REBT? What is it?

What is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)? Created by Albert Ellis, REBT is a form of the very popular cognitive behavior therapy and has been dominating approaches to psychological treatment since the 1950s. You might be wondering what distinguishes REBT from other forms of psychotherapy techniques. In essence, Albert Ellis created it as a philosophy of living – its foundation is the belief that it is not the events in our lives that cause our emotions, rather it is our beliefs that cause us to experience emotions such as anger, depression, and anxiety. It is a mode to consider and change our irrational beliefs and has shown to have a favorable effect on reducing emotional pain.

REBT’s ABC Theory: The Diagnostic Step

Based on Ellis’ theory that individuals are blaming outward events on their negative emotions instead of their interpretation of the events, the ABC Model was proposed as:

A – Activating Event: an event that happens in the environment

B – Beliefs: the belief you have about the event that happened

C – Consequence: the emotional response to your belief

This model was developed to educate others of how beliefs are the cause of emotional and behavioral responses, and not that events cause our emotional reactions.

Here’s an example that will help you understand better:

A – Your spouse falsely accuses you of cheating on him/her

B – You believe “What a jerk! S/he has no right to accuse me of that!

C – You feel angry/upset

If you had a different belief (B), the emotional response (C) would be different:

A – Your spouse falsely accuses you of cheating on him/her

B – You believe, “This cannot end our relationship – that would be too much to bear if we got a divorce.”

C – You feel anxious that your relationship might end

Here again, the ABC model is illustrating that it is not the event (A) that causes the emotional response, rather, it’s the belief (B) about the event that causes the emotional response (C). Because people interpret and respond differently to events, we don’t always have the same emotional response (C) to a given event.

The Three Musts of Irrational Thinking

The beliefs that end up in negative emotions are, according to Albert Ellis, a variation of three common irrational beliefs. Coined as the “Three Basic Musts,” these three common irrational beliefs are based on a demand – about ourselves, others, or the environment.

They are:

  1. I must do well and win others’ approval or else I am no good.
  2. Others must treat me fairly and kindly and in the same way I want them to treat me. If they do not treat me this way, they are not good people and deserve to be punished.
  3. I must always get what I want, when I want it. Likewise, I must never get what I don’t want. If I don’t get what I want, I’m miserable.

If we don’t realize “Must 1,” we likely feel anxious, depressed, shameful, or guilty. If we are not treated fairly, as per “Must 2,” we usually feel angry and may act violently. If we don’t get what we want, per “Must 3,” we may feel self-pity and procrastinate.

Disputing or Challenging the Irrational Beliefs and Changing our Behaviors

The second phase of REBT’s healing process is the dispute or challenge phase. That is, in order to act and feel differently, we must dispute or challenge the irrational beliefs we experience. Essentially, what we are questioning is our irrational beliefs:

Who says if I don’t win someone’s approval I’m no good?

Where is it written in the rule books that a boss always acts professionally and treats others fairly?

Why do I have to be absolutely miserable if I don’t get something I want? Why shouldn’t I just feel slightly annoyed instead of downright miserable?

Once individuals undergoing REBT can work through the dispute or challenge of their irrational thoughts, they can move toward how to engage in more effective thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Termed as an effective new philosophy on life, individuals in this phase start to recognize that there are no absolute “musts” – there is no evidence that suggests these “three musts” are the only way to think.

If you are undergoing this phase of REBT, you might start to reevaluate your responses:

“I don’t like how my boss acted, but I can stand it.”

“Instead of feeling enraged that my spouse accused me of cheating, I will feel annoyed and determined to make my marriage work.”

“I think I’ll go to my exercise class after work – I think more clearly after engaging in physical exercise.”

Three Major Insights of REBT

According to Albert Ellis, the following are the three major insights of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy:

  1. When individuals understand and accept that the main cause of emotional reactions are their beliefs about an event instead of the event itself. That is, we don’t just get upset from an event. We upset ourselves because of our irrational beliefs.
  2. When people acquire irrational beliefs, if they do not deal with them, they “hold” onto the beliefs and it’s what continues to upset them in the present. That is, these individuals still wholeheartedly believe in the “three musts.”
  3. Ellis made it clear that understanding these insights does not make us inherently “better.” That is, understanding these beliefs and having insights into how they effect our emotional responses is not enough to “cure” us. In reality, the best way to get better and stay better through REBT is to continually work on recognizing our irrational beliefs, disputing them, changing our irrational “musts,” and transforming negative emotions into more positive ones. Simply put, the only way to get better is through the hard work of changing our beliefs. It takes time and practice.


During Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, individuals are taught about emotional health. If you are emotionally healthy, you experience an acceptance of reality, whether that reality is pleasant or unpleasant. Psychotherapists utilizing REBT teach their patients three forms of acceptance:

  1. Unconditional Self-Acceptance – I have flaws – I have my bad points and my good points, but that does not make me any less worthy than another person.
  2. Unconditional Other-Acceptance – Sometimes people won’t treat me fairly – there is no reason why they have to treat me fairly. Though some may not treat me fairly, they are no less worthy than any other person.
  3. Unconditional Life-Acceptance – Life is not always going to go the way I want. There’s no reason why it must go the way I want. I might experience some unpleasant things in life, but life itself is never awful and it is usually always bearable.

Using REBT to Treat Alcohol and Drug Dependencies

Statistics show that about 10% of the US population is suffering from a drug and/or alcohol dependency. Treatment programs for drug and alcohol abuse are highly beneficial; however, many people suffering from addictions do not seek help, and in some cases, don’t even realize they have a problem.

If you are suffering from a drug and/or alcohol dependency, the REBT way of thinking is that these unhealthy behaviors that you engage in are resultant from irrational beliefs and negative emotions associated with the irrational beliefs you are experiencing. Thus, the crux of REBT in treating alcohol and drug dependencies is to facilitate sobriety and a return to health and happiness by reversing and/or lessening irrational thoughts and negative emotions that lead to addictive behaviors. In 2010, up to 18% of drug and alcohol treatment centers in the United States were using REBT as their main treatment method in addressing addictive tendencies.

REBT has been found to work quite effectively with those suffering from addiction to both alcohol and drugs. The core essence of treating individuals with addiction tendencies is to change the way they think about situations, have more positive emotional reactions, and in turn, alter the way they act  – that is, not seeking drugs or alcohol to cope with their emotions. If you are suffering from an addiction, REBT can help you lessen the magnitude of your emotions. That is, instead of having a black and white emotion – “I must do my job perfectly. If I make a mistake, I’m a failure” into a less severe response. “I made a mistake on the job. This is not the end of the world – we all make mistakes. It’s annoying that this happened, but I’ll work toward not making the same mistake in the future.” These subdued reactions lead to fewer self-defeating behaviors (e.g., turning to drugs and alcohol to cope).

Essentially, the two main ways REBT helps those with alcohol and drug dependencies is to teach individuals how to:

  1. React to situations in more realistic ways and not react to irrational thoughts.
  2. Realize there are some things we can’t control in life. But, we can control how we react to the situation.

REBT is often combined with other methods of treatment when addressing alcohol and drug dependencies. You may find yourself in a combination treatment program – the use of REBT in addition to other treatment methods such as group therapy (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous; Narcotics Anonymous), drug rehabilitation facilities, drug treatments, and psychoeducational programs. Research has shown that the most influential treatment methods are combination treatments – most often behavioral therapies, like REBT, combined with medical treatments (e.g., antidepressants). However there are fundamental differences between REBT and AA/12 step programs that put them at odds with one another. REBT promotes an internal locus of control… you are in control of your own behaviors and emotions. 12 step programs focus on an external locus of control… you are diseased, your cannot control yourself and you must admit you’re powerless over alcohol, let go and let god.

Andy Orr - Alternative to AAREBT addiction expert Andy Orr best explains that “substance abuse and addictive behavior are learned or conditioned habit patterns“. Andy dismisses the premise of addiction as a disease: “On the contrary, I see substance abuse and addiction as dysfunctional or maladaptive behavior patterns that can be changed.

The relapse rates for drug and alcohol abuse are up to 60% for those who do not complete treatment programs. So, it’s important to commit to the program once you seek REBT or other forms of treatment for drug and alcohol dependency.

REBT Interventions and Their Success Rates

If you undergo REBT, what can you expect? You will work through a variety of problems with your therapist and establish a number of goals of your therapy. The first step is understanding that a problem exists and having the willingness to change. REBT works to help the client challenge, dispute, and question negative emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. Once this is uncovered, the therapist will focus on helping you transform your more irrational beliefs into rational and self-constructive thoughts. It’s not an easy process. You can expect to continually work on these techniques – practice, practice, practice. As Ellis points out in his third insight – it’s not enough to recognize an irrational belief, we must rigorously dispute these again and again and refocus on more positive, constructive beliefs. Change is not going to happen overnight.

So, is REBT an effective form of therapy? Absolutely. REBT has been studied time and again since the 1950s. Study after study has shown the positive effects of this method of therapy. The research has spoken that rational emotive behavior therapy is a validated method to change our negative responses and lead us to a happier life.

Read more about Albert Ellis.

Last Updated: May 7, 2021