Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, or REBT, is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that focuses on changing a person’s irrational beliefs. According to the REBT model, rational beliefs lead to functional thought and behavior patterns and therefore positive consequences, while irrational beliefs lead to dysfunctional thought and behavior patterns and therefore negative consequences. REBT helps clients actively dispute their irrational beliefs and develop rational beliefs that positively impact their emotional, behavioral and thought responses.
Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy was developed by Dr. Albert Ellis in 1955. The very first form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, REBT combines cognitive, behavioral and emotive techniques to reduce distress and promote healthier thoughts, behaviors and emotions for more positive consequences and a higher quality of life.
Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy operates under the assumption that extreme emotions like anxiety, depression and anger stem from irrational beliefs and lead to dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors. Recognizing irrational beliefs begins with becoming more aware of your thoughts and emotions surrounding the events that occur in your life. According to the Albert Ellis Institute, the key irrational beliefs addressed in REBT are:1
Demandingness is rigid thinking, or an inability to be flexible and think about situations in a different way. Excessive worry, perfectionism and inflexible demands of yourself and others indicate rigid thinking, as do words like “need,” “should” and “must.” The alternative to rigid thinking is flexible and accepting thinking.
Frustration tolerance is a measure of how well you handle stressful events, emotional discomfort or negative feelings. If you have a low frustration tolerance, you catastrophize discomfort–you can’t stand it; it’s the worst thing in the world. You try to avoid it at all costs, and this can lead to substance abuse or other problematic avoidance behaviors, and it can cause pervasive negativity in your life.
Catastrophizing is believing that a given situation, such as running late for work or getting into an argument with your spouse, is a catastrophe (“I’m going to get fired!” “He/she doesn’t love me anymore!”) When you catastrophize, you believe a situation is far worse than it really is, or you expect the worst from a situation without any evidence that it will turn out that way. The alternative to catastrophizing is the ability to make a nuanced evaluation of “badness.”
Self-downing includes negative self-talk and having negative beliefs about yourself. For example, you might think, “I forgot to call my mother. I’m a terrible son/daughter,” or “I made a mistake on my test -I never do anything right!” You may base your entire self-worth on one or two negative points, and negate everything good about yourself because of one or two negative actions.
Life-downing is judging your entire life as bad if it’s not perfect. For example, if you dislike your job, you might say, “My entire life is a drag.”
Other-downing occurs when you’re too critical of others and base your entire judgment of a person on one or two minor points. You might say, “Pete was late to work. He is an irresponsible person.”
All of these thoughts and beliefs are problematic and can have far-reaching negative consequences, especially for those who are in recovery from a substance use disorder or mental illness.
Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy utilizes cognitive, behavioral and emotive techniques to change irrational beliefs and the resulting negative emotions and consequences.
According to cognitive theory, our thoughts affect our emotional and behavioral responses to a given situation, known as an activating event. When an activating event happens, your thoughts and beliefs regarding the situation shape the consequences of the event.
For example, say you don’t get your dream job. If your resulting thoughts and beliefs run along the lines of “I never get anything I want” or “I’m a failure in my field,” the consequences of not getting the job may be that you give up applying for other jobs and miss out on other opportunities. You may become angry and bitter, frustrated and dejected. But if your thoughts and beliefs are more along the lines of, “You can’t win them all” or “It simply wasn’t a good fit,” the consequences of the event will be that you keep trying to find your dream job, eventually succeeding.
The reality is that it’s not the event itself that causes negative consequences, but rather your negative or irrational beliefs about the event.
Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy provides a framework for changing unhelpful or negative thoughts surrounding the events in your life. The alphabet approach is one way to do this, according to the REBT Depression Manual.2
n upsetting event happens: You lock your keys in the car, a friend stands you up, you miss your flight.
What thoughts and beliefs occur in response to the event? Do you curse your life? Call yourself names? Call other people names? Do you blow the event out of proportion and out of context? Are you being excessively rigid in your thinking about the event?
What are the consequences of the thoughts and beliefs you have surrounding the event? How do the thoughts and beliefs make you feel physically? What happens as a result of them? Is your day ruined? Do you lash out at someone you love? Do your resulting behaviors make the problem worse or make you feel worse?
Once you identify your negative and irrational thoughts and beliefs and the consequences they cause, the next step is to set about evaluating and debating them. If your thoughts and beliefs make you feel upset-“I am worthless, and everyone hates me!”-they’re probably not helpful and need to be changed. Likewise, if they make you do things you regret, such as engage in substance abuse or get into an argument with someone you love, it’s time to re-evaluate the way you think about and respond to events.
Reality testing is an important skill Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy imparts. When you say something like, “I never get a fair shake!” or “I can’t do anything right!” stop, and ask yourself: Is this really true? Is there evidence to back it up? When you actually think about it, you’ll find that you often get a fair shake, and you do many things right.
Your beliefs and your patterns of thinking and behaving aren’t set in stone. They develop over time, in response to events in your life and the lens through which you see the world. They can become dysfunctional, but you can change them for real and for good, thanks to the brain’s ability to learn new things.
Changing the beliefs that aren’t helpful to you is a matter of consciously replacing them with an opposing belief. For example, if you find yourself demanding that something must be a certain way, you tell yourself that you prefer it a certain way, but that you can accept that things aren’t always going to turn out exactly the way you want. If you find yourself catastrophizing–“This is the worst day ever!”–you turn it into, “Locking my keys in my car is inconvenient, but I’m not going to let it ruin my whole day. Things happen, and I can roll with it.”
As a direct result of applying the techniques you learn in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, you will notice positive changes in your life. You’ll feel better emotionally, and destructive behaviors won’t come as easily. You can survive cravings, arguments, inconveniences and other negative events and come out the other side with your mood intact and your actions leading to positive consequences.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most effective and commonly used treatment therapy for substance use disorders, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 3 As a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy is effective for treating addiction and other mental illnesses like anxiety and depression.
REBT is commonly used in addiction treatment programs, with a high level of success. By recognizing and changing irrational thought patterns, people in recovery from a drug or alcohol addiction can better manage cravings, stress, negative emotions and other relapse triggers. REBT can also help people improve their relationships, develop self-love and self-compassion and better cope with feeling uncomfortable.
There are many pathways to recovery, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 4 A holistic treatment program will use a variety of cognitive and behavioral therapies to help individuals recover for the long-term. REBT is one such treatment therapy, holding that humans can choose to work toward changing irrational thoughts and beliefs and that doing so results in long-lasting changes, fewer negative consequences and a higher quality of life.