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by Albert Ellis
Prometheus Books, 2001
Review by Jürgen Klecker, Dipl.-Psych. on Sep 15th 2002

Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and Behaviors

In the 1950s, when psychotherapy told of dark, irrational things like repressed drives, the self or reflexes, psychologist Albert Ellis formed a rather unusual theory: people develop mental disorders because they hold irrational beliefs.

Based on this assumption, Ellis developed a therapeutic strategy in which the client’s irrational beliefs are identified, challenged, and replaced by more rational ones -- all of this through philosophical dispute. To Ellis, irrational beliefs usually take the form of “core musts” or to use his original term, “musturbations”. If you strongly believe you must be successful in a situation, you will become anxious or depressed if you fail. Change that must into a strong preference and you’re better at handling frustration, which in turn cures anxiety and depression.

Ellis’ theory is now known as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), and its principles and applications are laid out in his latest book Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and Behaviors. The book is a collection of articles, lectures and interviews that were compiled to give therapists and the informed layperson a primer on REBT. Though not a self-help book in the usual sense, Ellis’ plain writing style and wealth of examples from the Albert Ellis Institute in New York make it accessible to anyone with an interest in this insightful therapeutic method.

Ellis and his co-workers have published more than 60 books and hundreds of journal articles on REBT, many targeted to the general public. If you’re looking for a solution to a problem, from “Sex without Guilt” to “How to live with a neurotic: at home and at work,” Ellis has a booklet for you.

Ellis’ newest book, however, begins with theoretical/conceptual issues of REBT for the therapist, material that may be rough going, or of no interest, to the layperson. The first half of the book has no real common thread. The only common denominator is that all of these can be summarized under the umbrella “New directions for rational emotive behavior therapy” - the book’s subtitle. Practitioners will find discussions on everything from “the semantics of REBT” to “Issues in Counselling in the Postmodern Era”. These chapters might be of vague general interest to the average practitioner, but they at times seem written more to lend a certain sex appeal to REBT than to influence practical therapeutic work. Ellis moves onto more solid ground in his chapters on REBT in group and family therapy, which may be valuable for everyday practice.

What’s new is Ellis’ use of action verbs, which aims at changing the way a patient thinks of a mental condition. Ellis says “you depress” or “you anxietize” instead of using the terms “depression” or “anxiety”, which many patients (wrongly) see as conditions that exist by themselves, out of their control. “REBT says that we largely can control our emotional destiny”, Ellis writes. “I emphasize this in some of the language I use in this book”. (p.14)

In his book, Ellis also addresses one of the recent criticisms of REBT: it seemed to assume the primacy of cognition and neglected the fact that behavior also influences cognition and emotion. Ellis now stresses the importance of behavior change in therapy, and he argues that REBT is and always has been multimodal in practice. However, he does not seem to feel the need to revise his theory accordingly.    

The layperson who has waded through the theory in the first half of Ellis’ book may be especially rewarded in the second half. These often vividly written chapters show REBT in action, using case studies to illuminate a wide selection of problems, disturbances and disorders. Ellis’ humor comes through in many places, such as in Chapter 25 (“Treating Individuals with Morbid Jealousy”), which includes the lyrics of an anti-jealousy song to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”. As a drawback, part two of the book has no common style or principle, and useful material found in one chapter may not show up in another. Chapter 23 (“Treating Elderly People with Emotional and Behavioral Disturbances”) includes a list of typical irrational beliefs for these clients and their emotional consequences -- a useful tool that would have been enlightening in the chapters on other emotional conditions.

With the mix of practical examples and conceptual background information, Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and Behaviors is a book that brings the reader up to date on REBT. The book is too detailed to serve as an introduction to the theory, and readers who prefer self-help books will probably find it too heavy. But if you already know a little about cognitive therapy and want one book that explains it all, Ellis’ latest should be your choice.



© 2002 Jürgen Klecker


Jürgen Klecker, Dipl.-Psych., is a clinical psychologist trained at the University of Würzburg, Germany and at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. He’s worked as a teaching assistant in clinical psychology and held several seminars on applied cognitive behavior therapy. He now works as a drug therapist in a privately owned clinic.