R.I.P. Albert Ellis

Albert Ellis, one of the most influential figures in modern psychology, has passed away. Once controversial, his pragmatic, no-nonsense approach to psychotherapy eventually became widely adopted. Whatever one thought of the man or his techniques, he devoted his life to alleviating the psychological suffering of others. The New York Times pays tribute:

Albert Ellis, 93, Influential Psychotherapist, Dies

Albert Ellis, whose innovative straight-talk approach to psychotherapy made him one of the most influential and provocative figures in modern psychology, died yesterday at his home above the institute he founded in Manhattan. He was 93.

The cause, after extended illness, was kidney and heart failure, said a friend and spokeswoman, Gayle Rosellini.

Dr. Ellis (he had a doctorate but not a medical degree) called his approach rational emotive behavior therapy, or R.E.B.T. Developed in the 1950s, it challenged the deliberate, slow-moving methodology of Sigmund Freud, the prevailing psychotherapeutic treatment at the time.

Where the Freudians maintained that a painstaking exploration of childhood experience was critical to understanding neurosis and curing it, Dr. Ellis believed in short-term therapy that called on patients to focus on what was happening in their lives at the moment and to take immediate action to change their behavior. “Neurosis,� he said, was “just a high-class word for whining.�

“The trouble with most therapy is that it helps you to feel better,� he said in a 2004 article in The New York Times. “But you don’t get better. You have to back it up with action, action, action.�

If his ideas broke with conventions, so did his manner of imparting them. Irreverent, charismatic, he was called the Lenny Bruce of psychotherapy. In popular Friday evening seminars that ran for decades, he counseled, prodded, provoked and entertained groups of 100 or more students, psychologists and others looking for answers, often lacing his comments with obscenities for effect.

His basic message was that all people are born with a talent “for crooked thinking,� or distortions of perception that sabotage their innate desire for happiness. But he recognized that people also had the capacity to change themselves. The role of therapists, Dr. Ellis argued, is to intervene directly, using strategies and homework exercises to help patients first learn to accept themselves as they are (unconditional self-acceptance, he called it) and then to retrain themselves to avoid destructive emotions — to “establish new ways of being and behaving,� as he put it. [full text]

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2 thoughts on “R.I.P. Albert Ellis

  1. Dr. Ellis was creative, brilliant, independent and wonderfully energetic. In many, many ways he challenged profesional “norms” and was not in the mainstream of normative theory. But then, is that not what brilliant people do, act out of the bounds of their normative world. Unfortunately, I do suspect the normative therapy world passed him by and one wonders if someone will follow him with new energy and insights. Dr. Ellis live a remarkably full life, but it is still sad to note his passing.

  2. Ellis had a wonderful vitality which I got to experience first-hand when I lived in New York in the late 80′s and early 90′s. My parents were both avid fans. I remember clearly my mother teaching me different Ellis techniques as a teenager and young adult, to learn how to sort out my thoughts a feelings. As I got older and went into the field of social work, I began to move away from some of the Ellis concepts, feeling they were overly simplistic. But ultimately, he provided useful tools and I am grateful that his work was part of my life. Rest in peace indeed.

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