Rational Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, or REBT, is a style of short-term cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) that was developed in the 1950s by a doctor named Albert Ellis (The Albert Ellis Institute).
Ellis trained as a clinical psychologist but found the options for treating his patients lacking. His dissatisfaction with the results he was seeing drove him to develop his own brand of therapy that emphasized action instead of talk.
Read on to dive deeper into the theory behind REBT and look at some of the techniques and interventions that you might practice with this type of therapy.
This article contains:
A Brief Look at the Theory
Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy is based on the idea that it is not the things that happen to us that cause our problems—it is our thoughts and thinking patterns that lead to the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral issues that challenge us.
This idea is captured in the ABC framework:
A – the activating event or adversity
B – our beliefs about the event, ourselves, and the world in general
C – the consequences of our emotions and behaviors
Ellis believed that far too much emphasis was placed on the activating events and that most of the consequences were actually determined by our beliefs (Albert Ellis Institute).
This was a significant shift from the prevailing ideas of the day, and it gave new hope to clients who were frustrated with their lack of results from traditional therapy; after all, if our beliefs are the real culprit rather than the events, then we have much more control over the consequences than we thought!
REBT practitioners believe there are two categories of cognition: hot and cold. Cold cognition refers to the way we initially think about and understand what happens to us, while hot cognitions are evaluations of our cold cognitions (Turner, 2016).
We don’t have much control over our cold cognitions, as those are formed early on and are generally not consciously understood; however, we can influence how we evaluate those cold cognitions.
Further, REBT distinguishes between healthy negative emotions (or HNEs) and unhealthy negative emotions (or UNEs). HNEs follow from adverse events that we approach with rational beliefs and adaptive behaviors, while UNEs stem from irrational beliefs and maladaptive behaviors (Taylor, 2016). REBT aims to help clients reduce these irrational beliefs and replace them with rational beliefs.
Grounded in these innovative ideas, REBT was designed as a practical approach to help people learn techniques that would allow them to overcome their obstacles and cope with life’s challenges more effectively.
What Techniques Does REBT Use?
Many techniques fall within the realm of REBT, but there are three main types of techniques that clients will learn:
- Problem-solving techniques
- Cognitive restructuring techniques
- Coping techniques (Raypole, 2018)
Each category of technique corresponds to part of the ABC model, giving clients techniques to use at each step.
Problem-solving techniques are intended to help clients address the A in the ABC model, addressing the activating event or adversity head-on. Popular problem-solving methods include:
- Problem-solving skills
- Social skills
- Decision-making skills
- Conflict resolution skills
Cognitive Restructuring Techniques
Cognitive restructuring techniques are focused on helping the client change irrational beliefs.
- Logical or rationalizing techniques
- Guided imagery and visualization
- Using humor and irony
- Exposing yourself to whatever you fear
- Disputing irrational beliefs
When a client can’t change the event and is struggling even though they are using rational thinking, coping techniques can help.
These techniques can include:
- Breathing exercises
Examples of REBT in Action
In a typical REBT session, the therapist will likely go over the “ABCs” with the client.
For example, here is a sample transcript from a session of REBT:
Client: I had a really difficult presentation at work this week, and I totally blew it.
Therapist: Tell me about it.
C: Well, I stumbled a little while presenting, and I just felt so stupid. In the end, there were tons of questions from management that I didn’t anticipate, and that makes me feel like I missed the mark on the whole presentation.
T: It sounds like you got your point across and engaged your audience, but maybe you didn’t give a perfect presentation. Why does that upset you so much?
C: I feel like I must not be a very good employee if I don’t hit the mark every time.
T: And so what if you don’t hit the mark every time?
C: I guess it’s not that big of a deal to miss the mark every once in a while.
T: We all make mistakes. It seems like it wasn’t giving an imperfect presentation that upset you; it was how you judged yourself afterward that made you feel down on yourself.
C: Yeah, I think you’re right. I shouldn’t feel so bad though; everyone makes mistakes.
At this point, the therapist will likely help the client come up with some statements based on their irrational belief that they must be perfect for every presentation. They might come up with statements like:
“I must ace my presentation, or I am a bad employee.”
“I must be a model employee, or I have no value at all.”
“I must present with ease, or I am incompetent.”
Next, the therapist will help the client explore some alternative beliefs, like:
“It’s okay to slip up sometimes.”
“Making a mistake doesn’t mean I’m worthless.”
“Even if I botch a presentation, I can still be a good employee overall.”
If you’re interested in seeing how the professionals apply the principles and techniques of REBT, check out this 4-video series from Albert Ellis and his protégé Janet Wolfe.
Common REBT Questions
Some of the most common questions in REBT relate to how it works and how it differs from other forms of therapy. For example, below are three common questions and the corresponding answers:
- Question: How can REBT help me?
- Answer: REBT can help you learn more about yourself and the irrational beliefs that are damaging you or holding you back, and it can teach you how to address these irrational beliefs when they crop up.
- Question: Will REBT keep me from feeling emotions?
- Answer: No, REBT will not keep you from feeling emotions; however, it will help you to recognize them, accept them, and respond to or cope with them in a healthier way.
- Question: Do I need to go every week? For how long?
- Answer: No, you do not need to go every week. You and your therapist can work out a schedule that works best for you. You might go every week at first, but every-other-week sessions and monthly sessions are also common. Sessions are usually between 30 and 60 minutes, but this is also dependent upon you and your therapist. Whatever works for you is a good length!
To dive even deeper into REBT, check out the Albert Ellis Institute’s Frequently Asked Questions section, where they tackle further questions like:
- I’ve heard that REBT tries to do away with negative emotions altogether by making people think logically and objectively. Is that true?
- But aren’t feelings such as anger and anxiety normal and appropriate?
- With all this emphasis on “me,” doesn’t REBT encourage selfishness?
- Does REBT force its own beliefs about what’s rational on people?
A Look at REBT Interventions
If you’re wondering how REBT is put into practice with clients, this section is for you! There are tons of resources out there for practitioners or those interested in trying the techniques for themselves.
Check out the activities, exercises, and worksheets listed below.
3 REBT Activities and Exercises
Imagine The Worst
Imagine The Worst…can be used when a client is attempting to avoid thinking about worst possible scenarios for fear of becoming even more anxious. In this exercise, they face that fear by envisioning it.
This can help them realize that:
- The worst-case scenario is unrealistic, and thus unlikely to occur
- Even if it did occur, the worst-case scenario will probably still be tolerable, and/or
- In the event of its happening, they would still be able to manage the outcome and prevent it from becoming as catastrophic.
Blown Out Of All Proportion
In a session, the therapist would ask the client to imagine that the thing he or she fears happening the most actually happened. However, instead of allowing the client to visualize it realistically, the therapist will guide them in visualizing it to an extreme, blow entirely out of proportion (Froggatt, 2005).
When things are this exaggerated, they become funny! Laughing at their blown-up fears will help the client get control over them. This exercise isn’t right for every fear, but it can be extremely useful in many cases.
You’ll find this intervention, with examples, in the Imagine The Worst PDF above.
Disputing Irrational Beliefs (DIBS) Handout
One of the most popular cognitive restructuring techniques is called Disputing Irrational Beliefs (DIBS) or simply Disputing (Ellis, n.d.). The point of DIBS is to question yourself on some of your limiting or harmful beliefs and essentially “logic” them out of existence.
Here are the questions to ask yourself, outlined in our Disputing Irrational Beliefs Handout:
- What is the self-defeating irrational belief I would like to dispute and reduce?
- Am I able to support this belief with objective facts?
- What proof is there that this belief is false?
- Is there any proof that this belief is true?
- What is the worst possible outcome that could occur if I fail to get what I believe I must? Or…what’s the worst possible outcome if I do get what I believe I mustn’t? What other negative things could happen to me?
- What positive things could I cause to happen if my undesirable scenarios pan out?
Although this technique can be highly effective for irrational beliefs, it will not always work for your most deeply held or long-held beliefs. These are harder to dispute, but not impossible; Ellis recommends recording your irrational belief and several disputes to the belief, then listening to it repeatedly and even allowing your therapist, therapy group, or loved ones to listen to it with you.
This technique has been adapted from Techniques for Disputing Irrational Beliefs by the Albert Ellis Institute into a client handout (Ellis, n.d.). For a more detailed exercise, check out our Challenging Questions Worksheet below.
3 REBT Worksheets (incl. PDF)
Worksheets can make a great addition to REBT for clients, or a satisfactory substitute for therapy in people with milder issues.
Check out these three worksheets on REBT techniques below.
1. Increasing Awareness of Cognitive Distortions
Although it’s not necessarily an REBT-exclusive technique, this worksheet can fit in nicely with an REBT focus. It guides the user through identifying the cognitive distortions—aka irrational beliefs—that he or she holds.
First, the worksheet lists 11 of the most common cognitive distortions:
- All-or-Nothing Thinking
- Discounting the Positive
- Jumping to Conclusions
- Mind Reading
- Fortune Telling
- Magnifying (Catastrophizing) or Minimizing
- Emotional Reasoning
- Should Statements
- Labelling and Mislabelling
Once the user reads through the common cognitive distortions and some examples, they can move on to the worksheet. It’s split into three columns with instructions for each:
- Feelings – Write down what feelings you are experiencing; these can include emotions and physical sensations.
- Thoughts – Notice what thoughts are associated with your feelings and write those down here.
- Cognitive Distortion – Analyze your thoughts; is there a cognitive distortion there, or is your thought(s) rational?
Take a few minutes each day to complete a row in this worksheet for at least one week, and you will improve your ability to identify your irrational beliefs, which is the first step towards correcting them. You can find the Increasing Awareness of Cognitive Distortions worksheet in the Positive Psychology Toolkit.
2. Leaving the Comfort Zone
This worksheet will help educate the user on the four zones and motivate him or her to step outside of the comfort zone.
First, it defines the four zones:
- Comfort zone: the space in which we feel safe and in control; things are easy, and we know what to do.
- Fear zone: an uncomfortable space marked by uncertainty; we don’t know what to expect or what to do.
- Learning zone: another uncomfortable space, but not as bad as the fear zone; we begin to acquire new skills and expand our comfort zone.
- Growth zone: when we stay in the learning zone long enough, it becomes the growth zone, where we become comfortable with our new skills and experience.
Next, it directs the user to identify a comfort zone situation. It should be something coming up that will require the user to step out of the comfort zone and into the fear zone.
Once the user has identified a situation, they are instructed to identify their personal signs of fear, or symptoms of their experience with fear.
In addition to noting the signs of fear, the user should identify what they would lose out on by not stepping into the fear zone. What opportunities would they lose? What new potential benefits would they miss out on?
Further, the user should note the long-term possibilities of staying in the learning zone. How might they transform as a person? What could they gain from being in this zone long-term?
Finally, the user finishes the worksheet by reflecting on how they would feel about themselves if they stuck it out long-term in the growth zone, and how it would affect their relationships with others.
This worksheet can help users reframe their thoughts about their fears and face them. You can find it in the Positive Psychology Toolkit.
3. Challenging Questions Worksheet
This worksheet can help the user question their irrational beliefs and stop them in their tracks.
First, it lists ten common irrational beliefs the user may recognize in him- or herself:
- I am only as good as what I achieve.
- If he/she doesn’t love me, then I’m worthless.
- Other people should follow the rules I know to be right.
- It’s not okay to have this feeling. I should just be happy.
- The problems in this relationship are all my fault/their fault.
- This situation is hopeless; nothing will ever improve.
- If this person doesn’t like me, then other people must feel the same way.
- I must be able to do it all; if I can’t, then there’s something wrong with me.
- My life is too hard. Life shouldn’t be this difficult and frustrating.
- Anger is not safe; I must not let myself get angry about this.
Then, it lists 12 challenging questions the user can use to confront their irrational belief:
- What is the evidence for or against this idea?
- Am I confusing habit with a fact?
- Are my interpretations of the situation too far removed from reality to be accurate?
- Am I thinking in all or nothing terms?
- Am I using words or phrases that are extreme or exaggerated like always, forever, never, need, should, must, can’t, and every time?
- Am I taking selected examples out of context?
- Am I making excuses? I’m not afraid; I just don’t want to go out. The other people expect me to be perfect. I don’t want to make the call because I don’t have time.
- Is the source of information reliable?
- Am I thinking in terms of certainties instead of probabilities?
- Am I confusing a low probability with a high probability?
- Are my judgments based on feelings rather than facts?
- Am I focusing on irrelevant factors?
The worksheet leaves space for the user to pick one belief and four challenging questions to answer with a new, healthier perspective on the irrational belief.
Recommended Books on the Topic
Given the popularity of other types of therapies, REBT has not gained the mainstream recognition that it deserves for its realistic approach and practical techniques. As such, you won’t find as many books about it as you would, say, cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavior therapy, but there are some excellent options—including a few books from the founder himself.
Check out these books to learn more:
- How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything—Yes, Anything! By Albert Ellis (Available on Amazon)
- Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Therapist’s Guide, 2nd Edition by Albert Ellis and Catharine MacLaren (Available on Amazon)
- A Guide to Rational Living by Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper (Available on Amazon)
- A Primer on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy by Windy Dryden, Raymond DiGiuseppe, and Michael Neenan (Available on Amazon)
- Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (Therapies of Psychotherapy) by Albert Ellis and Debbie Joffe Ellis (Available on Amazon)
A Take-Home Message
In this piece, we went over the basic ideas behind REBT, learned about the techniques used, and walked through a few sample exercises and activities. I hope you have a better understanding of this type of therapy and its potential to help those struggling with irrational thoughts and harmful beliefs.
What are your thoughts on REBT? Does it make sense to you? Do you believe that our thoughts about what happens to us are way more important than what actually happens to us? Let us know in the comments.
Thanks for reading!
- Ellis, A. (n.d.). Techniques for Disputing Irrational Beliefs. Retrieved from http://albertellis.org/rebt-pamphlets/Techniques-for-Disputing-Irrational-Beliefs.pdf
- Froggatt, W. (2005). A brief introduction to Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Rational.org. Retrieved from https://www.rational.org.nz/prof-docs/Intro-REBT.pdf
- Raypole, C. (2018). Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/rational-emotive-behavior-therapy
- Taylor, M. J. (2016). Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), irrational and rational beliefs, and the mental health of athletes. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1423.