REBT for Self-Help: An Overview

Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) in a Self-Help Perspective

Albert Ellis Creator of REBT

Dr. Albert Ellis, Founder of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy

In 1955, Dr. Albert Ellis, PhD changed and (literally) shocked the psychological therapy world with the introduction of his groundbreaking work, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Although Dr. Ellis received criticism over the rather aggressive approach he took and his use of sometimes quite “colorful” language didn’t sit all that well with some, his pioneering and revolutionary work had a significant impact on present modern-day therapies and approaches. As a result of his work, Dr. Ellis is highly respected and has been recognized as one of most influential psychologists of all time.

REBT—which was originally called Rational Therapy (RT) and then later Rational Emotive Therapy (RET)—is the “granddaddy” of cognitive behavioral therapies. It influenced and was the inspiration behind many of the present-day therapy approaches that have since followed it, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Rational Emotive Imagery (REI), Mindfulness, and others.

REBT is a practical, no-nonsense, self-empowering, action-oriented self-help approach that is evidence-based and proven effective. It’s one of the most universal and all-inclusive approaches in the field of psychotherapy. With sensible, easy-to-understand self-management methods, in addition to learning how to cope with the emotional challenges encountered in everyday life, REBT also encourages the examination of your life philosophies—your attitude, beliefs, values and goals—and their effect on your personal self-development.

By learning, utilizing and applying the principles of REBT in your life for the management of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, you’ll create a helpful and positive environment for your emotional health and wellbeing… an environment that is both favorable and conducive to living a full, meaningful, and happy life.

REBT: A Philosophy of Living

“Man is not disturbed by things but by the views he takes of them.”


REBT was created as a philosophy of living, based on the belief that it is not the external events alone that cause our emotional upsets. Rather, as Epictetus originally pointed out and then was expanded upon in REBT, the emotional and behavioral upset (e.g., anger, depression, stress, anxiety, etc.) comes about from how we view them—from what we think or believe, from what we are telling ourselves about the event.

Our thoughts, feelings (emotions), and behavior are closely intertwined with each other. REBT has a strong focus on our attitudes, thinking and beliefs, and how they directly influence our emotions and behaviors. The influence can either be helpful or unhelpful to our health and emotional wellbeing.

For example, when you have the thought, “I really like that!”, you’re pleased and feel good. Likewise, when you think, “No, I don’t like that!”, you feel displeased and unhappy. These are rational thoughts, and the associated emotions are helpful to us in gaining happiness or resolving issues and problems.

But we don’t always think that way! Limiting, absolute, illogical and unhelpful thoughts get attached to our thinking, things which have become associated with certain situations. Most often, we’re not aware of them; they’ve gotten so deeply ingrained into our thinking that they’ve become automatic. Other than feeling miserable, we’re typically unaware of the self-defeating, negative effect they have on our daily lives.

Biological, Genetic and Social Influences

A crucial point of REBT is that we quickly and easily move from rational thinking to thinking irrationally. In most instances, our irrational thinking usually has a tendency to win out. Irrational thinking is not a result of the environment we were raised in or from emotional traumas, etc. Instead, irrational thinking derives from the biological elements of human behavior.

All emotions—whether they be positive or negative or healthy or unhealthy—are natural. The human brain craves certainty and when one feels uncertain, the brain releases chemicals into the bloodstream which results in experiencing emotions such as fear, anxiety and doubt. These “natural” emotional responses come about as the result of an overreaction of our biological nervous system.

As an example, if we experience something unpleasant, undesirable, or just plain bad, it is both natural and healthy to have a negative emotional response. That negative emotional response provides us with the motivation to do things differently to change whatever happened, when possible. Where a negative emotional response becomes unhealthy is when we start placing the demand that what we don’t like should or must not happen.

What we are and why we do what we do is the combined result of our biology and society. From the thousands of years and generations of our ancestors having survived because of self-preservation responses, our human biology guides many of our responses to provocation or other types of external stimulus. Human society determines the restrictions on and the alterations to how we carry out our biological responses.

Some people appear to be born with a greater tendency and natural ability to think in a more rational way than others. Our genetics and biology influence our perceptions, thoughts, feelings and behaviors and they all affect each other. These influences do not move in a single direction; they are subject to change and, in some situations, the direction taken may be completely reversed.

Such being the case, we are not “locked in” with our distorted and inaccurate thinking.  Even though people are, to some extent, defined by their genetics, their environment, their upbringing, and their family history and background, the ability to change remains. REBT offers a self-empowering, self-help method providing the ability to alter or significantly weaken irrational thinking and tendencies. In some cases, it even provides the ability to eliminate them completely.

Managing Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors

When we talk about managing thoughts, feelings and behaviors, only two of them can be considered harmful. Again, as human beings, our feelings are natural and those feelings, alone and by themselves, are not harmful. It is the beliefs we hold about the underlying source and cause of the feeling which results in our harmful thoughts or behaviors.

The premise of REBT is that our thoughts about something are triggered when encountering an adverse external situation or activating event. Those thoughts then go on to trigger the deep-rooted feelings and beliefs we hold about those thoughts. Then, these subsequent feelings and beliefs (whether they be rational or irrational) trigger our subsequent actions and behavior.

Keeping that in mind, it’s important to note that it isn’t the people or events that make you feel good or bad, it is YOU that makes you feel “good” or “bad.” It is not the specific situation or event alone that brings out the feelings and emotions; it is your belief and perception of what happened that brings out your feelings and emotions.  It is our own personal interpretation of the event (whatever it might be) that influences the reaction and behavior that follows.

We ARE human beings and it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever get to the point of having full and complete control over our emotions. However, when acknowledging that it is each of us (individually) that is holding the steering wheel for making us feel “good” or “bad” that acknowledgement provides a critical and powerful mind shift in the management of our emotions.

With work, patience and practice, REBT self-help methods will help you develop strong insights about your thoughts, feelings and behaviors, being the things that are most accessible and open to change. REBT provides a practical and versatile way to explore, examine, challenge, and modify unhelpful thoughts and beliefs—putting them under a microscope, so to speak—providing you with a proven method in which to intervene and effectively manage emotional pain, upsets and self-defeating or self-sabotaging behaviors.

The ABCs of REBT

ABCs of REBTThe ABCs of REBT model is based on the premise that we have the tendency to blame external sources and outside events as the cause and reason for our negative emotions, rather than our thoughts and beliefs about the event. These thoughts and beliefs are often so deeply ingrained within our thinking pattern that we are not aware of the connection or the influence they have on our emotions and behaviors. Our reactions have become a seemingly involuntary, automatic response that’s taken when encountering the situation in our daily lives.

No matter what emotion is being felt, we have the ability to change our thoughts about it. Again, it’s not the events or emotions all by themselves which cause our reactions and behaviors. Rather, it is our thoughts and our perception of what happened that results in our reaction.

This is where the ABCs of REBT exercise comes into play, being a tool used to become both aware and mindful of our deeply ingrained and embedded thoughts and the impact they have in our daily lives.

The ABC is used to explore and analyze situations in their entirety—placing them “under a microscope” so to speak, with the goal to unearth and expose the deeply held thoughts and beliefs about the situation. Once they are uncovered, they’re then explored to determine if they’re rational or irrational and helpful or unhelpful to us… becoming aware how they influence our emotional reactions and behaviors.

The ABC exercise consists of the following factors and components:

A: Adverse or Activating event (something happens)

B: Beliefs (your thoughts, perception and interpretation of the “A”)

C: Consequences (the emotional feeling and/or behavior resulting from the “B”)

D: Disputation (challenging and debating the “B”)

E: Effective new beliefs (altering and changing the “B” for a better, more desirable outcome)

Many (if not most) people are of the mistaken mindset that A = C, that it is the activating or adverse event which causes the resulting consequence, whether that consequence be emotional or behavioral. The true equation, however, is A + B = C.

The idea behind REBT is to not focus on the specific thing (being the “A” in the ABC exercise) which caused the emotion, but rather to place the focus on the emotional consequence or reaction (being the “C” of the ABC exercise) along with the underlying irrational thoughts and beliefs (the “B” of the ABC exercise) that have been associated to the “A”.

During the exploration and examination of those beliefs, you’ll “pick them apart” to look for irrational and other unhelpful thinking. Once identified, you then dispute those irrational beliefs, replacing them with facts (being the “D” in the ABC exercise.) Once those “facts” have been put into place, you’ll then take action to make changes to your thinking so that the more positive, desirable outcome is achieved, where you’ll feel better emotionally (the “E” of the ABC exercise.)

In the ABC exercise, many find it to be easiest(?) to begin with the “C” (the consequence) as it’s usually the most apparent and easily identified. Once identified, you’ll then start digging deeper into the chain of events in order to identify the “A” (the activating/adverse event), after which you’ll then move on to identifying and exploring the beliefs (the “B”) about the activating event.

Many find the ABC tool to be a bit difficult to grasp when first starting out. Just like doing anything new, this is normal. As an example, how many people do you know that was successful at riding a bicycle on their very first try? Using and getting used to applying the ABC tool into your thinking process is no different! With practice, practice, practice (and throwing in a bit of patience as well), the ABC will become a key and integral part of your “regular” thinking process.

What are Irrational Beliefs?

The primary task and goal of the ABC of REBT exercise is to search out to discover the irrational beliefs in our thinking, as it’s the demanding make up of those beliefs which create the problems and negative emotions in our lives.

So, just what are “irrational beliefs”?

According to Dr. Ellis, irrational beliefs are a pattern of illogical thinking which distorts the reality of the situation, distortions which can hold you back, preventing you from going after and/or reaching your goals. Irrational beliefs can also lead to experiencing unhealthy emotions along with the self-defeating or self-destructive behaviors that often come with such unhelpful emotions.

Irrational beliefs are usually quite easy to pick out and identify, containing demands such as “should” or “must” or “have to” or “need to.” Then other descriptors tend to get added, things like “awful” and “horrible” and “terrible” and “I can’t stand it.” We then have the tendency to take things even further by adding all-or-nothing thinking into the mix, damning ourselves for any of the mistakes that we make and damning others for theirs.

The Three Main Irrational Beliefs

In his REBT work, Dr. Ellis identified three main areas in our lives where irrational beliefs are formed. These irrational beliefs typically come about as the result of experiencing life difficulties and emotional discomfort:

1. Irrational Beliefs About Yourself

I must do well and have the approval of others or else I’m no good.”

These beliefs can result in the emotional consequences of self-downing, anxiety, panic, depression, guilt and shame, or deeper and the more intense feelings of inadequacy, anger, hostility, disgust and hatred. The behavioral consequences of these types of beliefs can include things like shyness, unassertiveness, procrastination, and risk-avoidance.

2. Irrational Beliefs About Others

“Other people must always treat me nicely, fairly and kindly, and exactly the way I want them to treat me. If they don’t, they’re no good and they deserve to be blamed and punished.”

These beliefs often lead to feelings of impatience, anger, rage, bitterness, resentment, hostility, and revenge. The behavioral consequences of these beliefs can include such things as passive-aggressive behavior, intolerance, bullying, or even fights and other acts of violence.

3. Irrational Beliefs About Conditions of the World

“I must get what I want, when I want it, and I must not get what I don’t want. It’s terrible when I don’t get what I want, and I can’t stand it.”

These beliefs often lead to feelings of frustration, self-pity, anxiety and depression. Behavioral consequences can include things like avoidance and/or procrastination. These beliefs can also lead to elevated feelings of despair and hopelessness, which may result in drug or alcohol abuse and other unhealthy habits and behaviors—or even to the extreme—suicide.

Unconditional Acceptance

The ABCs of REBT allows us to uncover and explore our irrational beliefs with the goal of replacing them with rational ones to lessen the emotional stress and anxiety of the activating or adverse event. A key element of “rational beliefs” includes another deeper level and part of REBT, being the philosophy of universal and unconditional acceptance.

This “unconditional acceptance” is directed to those very same three main areas in our lives where irrational beliefs are formed (as outlined above), teaching acceptance of ourselves, acceptance of others, and acceptance of life and conditions of the world.

Unconditional Self-Acceptance (USA)

Unconditional self-acceptance is acknowledging and accepting yourself “as is” as a package deal, without any omissions. It’s the unconditional acceptance of you with all the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s the acceptance that you are (just like everyone else) a fallible, imperfect human being who is subject to making mistakes.

Unconditional self-acceptance is living in the present and accepting that you have both strengths and weaknesses, good points and bad points, and the understanding there is no single thing that defines you. It’s accepting any flaws or shortcomings that you have, recognizing that they are just as much a part of you as your strengths and strong points are. Self-acceptance also includes the acknowledgment that despite your good points and bad points, you are not any more worthy or any less worthy than any other human being.

It’s important to note that this acceptance of any weaknesses, flaws, etc. is without any pressure or coercion that you must like them or that you’re stuck with them forever. Instead, what you are doing is just acknowledging and accepting that they are present… that they are part of what you are in the here and now, providing you an opportunity to explore them further and take action on them for positive change.

Unconditional Other Acceptance (UOA)

Unconditional other acceptance is accepting the fact that other people will treat you unfairly from time to time, and that there is no reason why they must treat you fairly.

An integral part of unconditional other acceptance is the understanding of what you can and what you can’t control [potential link.] You can’t control what other people think or say. You cannot control what other people do or don’t do, nor can you change them. What you CAN control is your thoughts about those things and your reactions to them, whether the reaction be emotional, behavioral, or both.

Once again, this acceptance is not saying you have to agree with or like what they say or do. Rather, you are only acknowledging and accepting that they, too, are fallible, imperfect human beings that are no more worthy and no less worthy than you or anyone else.

Unconditional Life Acceptance (ULA)

Unconditional life acceptance is accepting the fact that life doesn’t always work out the way we’d like it to, and that there is no reason why life must go the way we want it to. It is also the acknowledgement and acceptance that while life is not necessarily always pleasant and enjoyable, it is never awful and nearly always manageable.

At some point in life, everyone experiences or encounters some type of misfortune, catastrophe, or a tragic event. In the world today, it’s not hard to find reports of tragedies that are terrible, if not even horrific. There’s no doubt about it, such things are upsetting and it’s completely normal to experience feelings of sadness and anger as a result.

Unconditional life acceptance does not mean that you’re placing a stamp of approval on the tragic, terrible, and horrific events that take place in this world that we live in. Rather, unconditional life acceptance is a matter of recognizing and accepting that there are things that we cannot change. While quite often a tough and bitter pill to swallow, there are certain things that we just have to accept and live with, whether we like it or not.

Acceptance of these things is simply the acknowledgement that terrible, tragic—and sometimes even horrific—events do take place in our life. It’s an acceptance of only their presence and existence in the world, an acceptance absent of demands and the insistence that things must be different or a certain way. Nothing more, nothing less.

While unconditional life acceptance will not change the event or eliminate the associated emotional pain and suffering that comes with it, you’re able to change your thoughts and beliefs about it. This, in turn, changes the view and environment of your own personal world and surroundings, making it both more manageable and tolerable.

cognitive triangle

Your thoughts and beliefs will influence how you feel, and how you feel will lead to how you behave. Change what you tell yourself, you’ll change how you feel, and change what you do.


REBT is very deep, containing so much more than what’s been provided here. This broad overview is, if you will, just the “tip of the iceberg” of what REBT has to offer. As an indication of the depth, Dr. Ellis penned over 65 “self-help” books based on the application of his work in different areas in our lives.  

There have been many studies over the years which have confirmed that people can experience significant improvement in their mental and emotional health with the practical application of REBT into their lives.

While subject to limitations—limitations which were openly acknowledged by Dr. Ellis himself—REBT is a self-empowering, self-help approach that has become a philosophical way of life for many who have chosen to apply it in their personal lives. It’s a hands-on, self-help approach for self-improvement and your personal self-development, providing a pathway to your long-term emotional health and wellbeing.