Albert Ellis, Feisty Shrink

Written by Adam Heimlich on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

The last
of the canonical psychotherapists is Albert Ellis. You learned his name if you
took Psych 101. Born in 1913, he’s outlived all his colleagues on the intro-class
syllabus: Rogers, Maslow, Adler, Erikson, Horney, etc. He hasn’t even retired.

New York’s
Albert Ellis Institute is located in an elegant Upper East Side townhouse, at
45 E. 65th St. It offers classes, seminars and workshops based on Dr. Ellis’
contribution to psychology, which is called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy
(REBT). Once a week there’s a special workshop, open to the public, during
which the doctor demonstrates his technique on two volunteers from the audience.

One recent
Friday evening, students, devotees, teachers, patients and spectators filled
the folding chairs of the Institute’s small auditorium to witness Ellis
in action. Several rows were reserved for a psychology class on a field trip
from a New Jersey community college, whose pupils dutifully signed and passed
an attendance sheet. A host named Sy started the event with a little song called
"You’re Welcome to Sanity." He instructed the audience to give
Ellis a hearty, welcoming applause when he arrived.

The doctor
is a feisty old guy–thin, mostly bald, with large, black-rimmed glasses.
He’s hard of hearing and given to foul language. While the first volunteer
tells of her problem, he interrupts several times to tell latecomers to quit
respectfully pausing at the door and find a seat already. His loud scolding,
in a voice a bit like that of the comedian Gilbert Gottfried, pierces the air
and inspires giggling. The live sessions are taped, so that subjects can review
their free (except for the workshop’s $5 entry fee) therapy at home. Perhaps
the interruptions are intended to underscore Ellis’ no-bullshit approach.

The Institute’s
website notes that REBT "owes at least as much to the Stoic philosopher,
Epictetus, as to Sigmund Freud." It also quotes the Roman, who 1900 years
ago opined that "What disturbs people’s minds is not events but their
judgments on events." Ellis doesn’t advise people to be stoic in the
everyday sense of the word. He tells them the bad things that happened or are
happening to them are indeed bad enough to be worth feeling bad about. The mental-health
danger, he says, comes from "horribilizing" or "awfulizing"
such events.

At his recent
workshop, Dr. Ellis’ first volunteer is anxious about the potential loss
of her marriage, home and sanity over a medical malpractice suit she says she
is likely to lose. Her claim is that a hospital technician intentionally smashed
her silicone breast implant with a mammography machine, and that the exploded
material causes debilitating pain. Ellis does not deal with the specifics of
the case. He locates the root of her problem in her irrational belief that justice
must be served.

medicine for the tendency to interpret situations as unworkable is Rational
Emotive Imagery. He tells the woman to imagine herself losing her malpractice
suit. She says she’d try to tell herself it’s okay. The doctor replies,
"It’s not okay–it’s a pain in the ass!" The subject
indicates that she would experience self-pity. Ellis instructs her to practice
visualizing defeat in court, then replacing that emotion with something along
the lines of, as he put it, "If I lose, that’s very too bad. I got
screwed by injustice."

For intermission
there are more humorous songs about REBT. MC Sy sings one, off-key but with
gusto, about "Musturbation," to the tune of "Yankee Doodle."
The last line goes: "…and should-hood leads to shit-hood." An
audience member is an opera singer. She does a dramatic number about "a
man from the Bronx" who "cures bullshit." The moment is deeply
bizarre, yet the old doctor is visibly pleased. Humor is part of REBT. Ellis
doesn’t sing himself tonight, though.

The second
volunteer seems a little more rational, less emotional. Her problem stems from
what she advised her sister to do regarding her emotionally disturbed adolescent
daughter (the subject’s niece). The girl accused her grandfather (the subject’s
father) of inappropriate touching. The accusation wasn’t believable. The
volunteer tells Ellis she suggested the matter be brought up in family therapy,
which her sister and niece were undergoing. Problem was, since therapists aren’t
allowed to keep such things secret, old Dad ended up in police custody. Now,
with the matter under official investigation, our volunteer’s whole family
is angry at her.

would you feel if a friend of yours did the same thing you did?" asks Ellis.
The subject says she’d be forgiving, but still, she should have known better.
"Why must you have higher standards for yourself than for anyone else?"
he replies. The root of her problem is that "must," according to the
doctor. In elaborating on how mistakes can’t possibly make anyone an evil
person, Ellis goes off on a political tangent. He says that President Bush is
crazy for concluding that "all Arabs are evil… He’s going to
get us into World War Three!"

The second
subject’s imagery training involves her finding a mental pathway from fear
of familial rejection to self-acceptance. She was told to practice imagining
her angry father, and to get in touch with the fear that inspired, but to eventually
decide, "I acted wrongly but I’m not a rotten person." To wrap
things up, Dr. Ellis told her, "You changed your thoughts. Anyone can do

For more
information on the Ellis Institute or its programs, call 800-323-4738 or visit