How Al Ellis Introduced Me to REBT and CBT

Arthur Freeman EdD

I first met Al in 1966. I was a new instructor at Rockland Community College in upstate New York. Inasmuch as I lived in Manhattan, I was the logical choice to pick Al up at the Institute and drive him to the college and then drive him back home. He was lecturing on “Sex in Contemporary Society.” Of course, subsequent to Al’s lecture the college had to present a panel composed of a priest, a minister, and a rabbi to dispel Al’s ideas.

In the early 1970’s I was a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University. I had jumped through all necessary hoops. I had completed all comprehensive examinations, all course work and had the first three chapters of my dissertation approved. I had designed my dissertation study, had run 200 subjects, had the data put on 600 punch cards and had the University computer analyze the results. The computer center presented me with several pounds of fan-folded paper. All that I had to do was write the results and discussion sections and I was done. However, it wasn’t getting done. The results sat on the desk in our spare bedroom, my study. Days, weeks and months past without my attending to the task. Questions were being asked. My advisor would ask, “Art, how is the writing coming?” My response was always, “Good, really good.” My wife would ask, “What’s happening with your dissertation?” I offered the same response, “Going good.” My mother would ask, “Wjht’s happening with this doctor thing?” Same response.

The truth was that I was stuck. I would not even look at the open door of the study when I walked past. The anxiety was too much. After about six months of this I decided that I had to do something. What does a psychologist do in this situation? We seek therapy!

I called my former psychoanalytic therapist and explained that I needed to come back to see him to deal with this writing problem. He responded that it was indeed fortuitous that I called. He was just starting a group for doctoral students who were having trouble finishing their dissertations. We met from 8-10 on Thursday mornings. There were psychology students, history students, English students and a biology student. Each week we gained more and more insight into our difficulty. No one, however, was finishing their dissertation.

I gained the insight that my problem was related to my older brother who was a dentist. Since he had the title “Doctor,” I was reluctant to complete my doctoral work and become “Doctor” because of the sibling rivalry.

After 5 months of therapy I was no closer to completion than before. I decided that the pressure of not finishing was so great that a had to do something truly desperate. I called the Institute for Rational Living and asked to schedule an appointment. The secretary asked what I did, and when I told her that I was a graduate student in Psychology she asked if I wanted to see Dr. Ellis. Of course I did. I saw him the next week for a fee of $25. for ½ hour. Inexpensive even in those days. I knew that I better prepare and rehearse for my session with Dr. Ellis. I needed to really use that ½ hour. I wrote out notes on the salient points that Dr. Ellis needed to know, about my brother, etc.
At the appointed hour, I was at the Institute, and was told to go to the second floor to Dr. Ellis’s office. Al was seated in a chaise and said, “Close the door and have a seat.” I followed his directions. So far, so good. He then asked, “How can I help you?” Well, I was ready for this. “I am having great difficulty finishing my doctoral dissertation.”

“OK” he said. “And why are you having trouble?” Again, I was ready. I was armed with insight. “I have an older brother who is a dentist, and he has the title ‘Doctor.’ I am reluctant to challenge him and also become a doctor.” Al shook his head and asked, “WHY are you having trouble finishing your dissertation?” I assume that he was hard of hearing, so I repeated more loudly, “I have an older brother who is a dentist…..” Al put up his hand and said, “Stop with the Freudian horseshit. I can see that you don’t understand. You are not finishing your dissertation because you are too lazy.”

I was appalled. First, my psychoanalytic therapist never said “horseshit.” Second, I am not lazy. I expressed my upset and anger at his accusation of my being lazy. He looked at me and said, “If that’s not the case, how would you explain your behavior?” Before I knew what was happening, Al had begun a Socratic Dialogue which ended in my convincing him that I was not lazy. He taught me about my internal dialogue, about the A’s, the B’s and the C’s. He asked me if I was waiting for dissertation elves to complete my dissertation while I slept. This really shocked me. How did he know about my fantasy?

Within six sessions, meeting every other week to allow plenty of time for homework, I completed my dissertation. I submitted it, had an oral defense, achieved the title of “Doctor,” and was quite happy. I informed the group of my progress and my achievement. When I announced that I was leaving the group at the end of the month, several group members pointed out that yes, I had completed my dissertation, but I had never resolved the problems with my brother.

In 1997, as President of AABT (now ABCT), I had the honor to present Al with an award for his lifetime contributions to behavior therapy. Al, ever the diplomat, announced the following, “The two things in my life that I am proudest of are that I cured Art Freeman of his procrastination, and of psychoanalysis.” Well, there went confidentiality! I asked Al his secret of publishing and he freely and willingly shared it with me, as he did with so many others.

I learned REBT and CBT from the master, up close and personal. When I moved to Philadelphia, Al provided me with an introduction to this psychiatrist that he knew in Philadelphia, one Aaron T. Beck. This began one of the most significant and fruitful relationships in my life and in my career.

Al changed my life, my career, and by extension, the lives and careers of the many patients and students that I have worked with over the last thirty years.

As was mentioned earlier, Al was a song writer. In his memory and honor, I have written a song. As a group shame attack exercise, I would ask that you all sing along.

To the tune of "Oh, Suzanna"

1. Oh he came from Teachers College with Sigmund in his sights,
He started small but ended up at fantastic heights.
Oh Al Ellis there’s so much we could say, For all that you have given us we honor you today.

2. He spoke of musturbation, of shoulds and musts and oughts.
He taught us how to recognize our irrational thoughts.
Oh Al Ellis there’s so much we could say, For all that you have given us we honor you today.

3. He talked the talk and walked the walk and pioneered the way,
For us to practice CBT which flourishes today.
Oh Al Ellis there’s so much we could say, For all that you have given us we honor you today.

4. He shared with us his style, a therapeutic Puck.
Who peppered his discussions with terms like shit and _______.
Oh Al Ellis there’s so much we could say, For all that you have given us we honor you today.

5. Now you’re gone, we’ll miss you, you can look down from above,
We send you this last message, “To Al, with all our love.”
Oh Al Ellis there’s so much we could say, For all that you have given us we honor you today.



All Out! An Autobiograpy
This candid autobiography, the last work by renowned psychologist Albert Ellis, is a tour de force of stimulating ideas, colorful descriptions of memorable people and events, and straightforward, no-nonsense talk. Ellis, the creator of one of the most successful forms of psychotherapy-Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)-recounts the memorable episodes of his life; discusses how he coped with emotional problems at different stages of life; describes his love life; and subjects his own self-description to a ruthlessly honest critique. Click here to buy the book.

Shameless Happiness
A concise booklet that outlines the ABCs of unhealthy negative emotions and self-defeating behavior. Shows how to dispute your irrational beliefs. Great for beginners and experienced REBTers alike. Download the book.

Albert Ellis Tribute Book Series Launched
The series will include books of readings for professionals, psychology self-help, psychotherapy theory and practice, the application of philosophy to clinical practice, professional guides for working with special populations, and classroom and college texts. Learn more about the Tribute Series

Albert Ellis Documentary
A documentary about the life and opinions of psychotherapy's most important and influential voice. Watch a preview.

New eBook Released
How to Conquer Your Frustrations by Dr. William J. Knaus. Download the free eBook.

Free e-Book: Rational Emotive Education
Dr. William J. Knaus directly, forthrightly, and with no nonsense about it, shows almost any interested teacher how he or she may use REE in the course of regular classroom lessons and other activities. Download the free e-Book.

REBT Moves Forward
The outcome of two conferences points to an exciting future for REBT. More.

International REE Committee Formed
The formation of an international committee to advance Rational Emotive Education is a major step towards the introduction of REBT to school students around the world. More.

Search This Site