Albert Ellis, Rational and Irrational Beliefs
Albert Ellis was born in Pittsburg (1913). He spent most of his life in New York. A natural counsellor, Ellis studied psychoanalysis and was supervised by a training analyst. Ellis, however, grew increasingly frustrated by psychoanalysis which he concluded was unscientific and superficial (Corey, 2005).
In the early 1950s, Ellis experimented with other treatment frameworks, from humanism to behaviour therapy. From such experimentation, Ellis founded what is now referred to as Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (or REBT). Essential to Ellis’s theory is the A-B-C sequence. This sequence describes the relationship between experience, beliefs and reactions, in the following order:
A (Activating Event) > B (Belief) > C (Consequence)
According to Ellis, we experience Activating Events (A) everyday that prompts us to look at, interpret, or otherwise think about what is occurring. Our interpretation of these events results in specific Beliefs (B) about the event, the world and our role in the event. Once we develop this belief, we experience Consequences (C) based solely on our belief.
Example — Mel & Toni
Mel and Toni are work colleagues. Over coffee they begin discussing the project they are working on together. On completion of the project they are required to present their proposal to the board of directors. Mel hates doing presentations so Toni decides to volunteer to do the presentation on her own. But when Toni announces that she is going to do the presentation alone — Mel becomes upset.
Where is why:
A — The activating event was Toni announcing to Mel that she will do the presentation for the board of directors.
B — Mel has a belief that she is unworthy. She feels as though she always looks scruffy, stumbles on her words and is therefore not fit to associate with figures of authority.
C — Mel becomes upset because Toni (unknowingly) reinforced Mel’s belief that she is unworthy. Although Mel would prefer not to do the presentation — she is upset because she believes Toni thinks she is not worthy to do such a presentation (consequence).
The role of the counsellor is to dispute the irrational belief (B). Disputing has three parts: detecting, discriminating and debating irrational beliefs.
Detecting irrational beliefs
The counsellor’s foremost role in the process of disputing irrational beliefs is firstly to assist clients in detecting them. Irrational beliefs can be detected through the examination of activating events (A) and consequences (C).
Discriminating between rational and irrational beliefs
The second step in disputing irrational beliefs is deciding whether the belief is irrational or not. A clue to the rationality of a belief is the use of terms such as should, must and ought. Use of such terms often indicates that a belief is irrational.
Debating irrational beliefs
Debating irrational beliefs is a large part of REBT. There are many techniques that can be used to debate irrational beliefs. Some of these include:
- Socratic debate. The counsellor draws attention to the incongruence or inconsistency in the client’s beliefs. The goal is to enable clients to critically examine their beliefs and not simply accept the counsellor’s perception.
- Humour and creativity. Stories and metaphors can help clients gain new insight or a fresh perspective on their beliefs.
Developing new rational beliefs
There are numerous methods for assisting clients in developing new rational beliefs. Some of these include:
- Coping self-statement. Coping statements can strengthen newly formed rational beliefs. “For example, an individual who is afraid of public speaking may write down and repeat to himself several times a day statements such as “I want to speak flawlessly, but it’s alright if I don’t”, “No one is killed for giving a poor speech “, and “I’m an articulate person”. (Sharf, 2004, 336).
- Cost-benefit analysis. This is the process of comparing the costs and the benefits of holding a particular belief or set of beliefs. Clients are encouraged to think about the advantages and disadvantages on a regular basis.
- Psycho educational methods. Self-help books, audio CDs and other learning tools may supplement counselling sessions and serve as a reminder of strategies learnt in counselling.
- Teaching others. Clients are encouraged to teach others to dispute their irrational beliefs. This serves as a learning tool and a reinforcer of strategies learnt in counselling.
- Beck, J. (1995). Cognitive therapy: Basics and beyond. New York, NY: Guilford Publications.
- Burns, D. D. (1989). The feeling good handbook. New York: William Morrow.
- Corey, G. (2005). Theory and practice of counselling and psychotherapy. (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
- Sanders, D., & Wills, F. (2005). Cognitive therapy: An introduction. (2nd ed.). London: Sage.
- Sharf, R. (2004). Theories of psychotherapy and counseling: Concepts and cases. (3rd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.