REBT disregards the human body

Updated on 13th June 2019. 

Discounting Our Bodies:

A brief, critical review of REBT’s flaws

 

Dr Jim Byrne

The Institute for E-CENT Publications, 2019.

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Whole cover paperback 1

Introduction

Albert-Ellis-childhood-imageBefore Albert Ellis began to develop his theory of psychotherapy, in the 1950’s – see Ellis (1962) – the dominant therapies in New York City were Freudian and post-Freudian analysis, and Behaviour Therapy.  Those theories of psychotherapy contained, at their core, a physical organism: the ‘It’, or the human body.

Albert Ellis was a damaged man, who had experienced significant levels of neglect, bordering on abandonment, including spending months in hospital, at the age of four years, and again at the age of six years, with almost no visits from his parents. There is also evidence of earlier neglect at home.

It seems he developed a particular personality adaptation[1] to the ways in which his parents ignored his emotional needs. This caused him to deny his own need for emotional comfort; and he became highly stoical (just like a substantial proportion of humans raised in industrialized societies).  Then, as a teenager, he discovered books on the philosophy of Stoicism – including the writings of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca.  Those writings echoed with his own adaptation to neglect and indifference; and to emotional suffering in general. And he created his theory of psychotherapy under the influence of those philosophies of self-disregard or self-neglect; and in the process he denied or dumped the importance of the human body (which was central to earlier theories of therapy) and replaced it with a disembodied “belief system”.  A disembodied mind on legs!

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Front cover paperback 2This book is a brief, summary critique of the main errors contained in the foundations of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) theory.  And especially the invalidity of the ABC model, which asserts that nothing other than beliefs intervene between a noxious experience and an emotional-behavioural reaction. (The body is ignored!)

The aim of this book is to deconstruct the ABC’s of REBT/CBT, and extreme Stoicism, and to replace them with a more holistic, more humane, and more realistic model of the whole-body-brain-mind-environment-complexity, which is what a human being truly is.

But this is not mere humanism of the kind developed by Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow.  This is a new kind of holistic, organism-environment-dialectic. It could not have been anticipated by Dr Albert Ellis, who learned his psychology in the 1930’s and 40’s.  My critique of REBT depends upon the most recent neuroscientific discoveries; their elaboration into ‘affect-regulation theory’ and ‘interpersonal neurobiology’ (IPN); plus very recent research on the gut-brain-connection[2]. And also the biochemistry of physical exercise and the stress response. This new, cutting-edge philosophy of psychotherapy is called Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy (E-CENT).

Against Albert Ellis’s ABC model, we offer the Holistic-SOR model, which summarizes the many variables that intervene between our experiences and our emotional and behavioural performances or outputs. These include: diet and nutrition; sleep and relaxation; physical activity and exercise; family of origin experiences; current relationship experiences; current external stressors, including socioeconomic factors, and living conditions; etc.

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Back cover paperback 3Part 1 describes the background to this critique; and who the book is intended for. Target audiences include REBT and CBT practitioners; students of counselling and therapy; individuals interested in the distinction between moderate and extreme Stoicism and Buddhism; and many others.

I then describe the small element of REBT which I have retained in my approach to counselling and psychotherapy (which is a slightly modified form of Rational Emotive Imagery). And then I present a brief refutation of the core irrational beliefs of REBT, which are: demandingness; awfulizing; low-frustration tolerance; and condemning and damning of self, other people and the world.

One of the points that I make about the ABC model is this: The ABC model is an equation derived from the first century, extreme Stoic philosopher, and former slave, Epictetus.  It did not come out of cognitive science.  And it cannot be fitted into cognitive science as a significant element or component.

The ABC model could also be seen as an oversimplification of the Stimulus-Organism-Response (SOR) model of the neo-Behaviourists, who believed that the state of the organism as a whole determined its response to any incoming stimulus.

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Then, in Part 2, I explore theories of human suffering. This includes a consideration of the Stoic and Buddhist theories of suffering; Freud’s theory; plus Alan Watts, Melanie Klein and John Bowlby’s perspectives. This is followed by a brief consideration of the behaviourists, cognitive psychology, and the emergence of Albert Ellis’s theory. I then distinguish between long-suffering and short suffering approaches to therapy; and I am definitely in favour of the shortest possible approach – brief therapy – but not at the cost of dumping the client’s history and feelings.

Dr Jim's office2I then describe my ‘positionality’: or how I am positioned in relation to the discipline of REBT. I begin with how I got into studying Albert Ellis’s writings, to deal with my own career crisis; and then training as an REBT therapist; and then practicing as an REBT therapist for about 10+ years, until the death of Albert Ellis, in 2007.  My main moves away from REBT occurred between 2007 and 2009.

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 from 1975 onwards, when some of the worst forms of neoliberal insensitivity to the suffering of the poor arose in the US and the UK.

Beyond that point, on the legacy of Dr Ellis, I would add that, to the degree that he was popularizing some forms of behavioural desensitization, 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, for example, and then to reduce its intensity – which he borrowed from Maxie Maultsby Jr – was a good contribution.

Ellis was an emotionally damaged child – (because of significant neglect by his mother and father, at various points in early childhood) – who denied his emotional traumas.  And he never did any therapy to correct his childhood problems. (See Byrne, 2013). He therefore tended to promote denial of childhood suffering with his clients.

He developed an avoidant attachment style, and a particularly harsh, extreme Stoical personality adaptation; and tried to pass that on to all of his clients, as if these were signs of emotional health, when in fact they were manifestations of his psychological wounds.

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Whole cover paperback 1

Part 3 of this book is a 70 page summary of my 500 page critique, to be found in Byrne (2017) – ‘Unfit for Therapeutic Purposes’).

This part includes a consideration of the fact that we are ‘perfinking beings’ rather than ‘thinking beings’.  That is to say, we perceive-feel-think all in one grasp of the mind.  And we cannot separate our thinking from our feelings/affects/emotions.

Furthermore people really are upset by real events, and their learned responses to them, which was denied by Ellis.

As mentioned above, the alternatives to the simple ABC model is the holistic-SOR model, mentioned briefly above.  However, my journey from the simple ABC model to the holistic-SOR model passed through a developmental stage in which I developed a Complex ABC Model, linked to the Body, and also perceiving-feeling-thinking (perfinking).

I then went on to explore moderate and extreme Stoicism, and to argue that extreme Stoicism is an unrealistic form of idealism, which cannot be achieved by a human being; and certainly cannot be achieved by an average human being.

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Front cover paperback 2We are born and bred to be emotional; and Aristotle’s and Epictetus’ emphasis on how we are ‘reasoning beings’ is quite misleading.  I give a few examples to support this conclusion; and also of the extreme perspective of Marcus Aurelius.

I then explored the nature of emotions, in a way which is more realistic, and more scientific, than the perspective of Dr Albert Ellis.

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Although it is fashionable to rely upon Buddhist insights in some schools of thought in counselling and therapy today, the Buddha’s insights are far from perfect.  For example, the Buddha’s thought, as represented in the Dhammapada, includes this distortion:  “…our life is the creation of our mind”. But he forgot to add: Plus our physical existence! And our relationships, plus our experiences; plus our diet, exercise, and external stressors – including economic and political circumstances, family life, and on and on).

The most famous saying of the Stoic philosophers, in the world of cognitive counselling systems today, is this belief: “People are not upset by the things which happen to them, but rather by their attitude towards those things”.  This extremist belief is central to Rational Therapy (REBT), Cognitive Therapy (CT) and CBT in general.

That belief is also very similar to the opening statement of the Dhammapada, which represents the Buddha’s philosophy of life, in that it both blames the client for their interpretation of their experience, and ascribes to them the capacity to be indifferent to their environmental insults, hurts and defeats.

But there are some moderate principles of Stoicism that are undoubtedly helpful, and which we should probably try to practice and preach.

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Back cover paperback 3I then explore the evolutionary psychology perspective, which is better than the REBT approach, or extreme Stoicism or extreme Buddhism.

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Then there is a section showing how the roots of every individual are to be found in the arms of his or her mother, in the first couple of years of life; which Albert Ellis would never have agreed to. And this leads on to a discussion of the ‘social individual’, as opposed to the ‘separate individual’ found in rational and cognitive therapy.

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Then I present a summary critique of the ABC-D-E model; and I argue that emotion precedes thinking; and that the body is involved in emotion processing.

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Dr Jim's office2Dr Jim Byrne, Hebden Bridge, May 2019

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[1] Joines and Stewart (2002), in the References.

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

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