‘bandwidth’ to process more than about one-millionth of the data signals that we process on a second-by-second basis.  (Gray, 2003).

See Appendix A, below, for a summary of my arguments from Maier (1931) and Gray (2003), on the non-conscious nature of most human processing (which should not be called ‘cognitive processing’, because it is actually emotive-cognitive-embodied processing).


(b) How much do humans think?

Many readers will have heard the adage that most humans will do anything to avoid the hard labour of thinking.  This thesis was originally formed by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the artist, and taken up and promoted by Thomas Edison, the inventor.

It seems that, in 1921, a journalist by the name of B.C. Forbes, visited Edison in his office, and Edison announced that he was going to place a sign all over his plant/ laboratory/ factory, to the effect that people will do anything to avoid the real labour of thinking.  Edison is reported to have added that: “There is hardly a day that I do not discover how painfully true it is. What progress individuals could make, and what progress the world would make, if thinking were given proper consideration! It seems to me that not one man (or woman – JB) in a thousand appreciates what can be accomplished by training the mind to think.” (The American Magazine, 1921)[xi].

This is a very different perspective on human thinking from that suggested by Albert Ellis.  He assumes that conscious thinking is something that we can easily and normally do.  While Edison suggests it is actually rare for this to happen.

Furthermore, Ernst von Glasersfeld argued that humans do not think at all.  That what they do is to ‘perfink’.[xii]  That is to say, we perceive-feel-think all in one grasp of the mind. This means there is no ‘separate’ process of thinking.  When a human being thinks, it is a feeling being that is ‘thinking’, or rather perfinking.

And Dr Edward De Bono argues that most thinking goes on at the level of perception. (“Most everyday thinking takes place in the perception stage of thinking…  Most of the errors of thinking, outside of puzzles, are not errors of logic at all but errors of perception”. (Page 6: De Bono, 1995)[xiii]. And perception is not something we ‘do’, it is something that ‘happens within us’!  It is automatic, non-conscious, and outside of our control.  We do not ‘chose’ how we see things.

Humans seem to be perfinking beings

So, our perfinking perceptions determine our interpretations of our incoming sensations.  This is roughly what was meant by the concept of ‘pattern matching’, presented by Griffin and Tyrrell (2004)[xiv]. These authors suggest that when we experience a significant incoming stimulus (or Activating event), we first match it to some pattern from the past, to determine what it ‘is’; then we have feelings (or emotions) about it; and then we at last have time to think about it.  So, in this view, thinking does not precede emotion (as Ellis assumed), but very much the reverse, in an automatic process.  (This is similar to the old behaviourist model of Stimulus>Response>No-choice!)

And, in our E-CENT model, we use a holistic version of the Stimulus-Organism-Response model (S-O-R), in which it is the total state of the organism (O) – or the socialized-individual – which determines how it will respond (R) to any incoming stimulus (S).  This means that diet is as important as established beliefs and attitudes; that physical exercise is as important as family history; sleep pattern as much as current relationships; and a whole range of current stressors (imagined and real!)

And there is now evidence from gut-brain research that a person can become emotionally distressed because of the state of their gut bacteria alone! (Enders, 2015)[xv].

See also Perlmutter (2015)[xvi] and Brogan (2016)[xvii].

Ellis was way off the mark

So, for us, Ellis is wrong to see humans as becoming distressed because they are thinkers (much less conscious thinkers).  Most of them will do anything to avoid the hard labour of thinking.  And most of their thinking is automatic, and therefore not chosen in the present moment!  And their thinking cannot be separated out from their perception-feeling-thinking (or perfinking), nor from the automatic electro-chemical functioning of their body-brain-mind-environmental wholeness. (It is true that in later forms of REBT, Ellis acknowledged the non-conscious nature of human thought, but he still insisted that he knew what his clients’ non-conscious beliefs were!  As if that was easily established!  And he also used to word ‘unconscious’ to mean ‘out of awareness’, and not ‘deeply hidden’.  By contrast, we in E-CENT counselling see the non-conscious as permanently beyond direct conscious inspection).

Of course, Ellis goes a bit beyond that point on page 28, when he says that “…every human being who gets disturbed really is telling himself a chain of false sentences – since that is the way that humans seem almost invariably to think, in words, phrases, and sentences.  And it is these sentences which really are, which constitute, his neurosis”.

This is simply not true.  Most thinking goes on in the form of perfinking; and most perfinking goes on at the front-end of that system, and involves the perception of pre-existing patterns in current sensations at our eyes, ears and body surface.


The E-CENT perspective

Humans are creatures of unthinking habit.  Those habits were created in the past.  They are controlled and directed from non-conscious levels of brain-mind.  Our emotionally significant experiences are hard-wired into our brain-minds.  It may well be that the tension between our innate, inbuilt emotional reactions to life, and our socialization about how we are allowed to react, meet head to head in our orbitofrontal cortex (OFC).  (Siegel, 2015)[xviii].  And it is that area of the brain-mind that needs to be reprogrammed – or re-wired – by psychotherapy.  Some form of talking to the client will help here, but it cannot be the whole story without providing the client with a curative relationship – or new set of emotionally significant experiences – as well as helping the client to take care of their physical health.  (Byrne, 2016; and Doidge, 2008[xix]).

So diet, exercise, self-talk (or self-story), relaxation, meditation, relationship skills, communication skills, sleep pattern improvement, and many other areas may be important in bringing about an improvement in the client’s quality of life.  And it is also most likely important that, in many situations, the therapist should act as a ‘secure base’ for the client, and engage in processes of ‘re-parenting’, and ‘re-moralizing’, and showing care and respect; and so on.

All of this cannot be reduced to the idea (from early-Ellis) that humans disturb themselves by the sentences they tell themselves (or their ‘irrational ideas’: page 14, Ellis, 1962).

The REBT error in practice

At the end of Chapter 2 of Ellis (1962), we find this statement:

“If the hypotheses so far stated have some validity” – which I (JB) have seriously challenged above, by arguing that humans are largely non-conscious, and not particularly engaged in conscious thinking – “(then) the psychotherapist’s main goals should include demonstrating to (clients) that their self-verbalizations not only have been but usually still are the source of their emotional disturbances.  (Clients) should be shown that their internalized sentences are quite illogical and unrealistic in certain respects and that they have the ability to change their emotions by telling themselves – or, rather, convincing themselves of the truth of – more rational and less self-defeating sentences”. (Page 58).

I (JB) was originally taken in by these arguments, and promoted them for about fifteen years, until I began to find flaws in the whole argument.  Eventually, I came to realize that what humans internalize are not “sentences”, or “self-verbalizations”, but rather “significant social and emotional experiences”.

I explored this idea in my long paper on the nature of the ‘social individual’[xx].  Ellis was imbued by the concept of the self-directed ‘separate-individual’ which was constructed in the writings of Jean Piaget and his followers. But over time, I came to realize that human beings are social to their core. No ‘individual baby’ exists anywhere, for babies are always found in the arms of a more or less good carer, who they internalize! (Gerhardt, 2010)[xxi].

The emergence of the social individual

Naïve realism does not reveal the true nature of a human being.  But after much work, beginning early in 2009, I eventually came up with a model of the social individual which displaces the ABC model of human functioning. (The ABC model of RE&CBT is explored in Chapter 2, and later chapters, below).

In E-CENT Paper No.9, published in December 2009, I reviewed some limitations of the ABC model (developed by Dr Albert Ellis)[xxii].  (This ABC model is mentioned briefly on pages 129 and 177 of Ellis, 1962; but it does not feature significantly in his general argumentation.  But, as I go on to say, in Paper No. 9, it takes centre stage from around the early 1970’s). In Paper No.9, I linked the ABC model back to Freud’s model of the physical baby (or ‘it’), the ego (or personality), and the superego (or internalized mother/others). I then moved on to consider Melanie Klein’s model of the baby-mother dyad.  Then I proceeded to use some concepts from object relations and cognitive science to construct a new ‘interactional/ internalizing’ model of the ‘social individual’. To get to this point, I also had to utilize some concepts from neurobiology, Buddhism and Transactional Analysis (TA), plus moral philosophy.

Anyway, the bottom line of that whole development – and Paper No.9 is 54 pages in length, and quite detailed in its arguments – was a long description of my conception of ‘a social individual’.  It came out of a thought experiment, where I reflected upon my own nature, using all of my previous learning from psychology and philosophy; like this:

Perhaps I am just this physical organism (body/brain/mind)

Including its feeling/affective foundation (in the limbic system [in the middle of my brain])

And its language based cognitive/emotive superstructure (in the neocortex [which is the surface of my brain])

With all of its cumulative, interpretative experiences

Including internalized representations of good and bad aspects of significant others

In terms of their behaviours, values, attitudes, beliefs, and impact upon me,

And all of my good and bad adaptations towards them

And my good and bad reactions and rebellions against them –

Which gave rise to my ‘attachment style’ (Including my Internal Working Models of how they related to me, and how I related to them)

And my ‘personality adaptations’ –

All of which is stored in long term memory

In the form of electro chemical representations of stories, scripts, frames, schemas and other narrativized and non-narrativized elements

Below the level of conscious awareness

And permanently beyond direct, conscious inspection.


Perhaps that is what I most fundamentally am.  And thus, although I am distinct from others, I carry many others inside my head, and am indeed made up of many ‘social/ relational/ interactional bits and pieces’. (Hofstadter, 2007)[xxiii].

So I am both individual and social.  But I am very far from being a ‘separate entity’.  Because my sense of ‘self’ develops in lockstep with my sense of ‘family-society’, and with my biological development, none of these three ‘levels’ of ‘me-you-I-us’ can exist without the other.

And I – and you, and everybody else – cannot be reduced to Ellis’s naïve realist vision of ‘a separate, individual, choosing person, who internalizes sentences’.

And certainly, the durable memories that I have stored in my body-brain-mind, of significantly negative social-emotional encounters with emotionally-significant others, cannot be dumped because Albert Ellis tells me that they can be (logically) converted or translated (by him) into illogical and irrational ‘statements’.  They are actually part of my physical as well as my psychological existence.  They are stored in memory engrams in my body-brain-mind, from which I automatically reconstruct moods, feelings and behavioural tendencies.

I cannot “forget the god-awful past” just because Albert Ellis directs me to do so!  I cannot forget the god-awful past for the simple reason that it is stored, physically in my body-brain-mind in the form of memory engrams of social-emotional encounters!

Perhaps my best chance to change any of my ‘durable ways of being’ is to experience a healing encounter with a caring person who somehow helps me to overwrite my old (traumatic) memory with a new (soothing) memory of a significant emotional encounter with somebody who cares enough about me to cause me to care about them; and to cause me to re-think/re-feel/re-imagine ‘who I am’ (or could be) in relation to them and in relation to the world.

This would be very different from merely ‘changing internalized sentences’.


[i] Ellis, A. (1962) Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. New York: Citadel/Carol Publishing.

[ii] Peterson, C., Maier, S.F. and Seligman, M.E.P. (1995) Learned Helplessness: A theory for the age of personal control. Oxford University Press.

[iii] Wood, D. (1988) How Children Think and Learn: the social contexts of cognitive development.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

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

[v] Hill, D. (2015) Affect Regulation Theory: A clinical model.  W. W. Norton & Company

[vi] Schore, A.N. (2015) Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development. London: Routledge.

[vii] Byrne, J. (2016) Holistic Counselling in Practice: In introduction to Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy. Hebden Bridge: the Institute for E-CENT Publications.

[viii] Storr, A. (2001) Freud: A very short introduction.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.  Page 38-39.

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

[x] Maier, N.R.F. (1931) Reasoning in Humans: II – The solution of a problem and its appearance in consciousness.   Journal of Comparative Psychology, 12: 181-194.

[xi] 1921 January, The American Magazine, Volume 91, “Why Do So Many Men Never Amount to Anything?: Thomas A. Edison, the great inventor, answers this pointed question, Reported by B.C. Forbes, Start Page 10, Quote Page 10, The Crowell Publishing Company, New York.

[xii] Glasersfeld, E. von (1989) Learning as a constructive activity. In Murphy, P. and Moon, B. (eds) Developments in Learning and Assessment.  London: Hodder and Stoughton.

[xiii] De Bono, E. (1995) Teach Yourself to Think.  London: Viking/Penguin.

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

[xv] Enders, G. (2015) Gut: The inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ.  Scribe Publications.

[xvi] Perlmutter, D. (2015) Brain Maker: The power of gut microbes to heal and protect your brain – for life. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

[xvii] Brogan, K. (2016) A mind of your own: The truth about depression and how women can heal their bodies to reclaim their lives. London: Thorsons.

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

[xix] Doidge, N. (2008) The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science.  London: Penguin.

[xx] Byrne, J. (2009) The ‘Individual’ and his/her Social Relationships – The Emotive-Cognitive Perspective.  E-CENT Paper No.9.  Hebden Bridge: The Institute for E-CENT Publications.  Available online: https://abc-counselling.org/???>>>

[xxi] Gerhardt, S. (2010) Why Love Matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain.  London: Routledge.

[xxii] Byrne, J. (2009)

[xxiii] Hofstadter, D. (2007) I am a Strange Loop.  New York: Basic Books.


Extract from Chapter 2

Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, 2017

Chapter 2 – The ABC Model and extreme Stoicism


Let us now take a look at the ABC model of REBT – which is the core model that not only determines the shape of each intervention by an REBT therapist, but which structures the entire 45 minutes of time spent with each client.

The ABC model is normally presented like this:

The ‘A’ stands for an Activating event, or stimulus, which results in some kind of response from an individual.

The ‘B’ stands for the Belief system of the individual (which includes distinctions to do with whether the individual is:

(a) being ‘demanding’ versus merely ‘preferring’ something;

(b) ‘awfulizing’ (which means describing something as totally bad) versus merely saying something is some small degree of badness;

(c) implying that they cannot stand something versus merely that it is difficult to stand it; or:

(d) condemning or damning self, others or the world, versus merely being critical of their own behaviour, the behaviour of others, and/or some features of the world/reality).

The ‘C’ stands for the Consequent emotions (and/or behaviours) that are assumed to arise out of the interaction of the ‘A’ multiplied by the ‘B’ above.  The implication is that an extreme belief multiplied by a difficult stimulus will result in an intense emotional response; while a moderate belief multiplied by the same difficult stimulus will result in a greatly reduced emotional response.  Hence, therapy consists of helping the client to develop moderate beliefs.

Different approaches to the ABCs of REBT

I have seen this ABC model applied in at least five different ways:

(a) The therapist (in this case Albert Ellis) uses the model to harshly accuse the client of disturbing themselves by the ‘irrational beliefs’ they hold at point B in this model;

(b) The therapist (in this second case, Janet Wolfe) uses the model to gently nudge the client in the direction of changing their beliefs;

(c) A former supervisee of mine (who shall remain nameless) uses the system as a set of three boxes: Box A; Box B; and Box C.  He then interviews his client.  The first major element of description of the problem is placed in box A.  The second major element of description of the problem is placed in box B.  And the third element is placed in box C.  My former supervisee then uses his intuition to come up with some way to juggle the contents of those boxes, and guides the client towards some form of rethinking of their problem.  (This is an example of the ABCs of Not-REBT! And nothing I tried to do could ever reform this person’s inability to grasp the proper-ABCs of REBT!)

(d) I’ve seen a video of YouTube of a therapist, allegedly “demonstrating REBT” to a (pretend) client, in which he looks for an A, a B and a C, but never, ever mentions the concepts of demandingness, awfulizing, low frustration tolerance (or thinking ‘I cannot stand it’), or condemning and damning of self, others or the world.  (This is another example of the ABCs of non-REBT).

(e) I also suspect that there are lots of counsellors and therapists ‘out there’ who use a kind of mishmash of systems, including some little bits and pieces of REBT/CBT, like a notional ABC model. (This is probably the archetypal example of the ABCs of non-REBT).

In this book, I will not be paying any attention to the approaches described in paragraphs (c) to (e).

With regard to paragraph (b), the approach used by Janet Wolfe and some other ‘gentle REBTers’, my main critique is this: By using the ABC model to structure their sessions, they prevent certain important issues coming to light, including: the client’s approach to diet, exercise, sleep, use of alcohol and recreational drugs, family of origin, recent relationships, and general stressors which are impacting their Belief/Feeling System. They also take the focus off the quality of the relationships with the client; the client’s feelings; the client’s attachment style; and the client’s personality adaptation (which has implications for whether or not to focus on the client’s thoughts, feelings or behaviours [Joines and Stewart, 2002][i]).

But in this book, I will focus my attention on Albert Ellis, and his approach to REBT, because he wrote most of the theory down; promoted it publicly; and his style was therefore seen and heard and read more often than Janet’s or other’s. Therefore I want to explore how he used the ABC model, and how that usage links back to his commitment to an extreme form of Stoicism, which came out of his damaged childhood. (Byrne, 2013)[ii].


Albert Ellis’s approach

Albert Ellis lived through the ‘cognitive turn’ in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, when psychological researchers increasingly notices that their lab animals had something like ‘minds of their own’ – and would sometimes rebel against their attempts to condition them.  (See in particular the discussion of Pribram’s monkey in David Wood’s (1994) book on thinking and learning[iii].

Ellis read the literature and knew the theories and main theorists.  But in my view, he tended to cherry pick them for ideas that supported his thesis that people were upset by the ‘sentences’ they repeated to themselves; by their ‘irrational ideas’. He knew the work of Bruner, Goodnow and Austin (1956)[iv], and their references to the fact that the old stimulus-response theories of classical conditioning (Pavlov) and operant conditioning (Skinner) had broken down, and been replaced by a ‘mediational model’ – in which the mind becomes a ‘map room’ where stimuli were arranged and sorted out before every response is made.  (Ellis, 1962: page 106).

However, Bruner, Goodnow and Austin (1956) “…undertook a series of experimental studies which convinced (Bruner) that people do not utilize a single ‘method’ or ‘logic’ in reasoning and problem, solving: instead they adopt one of a number of strategies that differ in scope, power and efficiency.  Such processes, in Bruner’s view, vary from individual to individual and from discipline to discipline…” (Wood, 1994: page 8) Nevertheless, Ellis (1962) assumes that all humans are wired up exactly the same way: with a set of rational beliefs and a set of irrational beliefs (of which he lists eleven in Chapter 3).

These irrational beliefs – such as “I must be loved and approved by virtually every significant other person…”, and “I must be thoroughly competent and achieving in all possible respects…” – are assumed to be the main mediators between the incoming stimulus and the outgoing (emotional/behavioural) response.

So, ‘A’ (An ‘Activating event’) occurs: Something is perceived to be happening (to me, for example).

‘B’ (My ‘belief system’) kicks in: I adopt a belief about it.

And ‘C’ (an emotional and/or behaviour Consequence) occurs: The belief determines how I feel and act towards the ‘A’ (Activating event).

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, B, 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 yoiur 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?
  27. (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?
  28. (Client): I don’t see why not. Just watch my own sentences, what I say to me?
  29. (Ellis): Yes, just that.

“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).


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:

…End of Extract.


Some reflective thoughts

To read my comments on this case presentation, you will have to wait a little while for the book to be completed, which I hope can be done within a few weeks! 🙂

Best wishes,



[i] Joines, V. and Stewart, I. (2002) Personality Adaptations: A new guide to human understanding in psychotherapy and counselling.  Nottingham and Chapel Hill: Lifespace Publishing.

[ii] Byrne, J. (2013) A Wounded psychotherapist: Albert Ellis’s childhood, and the strengths and limitations of REBT/CBT. Hebden Bridge: CreateSpace Publication Platform with the Institute for CENT.

[iii] Wood, D. (1994) How Children Think and Learn. Oxford: Blackwell.

[iv] Bruner, J.S., Goodnow, J.J. and Austin, G. (1956) A Study of Thinking. New York: Wiley.