What Is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy?

Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is a present-focused, practical approach to helping people develop new coping skills that can make life and relationships more enjoyable.

REBT descends from the belief that people desire to be happy but their own irrational beliefs and habits interfere with their ability to achieve that desired happiness. After revealing irrational and negative thinking patterns, the REBT therapist helps the patient replace them with the rational ones which are more likely to result in problem-solving and thus a richer, happier life. Practitioners of REBT spend time trying to unveil patients’ underlying beliefs and attitudes. Ideas of "should" and "ought" are exposed and exchanged for more flexible paradigms.

The therapy follows a pattern:

  • First the person admits a problem termed the activating event. It is called a problem because it is perceived as a negative event.
  • Next the therapist helps the person to recognize how their beliefs influence their evaluation of the event. The belief could be rational, which would lead to a healthy negative response. However, if the belief behind the evaluation was irrational, it likely produced an unhealthy negative response. In either case, the individual is helped to see that they possess the ability to choose how they will evaluate the event.

Core Principles of REBT

REBT recognizes a couple of things about the beliefs behind a person’s decisions. First, a person’s past experiences will influence today’s beliefs. It is therefore unnecessary to spend much time delving into how/why a person developed the belief. The past is present in today’s beliefs. By changing wrong beliefs today, any past injustices or wrongs can be overcome. The past is unchangeable; today’s thinking is highly capable of change.

Second, emotions are part and parcel of how a person acts and thinks. It is impossible to remove emotion from behavior. However, wrong thinking can lead to inordinate emotional impact. For example, when a negative emotional response is too strong (such as rage or panic), the person’s ability to properly cope will degrade.

By contrast, people can learn how rational thinking produces emotional balance and strengthens coping ability. Rational thinking empowers the person to be in charge of their emotions and to behave in ways more likely to produce desired outcomes. Confronting dysfunctional beliefs and providing a way for the person to replace them with more realistic beliefs is a technique employed in REBT called "intellectual disputing."

Accepting Reality, Taking Control

One criticism of the technique is that it may be too self-focused and runs the risk of nurturing selfishness. REBT practitioners say that on the contrary, selfish people are needy people and REBT minimizes neediness and therefore selfishness. The therapy emphasizes realistic goals of self-acceptance as opposed to measuring personal value by the opinion of others, achievements or possessions. Terms such as responsible self-interest or responsible hedonism are words that REBT practitioners use to describe the person rationally acting in favor of personal happiness in contrast to a selfish (needy) person.

REBT encourages thinking that accepts the frailty of self and others along with a realistic approach to the difficulties of life. This is realistic or rational thinking according to REBT. Practitioners point out that most people have spent lifetimes believing untruths and have rehearsed them so often that they are unaware of how those beliefs impact their responses to situations each day.

It is hard work to uncover those beliefs and then to change the way a person thinks. However, by changing irrational beliefs/expectations for ones that accept life, self and others as problematic, the person begins to handle situations in more constructive ways. To take control of one’s emotions and behavior, they say, is to take control of one’s happiness.

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