The Life and Legacy of Dr Albert Ellis, Creator of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy

Become unconditionally self accepting and create healthy and life-enhancing emotions.
Giulio Bortolozzo
Oct 13, 2023
Debbie and Dr Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy.

Dr Debbie Joffe Ellis agreed to answer a few questions about her mission to keep the work and legacy of her late husband Dr Albert Ellis, creator of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, alive and thriving. She took time out from her busy schedule to answer some questions.

Giulio: Thanks for the chat, Debbie. Could you give us a snapshot of Dr Ellis’ childhood?

Debbie: His childhood contained a number of challenges. He suffered from various serious and painful conditions, including nephritis and migraines, from infancy onward. Al made a conscious decision that he didn’t want to feel so very sad, hence he found ways to distract himself from the deep sadness such as reading books in the hospital’s children’s library, making up games to play with children in the ward, talking with their visitors, and daydreaming about his baseball heroes and about what he wanted to do when he grew up.

Al was 3 years of age when he taught himself to read with the help of his 5-year-old friend. They would sit on the stoop in front of their building and his friend would read out loud while Al observed and, by doing so, learned to read!

He was a voracious reader, often borrowing books from his school’s library and from the New York public library, and after he’d read every book that he borrowed, and there were no books there that he hadn’t already read - he would re-read the books he’d enjoyed reading previously!

One of his dreams had been to write the great American novel, and he had also said that if he could have afforded to learn music, he would have loved to be a composer/musician. Due to the financial depression of those years, he could not afford to pay for such lessons. He was able to study for his Master’s degree and Ph.D. at Columbia University Teachers College due to his getting scholarships.

Incidentally, I teach two courses at Columbia University: Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) and Comparative Psychotherapies, in the very building in which Al did those studies! Carl Rogers also attained his degrees there a few years prior to Al doing so.

Giulio: Dr Ellis thrived on thinking, working, creating, and spreading the ‘Gospel of St Albert’. What was his motivation?

Debbie: Indeed, his life was dedicated to helping as many people around the globe as possible, of every culture, gender, religion, or lack of religion, learn that they were responsible for creating their emotional experiences. He taught that it wasn’t their circumstances, but their attitudes and beliefs, which created their emotions.

REBT is incredibly empowering for people who are genuinely wanting to change unhelpful ways, and who are willing to make ongoing effort. Having suffered so much in various ways in his earlier years, he earnestly wanted to make a profound difference to humanity by helping individuals to help themselves to prevent unnecessary suffering.

Giulio: And of course, his sense of humour. How important did he consider humour to be in the therapeutic process?

Debbie: Al considered humour to be very important and very beneficial to people who wanted to not only feel better, but to get and stay better! Humour helps us put things into healthy perspective, helps us prevent ourselves from blowing things out of proportion or minimizing them, and is very beneficial in helping bring equanimity to those who take themselves, others, and life in general tooooo seriously!!!

Giulio: I’ve read that Dr Ellis, when giving therapy, was expert at listening to his clients and parsing out those debilitating beliefs that caused them so much bother, and that he did so with warmth, empathy and of course humour. What can you tell us about Dr Ellis in practice?

Debbie: Yes, Al was a respectful and superb listener. He could practically instantly identify any of their irrational thoughts. Also, he picked up on the nuances of what was said rather than just falling for the literal words and had a very finely tuned intuitive ability that enhanced that.

He demonstrated the power to help, inspire and contribute healing guidance to those who were open to receiving those gifts, utilizing his years of experience, wisdom, knowledge, and compassion.

Giulio: Dr Ellis was originally trained in psychoanalysis in the tradition of Freud and others. He famously said that people felt better when talking to the therapist, but rarely did they get and stay better. The idea that people could learn to help themselves seemed to be a revolutionary idea at the time. Where did this thinking lead Dr Ellis?

Debbie: Yes, he was probably the first psychologist/psychotherapist to encourage self-help for people who were not severely or endogenously disturbed. That added to his unpopularity among many of therapist peers who gave long term therapy and unintentionally (or perhaps some did so intentionally) encouraged clients/patients to develop dependence on them.

The so-called “new age” period that started around the 1960/70/80s contains many Ellisonian elements, as does executive coaching which is very popular these days. Many of the current approaches in psychotherapy are based on, or significantly influenced by, the incredible contributions of my brilliant Al, the pioneering genius, visionary, humanist, scientist, artist, humourist, and so much more.

Giulio: Many people were lucky enough to be mentored by him (as indeed was I) and say they stood on the shoulders of this ‘Giant of Psychotherapy’ and Dr Ellis encouraged others. Many counselling paradigms lead back to Dr Ellis’ ABC Theory of Emotional Disturbance, which is why he is considered the grandfather of cognitive therapy. Can you talk to this and also to his generosity and goodwill towards others in the field of psychotherapy?

Debbie: Yes indeed. He was the most generous academic I know or have ever heard of. Anyone, famous in the field or not, who sent him a manuscript asking him for his opinion, would find their manuscript returned within days – full of red markings and suggestions. The famous Dr William Glasser (Choice/Reality Theory pioneer) would often share that he sent his first manuscript for his first book to Al for Al’s feedback, and within 2 days he received it back from Al - practically re-written!

Arnold Lazarus PhD, father of Multimodal Therapy (MT) who first came up with the term ‘cognitive behaviour therapy’, credits Al for pushing him to develop, write and publish on that MT approach rather than to simply work with Al in his institute, as Arnie had originally wanted to do.

Dr Aaron (Tim) Beck, who is often thought of as the father of CT/CBT, used to give credit to Al for being a profound help and influence on his work. Al’s REBT came out in the early 1950’s, and Beck’s in the late 1960s. It is unfortunate that such facts are not being presented sufficiently by some CBT teachers, though there are some who do teach the facts. In Al’s autobiography he included letters between him and Beck. Sadly, many students these days have the wrong impression that CBT came before REBT, and don’t realize how thoroughly CBT is based on REBT.

Giulio: He advocated for the introduction of REBT principles in teaching and learning and said that ‘the future of psychotherapy is in the school system.’ This again was an idea ahead of its time as social emotional behavioural wellbeing programs are now commonplace in schools. Can you talk about his strong desire that REBT become a part of the school curriculum? What benefits did he envisage?

Debbie: Oh yes! He passionately wanted REBT principles taught to as many people as possible - and the sooner the better.
The more rigid a person’s thinking is, the more effort it will likely take for them to change it.

If people learn sound principles in childhood, there is good chance that they will develop into adults with habitual tendencies to think about their thinking (metacognize), catch and dispute irrational self-defeating thoughts, and develop the habit of thinking rationally. As a consequence of doing that, healthy emotions and behaviours are likely.

Also, one of the most important lessons in REBT is to create and maintain unconditional self-acceptance, unconditional other acceptance, and unconditional life acceptance.
In the absence of those attitudes, bullying, self-downing, shame and depression are created - and one or some of those acts, attitudes and emotions can often contribute to, or be present when suicide is attempted. Prevention can be the greatest cure.

Dr Albert Ellis wanted REBT taught in every school! - Not only to students, but also to teachers, principals, admin staff, and parents.

Giulio: Can you provide the reader with information about your work in keeping the legacy of your husband, Dr Albert Ellis alive and thriving, so many years after his passing? You have a busy schedule of teaching, presentations, and workshops. What feedback are you receiving on your travels about REBT and how it is evolving in the present day?

Debbie: It is my passion and mission to do all I can to keep REBT alive and thriving, so that as many people as possible can benefit from it. I love teaching it, presenting on it, writing about it, and practicing it with my clients.

I felt humbled and honoured when I was nominated by Dr Frank Farley and Dr Stanley Krippner this year (2023), only a few months ago, for the American Psychological Association’s International Division’s “Global Citizen Award.”

My late husband entrusted me to continue his work after his passing, he often said so in his final years, and wrote it in various places including in his autobiography. He said he loved the way I communicate (as I loved the way he did!). Certainly, we had different styles, but our love for REBT and our dedication to helping others was one of the many things we had in common.

I am grateful to receive very positive feedback from individuals who attend the events, trainings, and presentations etc. that I present here in the USA and internationally. In recent times I have been invited to speak to groups of people who are dealing with issues of addiction, and some of those attendees shared that what they learned was truly life changing.

Thank you for the powerful work you do Giulio in walking your REBT/REBE talk, and helping, teaching, and inspiring so many people. Thank you for your great questions here and thank you for your part in continuing the legacy of the magnificent Albert Ellis Ph. D!

Giulio: You’re welcome! Thanks, Debbie, for your interest and the work you do and for taking time out for this chat.

Giulio is an Ed. D. candidate at the University of South Australia. He works as a Rational Emotive Behaviour Counsellor at a public school in Adelaide.
Dr Debbie Joffe Ellis is Adjunct Professor at Columbia Teachers College, New York. She is a licensed psychologist (Australia), licensed mental health counsellor (New York), presenter and writer. You can find out more about Dr Debbie Joffe Ellis and her work here: