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Behaviorists Behaving Badly

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The institute on East 65th St.  

Which is why it might surprise some to learn that Ellis is an undisputed giant of twentieth-century psychology. On a legendary (within psych circles) survey conducted in the eighties, the American Psychological Association asked its members to rank the most influential psychotherapists of the previous hundred years. Ellis came in second. Sigmund Freud was third. If that sounds implausible, remember that in the early fifties, when Ellis first developed his approach, the notion of self-help had not yet entered the American psyche. Practical, results-oriented REBT largely paved the way for it. Ellis’s best-selling books, like Sex Without Guilt and How to Control Your Anxiety Before It Controls You, became the avatars for pop psychology. But they’re also grounded in a sophisticated cognitive therapeutic technique. If you compare how many people purchase self-help books in 2005 with the number who undergo Freudian psychoanalysis three times a week, the idea that Ellis’s reach exceeds that of his Austrian colleague doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.

“Albert Ellis stands as one of the pioneers,” says Dr. Ron Levant, the president of the American Psychological Association. “He’s regarded as a true luminary,” agrees Kaja Perina, editor-in-chief of Psychology Today. “And there is still a very healthy respect and even awe for him.” Another major figure in cognitive therapy, Dr. Arnold A. Lazarus, distinguished professor emeritus of psychology at Rutgers and the executive director of his own Lazarus Institute in New Jersey, says, “The field owes him a tremendous debt.” Lazarus has been a friend of Ellis’s since the mid-sixties, though he acknowledges that others’ esteem for the doctor is surpassed, perhaps, only by Ellis’s esteem for himself. “My joke about Ellis is that I once said to someone, ‘Do you know who invented the airplane?’ ‘The Wright Brothers?’ they said. ‘No, Albert Ellis! The paper clip, Saran Wrap . . . ’ He says he invented everything! But it’s not malicious. It’s very funny.”

Ellis’s ideas about mental health were born of his own physical frailty. For much of his childhood, his body kept failing him. Born in Pittsburgh and reared in the Bronx, he was a sickly child who was repeatedly hospitalized for a series of ailments, most notably nephritis—chronic inflammation of the kidneys—which once sent him to New York Presbyterian for a ten-month stretch. As a bedridden 9-year-old, Ellis must have picked up a number of coping techniques, most usefully that of acceptance: He was confined to a hospital bed—deal with it.

Acceptance is a big thing in REBT, the three cornerstones of which are “unconditional self-acceptance,” “unconditional other acceptance,” and “unconditional life acceptance.” Your mother never told you she loved you? That’s her right as a “fallible fucked-up human,” as Ellis would say, and often does. There are worse things in life than not being told you’re loved by your mother, he argues. Don’t “awfulize” such neglect; use rational thinking to understand that another person’s poor behavior has nothing to do with your sense of identity or potential for happiness. Ellis, an avid reader of philosophy in his teens, credits Epictetus with steering him toward the guiding principle that our emotional responses to upsetting actions—not the actions themselves—are what create anxiety and depression. And if we construct our unhappiness, then, REBT’s reasoning goes, we can also break it apart.

In the fifties, this mode of thought was a radical departure from Freudian psychoanalysis, the dominant therapeutic technique, which Ellis himself practiced for six years until he decided it was “horseshit.” But if Ellis distinguished himself as therapist non grata among much of the Freudian set, his gift for public speaking and his freakish energy quickly helped him garner a powerful reputation, a book deal, and ever-increasing numbers of clients (Artie Shaw and Saul Bellow among them). He traveled extensively, spreading the gospel of REBT. At around the same time, another doctor, Aaron Beck, was exploring similar psychoanalytical approaches, and the two men are generally considered the fathers of cognitive therapy, in which patient and therapist work together to target specific problems, eschewing the more free-form conversational style of Freudian therapy. The technique caught on, and Ellis started his institute.

REBT would become Ellis’s claim to psychological fame, but at the time he was developing it, he was much better known for his work in the field of sex. Indeed, as a contemporary of Alfred Kinsey, Ellis was almost as notorious as his more clinically inclined counterpart, thanks to his then-radical book Sex Without Guilt. An early supporter of gay rights, Ellis has argued that “gay people should be able to choose whatever kind of sex-love relations they preferred—barring, of course, children and mentally deficient adults.” The chief difference between Ellis and Kinsey was that Ellis also studied love.


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