Albert Ellis (September 27, 1913 – July 24, 2007) was an American psychologist who in 1955 developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. He was considered by many to be the grandfather of cognitive-behavioral therapies, whose key construct is that irrational beliefs on the part of the individual lead to emotional pain. His therapeutic method differed greatly from the psychoanalytic approach that dominated when he began his career. For Ellis, active efforts to change the client's self-defeating beliefs were the key to resolving problems and becoming healthy. Typical of these self-defeating beliefs are "I must be perfect" and "I must be loved by everyone." Ellis developed a directive therapy program that caused the client to analyze their beliefs, recognize their irrationality, and construct more rational ones in their place. Thus, he believed that through cognitive changes the emotional life of the individual would be improved.
Ellis was a pioneer in the therapy, rejecting the psychoanalytic tradition that had dominated for years, and equally rejecting behaviorism and those that promoted religion as supportive of psychological health. For Ellis it was the intellect that dominates our life; when we hold on dogmatically to an irrational belief whether that be religious dogma, uncritical acceptance of a political or scientific doctrine, or the need for individual achievement and perfection, it becomes unhealthy. The way to psychological health, therefore, for Ellis was to develop healthy thinking, which he defined as rational thought unadulterated by such dogmatic beliefs. Despite his atheism, Ellis acknowledged that belief in a loving God was psychologically healthy. Taking this further, which Ellis did not do, one can realize that it is true love that brings health, not merely correct thinking.
Albert Ellis was born on September 27, 1913 to a Jewish family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the eldest of three children. Ellis' father was a businessman, often away from home on business trips who reportedly showed only a modicum of affection to his children.
In his autobiography, Ellis characterized his mother as a self-absorbed woman with a bipolar disorder. At times, according to Ellis, she was a "bustling chatterbox who never listened." She would expound on her strong opinions on most subjects but rarely provided a factual basis for these views. Like his father, Ellis' mother was emotionally distant from her children. Ellis recounted that she was often sleeping when he left for school and usually not home when he returned. Instead of reporting feeling bitter, he took on the responsibility of caring for his siblings. He purchased an alarm clock with his own money and woke and dressed his younger brother and sister. When the Great Depression struck, all three children sought work to assist the family.
Ellis was sickly as a child and suffered numerous health problems through his youth. At the age of five he was hospitalized with a kidney disease.  He was also hospitalized with tonsillitis, which led to a severe streptococcal infection requiring emergency surgery. He reported that he had eight hospitalizations between the ages of five and seven. One of these lasted nearly a year. His parents provided little or no emotional support for him during these years, rarely visiting or consoling him. Ellis stated that he learned to confront his adversities as he had "developed a growing indifference to that dereliction."
Ellis entered the field of clinical psychology after first earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in business from the City University of New York. He began a brief career in business, followed by one as a writer. These endeavors took place during the Great Depression that began in 1929, and Ellis found that business was poor and had no success in publishing his fiction. Finding that he could write non-fiction well, Ellis researched and wrote on human sexuality. His lay counseling in this subject convinced him to seek a new career in clinical psychology.
In 1942, Ellis began his studies for a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, which trained psychologists mostly in psychoanalysis.
He completed his Master of Arts in clinical psychology from Columbia University in June 1943, and started a part-time private practice while still working on his Ph.D degree – possibly because there was no licensing of psychologists in New York at that time. Ellis began publishing articles even before receiving his Ph.D.; in 1946 he wrote a critique of many widely-used pencil-and-paper personality tests. He concluded that only the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory met the standards of a research-based instrument.
In 2004 Ellis was taken ill with serious intestinal problems, which led to hospitalization and the removal of his large intestine. He returned to work after a few months of being nursed back to health by Debbie Joffe, his assistant, who later became his wife.
In 2005 he was subjected to removal from all his professional duties, and from the board of his own institute after a dispute over the management policies of the institute. Ellis was reinstated to the board in January 2006, after winning civil proceedings against the board members who removed him. On June 6, 2007, lawyers acting for Albert Ellis filed a suit against the Albert Ellis Institute in the Supreme Court of the State of New York. The suit alleges a breach of a long-term contract with the AEI and sought recovery of the 45 East Sixty-fifth Street property through the imposition of a constructive trust.
In April 2006, Ellis was hospitalized with pneumonia, and spent more than a year shuttling between hospital and a rehabilitation facility. He eventually returned to his residence on the top floor of the Albert Ellis Institute. His final work—a textbook on Personality Theory—was completed shortly before his death. It will be posthumously published by Sage Press in early 2008.
Ellis's age and ill health did not prevent him from working and teaching. He once said at 90 years of age:
“I’ll retire when I’m dead, While I’m alive, I want to keep doing what I want to do. See people. Give workshops. Write and preach the gospel according to St. Albert.”
He died on July 24, 2007 from natural causes, aged 93.
Shortly after receiving his Ph.D. in 1947, Ellis began a personal analysis and program of supervision with Richard Hulbeck (whose own analyst had been Hermann Rorschach, a leading training analyst at the Karen Horney Institute.) Karen Horney would be the single greatest influence in Ellis' thinking, although the writings of Alfred Adler, Erich Fromm and Harry Stack Sullivan also played a role in shaping his psychological models. Ellis credits Alfred Korzybski and his book, Science and Sanity, for starting him on the philosophical path for founding rational-emotive therapy.
By January 1953, his break with psychoanalysis was complete, and he began calling himself a rational therapist. Ellis was now advocating a new more active and directive type of psychotherapy. By 1955 he dubbed his new approach Rational Therapy (RT). RT required that the therapist help the client understand—and act on the understanding—that his personal philosophy contains beliefs that lead to his own emotional pain. This new approach stressed actively working to change a client's self-defeating beliefs and behaviors by demonstrating their irrationality and rigidity. Ellis related everything to these core irrational beliefs such as "I must be perfect" and "I must be loved by everyone." Ellis believed that through rational analysis, people can understand their errors in light of the core irrational beliefs and then construct a more rational position.
In 1954 Ellis began teaching his new technique to other therapists, and by 1957 he formally set forth the first cognitive behavior therapy by proposing that therapists help people adjust their thinking and behavior as the treatment for neuroses. Two years later Ellis published How to Live with a Neurotic, which elaborated on his new method. In 1960 Ellis presented a paper on his new approach at the American Psychological Association convention in Chicago. There was mild interest, but few recognized that the paradigm set forth would become the zeitgeist within a generation.
At that time the prevailing interest in experimental psychology was behaviorism, while in clinical psychology it was the psychoanalytic schools of notables such as Freud, Jung, Adler, and Perls. Despite the fact that Ellis' approach emphasized cognitive, emotive, and behavioral methods, his strong cognitive emphasis provoked almost everyone with the possible exception of the followers of Alfred Adler. Consequently, he was often received with hostility at professional conferences and in print.
Despite the slow adoption of his approach, Ellis founded his own institute. The Institute for Rational Living was founded as a not-for-profit organization in 1959. By 1968 it was chartered by the New York State Board of Regents as a training institute and psychological clinic. This was no trivial feat as New York State had a Mental Hygiene Act which mandated "psychiatric management" of mental health clinics. Ellis had broken ground by founding an institute purely based on psychological control and principles.
In 1965 Ellis published a book entitled Homosexuality: Its Causes and Cure, which saw homosexuality as a pathology and therefore a condition to be cured. He was writing a decade after the Kinsey Reports, which had found homosexual behavior was relatively common in both men and women. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association declared that homosexuality was no longer a mental disorder and thus not properly subject to cure and in 1976 Ellis repudiated his earlier views in Sex and the Liberated Man, going on to become strongly supportive of the rights of gays, lesbians, and others.
In 2003 Ellis received an award from the Association for Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (UK) for the formulation and development of REBT. At the same time he celebrated his 90th birthday, an event attended by luminaries such as Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama.
In describing his insights that undergird REBT, Albert Ellis said: Humans, unlike just about all the other animals on earth, create fairly sophisticated languages which not only enable them to think about their feeling, and their actions, and the results they get from doing and not doing certain things, but they also are able to think about their thinking and even think about thinking about their thinking. … because of their self-consciousness and their ability to think about their thinking, they can very easily disturb themselves about their disturbances and can also disturb themselves about their ineffective attempts to overcome their emotional disturbances.
Thus, for Ellis thinking is the most powerful force in human life, for good or ill.
In his book Sex Without Guilt, Ellis expressed the opinion that religious restrictions on sexual expression are needless and often harmful to emotional health. He famously debated religious psychologists, including O. Hobart Mowrer and Allen Bergin, over the proposition that religion contributes to psychological distress. Because of his forthright espousal of a nontheistic humanism, he was recognized in 1971 as Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association.
While Ellis’ personal atheism remained consistent, his views about the role of religion in mental health changed over time. In early comments delivered at conventions and at his institute in New York City, Ellis overtly and often with characteristically acerbic sarcasm stated that devout religious beliefs and practices were harmful to mental health. In The Case Against Religiosity, a 1983 pamphlet published by his New York institute, he offered an idiosyncratic definition of religiosity as any devout, dogmatic, demanding belief. He noted that religious codes and religious individuals often manifest religiosity, but added that devout, demanding religiosity is also obvious among many psychoanalysts, communists, and aggressive atheists. He proposed that intolerance of any set of beliefs with which one disagrees is common in organized religion.
Ellis was careful to state that REBT was independent of his atheism, noting that many skilled REBT practitioners are religious, including some who are ordained ministers. While Ellis maintained his stance, proposing that thoughtful, probabilistic atheism is likely the most emotionally healthy approach to life, he acknowledged and agreed with survey evidence suggesting that belief in a loving God is also psychologically healthy. Based on this later approach to religion, he co-authored a book describing principles for integrating religious material and beliefs with REBT during treatment of religious clients, Counseling and Psychotherapy with Religious Persons: A Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Approach.
Ellis founded and was the president and president emeritus of the New York City-based Albert Ellis Institute. In 1985, the American Psychological Association presented Albert Ellis with its award for “distinguished professional contributions.”
"I believe he's a major icon of the twentieth century and that he did help to open up a whole new era of psychotherapy," said Aaron T. Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy.
Based on a 1982 professional survey of U.S. and Canadian psychologists, 25 years before his death, Ellis was voted one of the most influential psychotherapists in history; (Carl Rogers placed first in the survey; Sigmund Freud placed third).
After Ellis' death, Robert O’Connell, Executive Director of Albert Ellis Institute, noted:
We all owe a great debt to Dr. Ellis. His students and clients will remember him for his tremendous insight and dedication as a psychotherapist. His innovations in the field will continue to influence the practice of psychotherapy for decades to come, and the institute he founded will continue to provide outstanding professional education programs and treatment based on the principles of REBT which he originated.
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