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August 23, 2005

Albert Ellis, voice of $!#@ reason

The Village Voice interviews Albert Ellis, the founder of cognitive-behavioral therapy.


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» Quit bitching and move the fuck on, moron. from An Infinite Number of Monkeys
The Village Voice interviews Albert Ellis, the founder of cognitive behavioral psychologism. Personally, I always thought this psychologistic ideology was callous, nasty, and overly simplistic. (Though less crazy than Freudianism.) Ellis does very ... [Read More]


Who can not love a man that basically says get on with it and stop whining.

Cooper: Me.

I've read some very good things about CBT. It appears to be evidence based an effective. But CBT involves more than just telling people to "get over it." That alone is not effective. A depressed person can't walk five feet without someone telling them to "get over it." T.V. shrinks like Doctor Phil make their living essentially insulting and bullying people with problems. Everyone loves to watch it. The belief that people can just "get over" their depression or other mental illness is the basis for a lot of the stigma against the mentally ill.

As I understand it, CBT works by having the patient track her mood carefully, identify thought patterns and actions that lead to depressive episodes, and find ways to break those habits. It is very data driven. In some ways, that ironically makes it harder to compare to other treatments, because CBT not only scores high on the tests, but it developed the metrics that the tests use. It is really a very Kuhnian situation. In any case, there is much more here than simply being told to "get over it" by a Doctor Phil type.

I actually didn't know that the founder of cBT presented himself in such a "get over yourself" fashion. I guess there is a split between what sells the books and what cures the patients.

I happened to get a few of Albert Ellis's books when I was in a bout of depression a few years back. While I found them to be good advice, what always bugged me is that in the back of his books, Ellis has a number of pamphlets that evidence a treatment of homosexuality/bisexuality as a pathology. Stuff like borderline stuff on "How Women Subconsciously Make Their Husbands Seek Out Sex With Men," but also pretty ex-gay sounding stuff that promises to "cure" homosexual tendencies.

I don't have the books before me, but I remember at how revulsed I was when I first finished one of Ellis' books and saw those pamphlets for sale. Wonder if there's anything on his possibly dodgy views?

I remember this cat...I believe he was involved with the guy who wrote "The Games People Play" and that there was some litigation involved. I remember thinking his books read like primers, even when I was in High School. And if you put his techniques into action, all you're doing is constantly second-guessing yourself into a morass.

Ellis usually calls his approach Rational Emotive Therapy. Other kinds of cognitive behavior therapy are much more popular and much less aggressive. They mostly involve rehearsing 'healthy' thoughts, usually in conjunction with images of stressful situations.

I remember a film of Ellis in action berating a patient. The patient seemed to enjoy it. But I suppose some of his patients must have had enough after one session. I can just imagine:

Ellis: You're an idiot, that's such a stupid thing to think.

Gary: No, you're an idiot. If your thoughts were correct, you wouldn't be so obnoxious.

Anyway, depression is arrogant? I know what he's getting at, but that's about as close as you can get to saying down is up.


My take on CBT is that if you own your shit, it's easier to refuse to own everyone else's, so it's salutary to figure out which is which. Not a bad thing.

My take on Dr. Ellis is that he's a power-tripping jerk.

I just think it's Ding Dong School time stuff.

Ellis thinks that depression is indulgent because it's based on irrational assumptions that the sufferer could dispell. Bad emotions aren't necessarily irrational, but chronically bad moods usually have more to do with the person's style of thinking about their circumstances than the objective goodness or badness of their situation.

According to him, the world is the way it is, and we should all adjust our thinking to resign ourselves to anything we can't change. In the first world, most of the bad stuff isn't immediately imposing on us at any given instance.

Yet, very often, we waste time dreading bad stuff that might happen, or resenting the fact that we have to face bad stuff, or worrying about whether we can cope with the bad stuff. All these second-order bad emotions are irrational, in Ellis's view. If you really can't change something, don't allow yourself to feel bad about it.

Easier said than done, I know. And Ellis is verbally abusive, which I doubt is helpful to most patients who are struggling to develop a sense of agency.

I like a lot of CBT because it's so darn effective, and it can be empowering, but I've seen it radically misapplied twice to the point of being damaging. Ignoring the past can work for some people, but without acknowledging root issues other people can end up in a repressive/depressive cycle. IE: My dad beat me constantly (because I suck), I'm unhappy (because I suck?), I better get happy because to be unhappy is irrational: JOY! JOY! PASS THE CRYSTAL METH!

The because-I-sucks are fundamentally untrue, but - in the context of dealing with childhood trauma - not necessarily irrational as a coping mechanism or developmental phase. It's just a mechanism/phase that's not useful in an adult context. Telling a depressed person that the first ideation is irrational can be a damn good way to create the second ideation and prevent the person from the sort of liberated cognitions that Ellis supports.


I agree, basically, but I want to emphasize the easier said than done part.

Depression involves bad second order emotions and dysfunctional habits of thought. Also, the very stoic point about changing your emotions when you can't change the world is an exceptional and old piece of wisdom. And yes, people who are clinically depressed have reactions that are disproportionate to their actual circumstances. I would even say that this is a defining feature of clinic depression, as opposed to ordinary unhappiness.

One of the reasons I think CBT is finally catching on now is that psychologists are recognizing a strong genetic component to depression. As a result, the lingering Freudean emphasis on finding roots of depression in childhood finally bit the dust, and people can turn to treatments that say "forget the past, what can be done about the present."

All of these things are stuff from Ellis' Rational Emptional Therapy that made it into contemporary CBT. A lot of other people have contributed to it, though. Googling around gives me the impression that the work of a guy named Aaron Beck is equally important.

None of this makes Ellis apparant fondness for blaming the sick justifiable. The biggest symptoms of depression are lack of energy and muddled thinking. This makes it very hard to take even simple measures to get better. A big parallel here is obesity. Yes, in the end the cure for obesity is diet and exercise, but stigmatizing fat people is not effective treatment.

Most psychological disorders are in moral terms, vices. This is an important truth, if only because it shows that there is actually a moral imperative to get well. But in blending the moral and the scientific, we need to jettison a lot of pointless shaming and blaming.


Good point. It would be interesting to see if CBT if less effetive in situations where there is an obvious childhood trauma at work than it is in cases where there are mostly deep biological causes at work, like genetics, uterine environment, stuff that is not easily characterized in ordinary social terms.

The insight of CBT is to approach the "I suck" aspect first, without necessarily going through the past baggage as a means to an end.

Psychoanalytic theories say that you need to explore your traumas and re-live them in a therapeutic context in order to feel better.

Suppose an abuse survivor wants therapy for depression. CBT tries to identify the thought patterns that are immediately responsible and teach the patient how to correct those. I.e. the person telling themselves that they are worthless every time they make a minor mistake. (A more psychoanalytically inclined therapist might think it's important to explore how the patient learned to panic at every small misstep, i.e., maybe because they got hit for stuff like that.)

CBT teaches them to step back and say "I made a mistake, but it doesn't follow that I'm a bad person." or "So and so is angry with me, but that doesn't mean she's going to stop loving me, or that I'm a terrible parent."

Ellis's slogans aside, CBT isn't just an injunction to forget the past. Sometimes the past is causing present unhappiness because the patient wants to talk about their experiences, or bring an abuser to justice, or get an apology, or whatever.

The CBT therapist might help the patient unlearn irrational barriers to doing what they need to do. "If I tell my husband what happened, he won't love me." Or "I can't testify against my abuser." CBT might say, "Well, physically you can, and you know you'd feel a lot better if you did. So, here are exercises you can do to cope with the anxiety and become more confident in your ability to manage those feelings."

I'm certainly not a fan of the dog returning endlessly to its own vomit freudian approach, but a lot of how we react is shaped by experience, and the framing we put on the bad things that happen so they become manageable. Mommy is mean to me because I'm bad is a lot less scary for a child than Mommy (the person who I need to protect me and keep me safe and explain how to live in the world) is mean to me because she's not a nice or kind or rational person and she isn't really in control of herself enough to behave well.

It makes a lot more sense to let the person revisit some of what got them where they are and what the thinking is behind their negative assumptions about themselves than to teach them a bunch of pavlovian tricks to make them a better-functioning cripple.

It sounds to me as if Ellis is just giving them a new alpha abuser to try to please. It also sounds as if he enjoys the transference a little too much.

I'm sure Ellis is a terrible therapist. He's much better as a theorist and popularizer.

I'm sure even Ellis would agree that it's often easier to unlearn stuff when you know how it got learned in the first place. Often people need help articulating exactly what their irrational thoughts are and understanding what triggers them.

The main difference between CBT and psychodynamic therapies is just that CBT doesn't consider the revisitation process to be intrinsically therapeutic.

About "I suck" and its opposite "I rule." When I think I suck or rule, I'm simultaneously caring or not caring very much about whether I suck or rule.

So depression would be "it's a big deal that I suck" and arrogance would be "it's a big deal that I rule."

So if you must accept that you suck, you can at least see that in perspective - who cares if you suck? You can still be a happy loser.

As for sufferers of arrogance, I doubt that they seek therapy quite as often.

Interesting how people reinvent themselves. My father thinks of Albert Ellis as the Great Sexual Libertarian and Ayn Rand Debunker of the Fifties and Sixties (his books from that era advocate polyamory and suggest that bisexuality is the healthiest orientation). My peers, of course, associate him with the REBT movement, the self-help books, the album of songs taunting depressives, and David Burns's Feeling Good, which casts Albert Ellis and Aaron T. Beck as the good and bad cop of CBT.

Every decade a new therapy emerges about the same way diets do. I remember when BF Skinner was all the rage, later to be sued by his daughter for his experimenting on her. It screwed her good a proper.

There's always a grain of truth to these theories, but they usually fail to muster long term validity or a comprehensive look at the totality of human existence. CBT fails to deal with the physiologic aspects of depression, which are real and quantifiably verifiable, preferring an almost EST approach. Sort of “whats a matter you f@!# can’t you handle reality,”an approach worthy of a army drill sergeant on meth.

It has helped some people and it has hurt some people too. If it really could make people stop being irrational I’d pay my tax dollars happily to have it given freely to the citizens in the red states.

Actually, Skinner didn't raise his daughter in a Skinner box, and she>didn't sue him. He invented a climate-controlled crib for his daughter because he felt that baby clothes and diapers were restrictive and unhygienic.

But still, there were bells and dog kibble.

I knew a guy whose father was a famous behaviorist. He was the most outwardly screwy person I've ever known.

A lot of Ellis's therapy sounds to me very much like buddhist psychology, in that both emphasize coming to terms with how things are now and postive thinking.

In this vein, I view him as a sort of zen figure. He attempts, through cursing, being outlandish, etc, to shock people into the realization that they can change their destructive patterns. He's not always great about it, maybe, but I can see and appreciate what he is trying to do. In particular, I think there is an aspect of self love missing, whereby people will not be able to make constructive patterns to replace the destructive ones until they cultivate a healthy amount of love for who they are. In theory, he recognized this, by urging acceptence, but in actuality, I think he underemphasized it.

And Lindsay is right about skinner. That is a stupid myth.

mudkitty, you said "morass"?.. and "Ding Dong Scxhool"? You don't seem to be buying the "latter-day Marpa" line of, um, reasoning... hmmm
Re: .."Most psychological disorders are in moral terms, vices.." Oooh... Ick! Vice is nixed! (However, my own cure is, as well-- half a perc with my morning citrus and milk thistle, and 15 minutes with the guitar, and I'm "Good for the whole day"... if I stay away from news broadcasts.)

I went to the Albert Ellis Institute on E. 65th off Central Park for therapy once a week for several months trying to get help for recurring depression. Don't mistake Albert Ellis' personality with REBT. My therapist wasn't the least bit abrasive.

Part of the REBT therapy is the therapist feeding your own statements and recent actions back to you, reviewing them, and seeing how your demonstrated behavior advances you towards your stated goals. Plenty of times what I said and did were different and together with the REBT therapist you reexamine whether A) you were full of shit when you explained your goals, B) you are not working towards your goals, or C) you are sabotaging yourself.

How any individual therapist goes about that is as much personality and competence as anything else. Maybe Albert Ellis is an SOB, but he's not running a personality cult. He's an outsized figure with a healthy ego but REBT struck me more as a technique for learning about your own behavior than any grand school of thought. Like an algebra equation you only get answers from REBT when you can assign a value to the variable. The variable in this case is your own perceptions of your actions.

There is plenty I didn't agree with while doing the REBT sessions but less so than in other schools of therapy. REBT has some weird quirks with language. Romantics are labelled "love slobs" and I found the hyper rational approach at odds with my enjoyment of many kinds of art, music and literature, which could be viewed as frivolous if rationality is taken to an extreme.

Anyway - these are the ramblings of a patient, not a psychologist. I recommend checking out the Albert Ellis Institute if you are in New York and interested in psychology. They have many one day programs and it's in a nice neighborhood off Central Park and worth poking your head inside to see what it's all about. If you don't have a lot of money they also have programs for you at reduced rates. Ultimately I found REBT was a useful tool to deal with problems that seemed overwhelming.

Ellis in his article states...

"Do you think depression is indulgent? Yes, it's "I run the fucking universe and it should do my bidding." That's arrogant and indulgent."

Clinical depression is more than an attitudinal adjustment of the type that Ellis suggests. There are big time physiological changes in brain chemistry that are well researched and documented.

When you talk about real "clinical depression" that is not something that is going to go away with simply doing attitude adjustment exercises.

"bells and dog kibble" are associated with Pavlov and Classical Conditioning.

Skinner is associated with Operant Conditioning, the model of which holds essentially that when an operant (a spontaneous behavior) is reinforced the probability of its reoccurrence increases.

Skinner's work was very useful, but he has been much maligned by some who do not understand experimental psychology.

Its true that the stuff about Skinner's daughter was fabricated by several publications and his work in experimental psychology today still stands. This work was built upon Pavlov's work and stands the test of time.

It is the rest of his writings that are in question. As one author noted...

" In 1971 Skinner published Beyond Freedom and Dignity, a controversial book in which he argued that freedom was a euphemism for the desire to escape all restraint and that humanity would derive greater benefit from a more systematic program of behavioral technology. That seemed to confirm his critics' view that he conceived of people as lab rats. His insistence that internal mental states and processes didn't exist because they couldn't be measured was simplistic. Even if you take a purely mechanistic view of human behavior, we manifestly have some capacity for independent action. For all Skinner's insistence on science, his philosophical musings were unsupported by data. Still, he remains one of the towering figures in the field, a welcome counterweight to the quackery of Freud."

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