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My first reaction to Albert Ellis's book Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: It Works for Me -- It Can Work for You was one of
disappointment. Here seems to be a book that is neither fish nor fowl. It
contains a great deal of autobiography liberally mixed with discussions
concerning the foundational elements of therapy along some focus on self-help.
Upon further reflection, however, I believe that this book does contain many
important insights for lay readers, philosophers, psychologists, and
Most readers should be familiar with Ellis's
pioneering work in REBT (Rational-Emotive-Behavior-Therapy). This therapy is
based on the insight dating back to the views of the ancient Stoic philosophers
that it is not events or circumstances in our lives that lead to unhappiness
and associated unhealthy mental consequences, but rather our reaction to these
events or circumstances. It is our irrational beliefs about and reactions to
these events and circumstances that lead to unhealthy consequences. Ellis views
the role of the therapist as someone who helps the patient discover, confront,
and challenge these irrational beliefs and reactions and, in turn, replace them
with rational beliefs and reactions. For readers unfamiliar with REBT, Ellis
includes in his book a section listing some selected references on REBT, and an
appendix with some pointers on how to apply REBT in ones own life.
I think, however, that the most important aspects of
this book do not really involve the passages where Ellis is describing how he used
REBT in some aspect of his own life. Instead I believe what is important is
that we have an opportunity to see a major figure reflect on the genesis of his
own ideas. For instance, Ellis credits and early and intense devotion to
philosophy ( as a teenager) for exposing him to the ideas of the Stoics. In a
number of passages he explicitly credits Alfred Korzybski (an early pioneer of
the approach to language and meaning known as General Semantics). Also, Ellis
clearly demonstrates just how much many of the events in his long and
interesting life helped to shape his theories concerning REBT and his
investigations concerning the psychology of love and sex.
Two chapters that I found especially interesting and
important were chapters 9 and 10. In chapter 9, Ellis surprisingly discusses
his failure as a writer. It turns out that he had long nurtured an ambition to
write fiction (perhaps even the "great American novel"). Alas, all
his efforts over the years met with nothing more than rejection. Dealing with
such failures throughout his life seems to have been instrumental in his
development of REBT.† Thus, it seems
that one underlying message of this book is that Ellis views himself not simply
as the developer and expositor of the theories underlying REBT, but rather in
an important sense Ellis believes that his life is something of an embodiment
In chapter 10, Ellis addresses his views concerning
atheism and religion. Ellis has been an unapologetic atheist since his early
youth. He describes his atheism as a sort of "probabilistic atheism"
as opposed to a dogmatic insistence that God does not exist. Thus, Ellis admits
that it is possible for there to be a God or other supernatural entities, but
he believes that this is extremely improbable. Ellis also admits that his
attitude towards religion has changed somewhat over the years. He went from
viewing all conventional religion and religious beliefs as being irrational and
psychologically unhealthy to viewing what he calls "religiosity" as
the "real culprit." He identifies this religiosity as being the same
sort of attitude as the "true believerism" addressed by Eric Hoffer.
That is, he characterizes it as a dogmatic and totalistic attitude with respect
to any sort of belief system that concerns itself with how we should live.
Moreover, partly as a result of his interactions with religious practitioners
of REBT, Ellis has come to believe that not all such "rigid beliefs"
Overall, I believe that Ellis's book is worth
reading, but I believe that the reader should perhaps ignore the somewhat
misleading title and simply be open to what this remarkable individual has to
say. Ellis is not really presenting the events of his life as examples for some
sort of self-help tome. Instead, he is giving us a valuable, rare, and very
personal glimpse into the events, attitudes, and thinking in his life that
helped shape one of the most important contemporary approaches to psychological
© 2005 Kelly Joseph Salsbery
Kelly Joseph Salsbery, Ph.D., is an Assistant
Professor of Philosophy in the Department of English and Philosophy at Stephen
F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas (where he resides with his
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