Albert Ellis: The Abrasive Mentor

Albert_EllisProvocative, controversial, and energizing, Dr. Albert Ellis (1913-2007), the creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), was one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. His work on cognitive psychology, action orientation, confronting irrational beliefs, the importance of emotional growth, and challenge to the prevailing dominance of psychoanalytic psychotherapy, gave rise to one of the foundations of what is today called cognitive coaching.

As a student in high school Albert Ellis planned on studying accounting, make enough money to retire at age 30, and become the great American novelist. He devoted most of his time to writing short stories, plays, novels, comic poetry, essays and non-fiction books. The Depression that began in 1929 reduced his brief interest in a business career, and he found that non-fiction writing was more to his liking than producing fiction. He started to write about the field of human sexuality and became a noted expert and informal counselor in this area. His peer counseling led him to discover his calling in this field, and he began to steer towards a career in clinical psychology.

When he received his doctorate in clinical psychology from Columbia University in 1947, he was an ardent supporter of psychoanalysis. But his faith in this technique began to wane when he found that clients stayed the same whether he met with them daily or weekly. He started to inject advice into the sessions and discovered that his clients actually improved when he pointed out their “crooked way of thinking.” One of his critics believed this patient improvement was just a way to get Dr. Ellis to stop talking. Dr. Ellis, however, believed that patients had to take immediate action to change their behavior. “Neurosis,” he said, was “just a high-class word for whining.”

In 1965 when I was a graduate student in the clinical-school psychology program at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University), the film Three Approaches to Psychotherapy (available on YouTube) was the most frequently viewed and widely-discussed movie about therapy. In the film, Albert Ellis (Rational-Emotive), Carl Rogers (Client-Centered) and Fritz Perls (Gestalt) took turns conducting therapy with the same patient: “Gloria.” At the end of the 36-minute film, the producer and director of the film, Everett Shostrom, interviewed Gloria about her experience of therapy with the three greats and rivals.

As graduate students we argued late into the night on many occasions about the therapists’ techniques and Gloria’s reactions. Dr. Ellis always seemed to receive the most criticism because of his abrupt and abrasive manner. The criticism acted as a catalyst when Dr. Ellis was scheduled to be a keynote speaker at the American Psychology Association conference in our city. All the students in our grad program eagerly got tickets to the event.

As part of his talk, Dr. Ellis solicited a volunteer from the audience so that he could demonstrate some of the principles of REBT. His interaction with the volunteer was surprisingly humorous and provocative. As a result of his style, he was nicknamed “the Lenny Bruce of psychotherapy.” (For those too young to remember Lenny Bruce, he was probably the first stand-up comedian to focus on politics, civics, and real events in highly caustic rants filled with “forbidden” words.)

I recall one of my fellow students saying after the demonstration, “Dr. Ellis has some great ideas and practices for helping people make significant changes. Too bad he’s the one using them.” Because Dr. Ellis was often described as cold and aloof with an abrasive demeanor, many people were surprised to learn that Dr. Ellis was a personal mentor to many junior psychotherapists. In a research study conducted with 150 psychotherapists in 1999, 75 percent reported that Dr. Ellis had been a personal mentor (Johnson, Digiuseppe, & Ulven). Dr. Ellis published over 54 books and 600 articles on REBT, and at the time of his death he was President Emeritus of the Albert Ellis Institute (formerly the Institute of Rational Living) in New York.