My Irrational Fondness of Al Ellis
By Gerald Corey, Ed.D., ABPP
My early contacts with Al Ellis were in the mid-1970 when I was writing the first edition of my theories of counseling text. I included a chapter on what was then known as “rational emotive therapy” and after I wrote the chapter I anxiously sent it to Al Ellis to review. My fondness for this man began at that time, for I was struck with how kind he was and how promptly he responded with suggestions for improving the chapter. Over the past 30 years, I have sent him many chapters dealing with his theory and always found him to be helpful, attentive to detail, supportive, and quick to reply. I have been impressed with how busy his life was, yet he did make the time to respond to requests.
In the 1980s our department invited Albert Ellis to present a one-day workshop for our students. Again, he was very willing to come to California to do this workshop and he even agreed to come to dinner at a student’s house after the workshop. As he typically did, Al conducted a few live demonstrations with the students. Although he had a reputation for being rather abrasive, he treated those who volunteered with respect, while challenging them to actively and forcefully debate their irrational beliefs. He was known to attack irrational thinking, but I did not observe that he attacked the person with whom he was working. His coming to our university showed me that he was eager to spread the gospel according to St. Albert in a relatively small university, in addition to traveling all over the world to teach others about his approach, which came to be known as rational emotive behavior therapy.
He can truly be called the father of rational emotive behavior therapy and the grandfather of cognitive behavior therapy. I like that he acknowledged his debt to Alfred Adler and Greek philosophers as the foundation of his approach. Al was certainly an accomplished individual and a person who seemed to live to work. He published over 75 books and more than 800 articles, mostly on the theory and applications of REBT. Until his illness during the last two years of his life, he generally worked 16 hours a day, seeing many clients for individual therapy, making time each day for professional writing, and giving numerous talks and workshops in many parts of the world. Even during his recent illnesses, he would meet with students at his bedside. One of his last workshops was to a group of students from Belgium who visited him in the hospital. In addition to pneumonia, he had had a heart attack that morning, yet he refused to cancel this meeting with the students.
People who heard Ellis lecture often commented on his abrasive, humorous, and colorful style. He did see himself as more confrontive than most in his workshops, and he also considered himself startling in some ways. In his workshops it seemed that he took delight in giving vent to his eccentric side, such as peppering his speech with four-lettered words. If he deemed what a client was saying was not rational, he often would loudly exclaim “horseshit!” Then he would ask where it was written that we must cling to an irrational belief.
Without doubt Albert Ellis made a major impact on the field of counseling and psychotherapy. He was a pioneer who was willing to venture outside of the box of conventional thinking. Even though some of his ideas may have seemed radical when he began formulating his approach in the 1950s, he challenged professionals to think of other ways of doing things.
I especially value his focus on faulty thinking as the basis for present behavioral difficulties. In many ways, our beliefs have a strong influence on how we feel and what we do. He taught us that there is an interactive effect of thinking, feeling, and behaving. I greatly appreciated his emphasis on the importance of hard work being necessary for change. He demolished the notion that gaining insights alone will lead to a happier life. For him, we had to be willing to go out into the world a practice, practice, and practice if we hoped to change. If we had a fear, then we had better face that fear and challenge our thinking that kept us from acting. He showed us how essential homework was as an instrument of change. One of his favorite techniques was the PYA intervention — “push your ass.” Al demonstrated that we had to take action and do the very things we tended to avoid, if we wanted to change some self-defeating patterns. His famous “shame-attacking exercises” were another example of being willing to confront our fears head on and not let them get the best of us. I appreciate how he developed many practical strategies in assisting us to reconstruct our beliefs that could hold us back.
More than his techniques, I view his general philosophy that undergirds the practice of psychotherapy as his major contribution to the field. There was only one Al Ellis, and anyone trying to copy him would be an imitation at best. Furthermore, I don’t think Al wanted disciples to follow him in the sense of copying his therapeutic style. My guess would be that he wanted each person to develop his or her own unique style of doing therapy. My prediction is that many of the basic concepts and fundamental principles of rational emotive behavior therapy will live on for many years to come. Today the cognitive behavioral therapies are among the most popular therapeutic approaches, and his mark has been made on many of these models. To my way of thinking, the greatest tribute to Al Ellis would be for his approach to continue to develop and evolve with the changing demands of contemporary society. Although much of his basic philosophy may remain intact, I would expect that the emphasis and practical applications will change over time. This is how Al would have wanted it!
Like Alfred Adler, Al Ellis brought therapy to the common person. His Friday night workshops that he did for many years (for a mere $5) is but one example of his passion to interact with the common person and to help him or her to adopt a more rational approach to living. I also appreciate Al’s simplicity and his non-extravagent lifestyle. He took about as much as a priest would earn for his personal living expenses, and then gave any profits he made to the Institute that he founded. He was certainly not driven by money and worldly pursuits, and this I find admirable.
Al Ellis certainly walked his talk and applied the principles of REBT to his life. Through his example, he taught people how to deal with serious adversities. He enjoyed writing rational humorous songs and said that he would like to have been a composer had he not become a psychologist. In his 2004 book, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: It Works for Me — It Can Work for You, Albert Ellis wrote about how he had developed the ability to cope with many challenges without allowing himself to give up.
Historically, Al Ellis declared himself as an atheist and had long been critical of dogmatic religions that instilled guilt in people. He wrote about the core philosophies that can either improve our mental health or can lead to disturbances. Although his tone softened over the years, he was still critical of any philosophies that promoted rigid beliefs. From what I know about Al, I would say that he was motivated by some spiritual values, especially in his desire to help others create a better life for themselves. Al was driven by his passion to teach people about REBT and I think his “religion” was embodied in the principles and practices of REBT. In another 2004 book, The Road to Tolerance, Albert Ellis writes about religion and his philosophy of tolerance. It is my guess that Al is still conducting workshops today in heaven!
When Al was 90 he married an Australian psychologist, Debbie Joffe, whom he called “the greatest love of my life” at the Evolution of Psychotherapy conference in Anaheim in December 2005. He also said that he had never been happier in his life. Indeed, Al Ellis seemed to find a will to live until his last days.
About the Author
Professor Emeritus of Human Services
California State University, Fullerton