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Why I (Really) Became a Therapist

Albert Ellis
Albert Ellis Institute

This article describes how the author really became a therapist and worked on his own social and performance anxiety. He was at first a follower of liberal psychoanalysis, but, in successfully using in vivo desensitization on himself, he overcame his anxiety and became highly constructivist. He finally created rational emotive behavior therapy, the pioneering cognitivebehavior therapy; integrated it with emotional-evocative and experiential methods; and used it to cope with much criticism he received about his active-directive techniques. © 2005 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Clin Psychol/In Session 61: 945–948, 2005. Keywords: psychotherapist; rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT); treatment methods; person of the therapist

Why did I (really) become a psychotherapist? In a word, because I primarily wanted to help myself become a much less anxious and much happier individual. Oh, yes, I wanted to help other people, too, and I wanted to help the world be a better place, with healthier and happier people who fought like hell to create better conditions. But I really and primarily wanted to help me, me, me! Not that I was that disturbed as a child. Unlike my brother, Paul, and my father, Henry, I was not seriously angry and rebellious. Unlike my sister, Janet, I was not severely depressed and self-hating. But like my mother, Hettie, I was quite anxious about being outstandingly successful and about being universally approved. Not that I was terrified or panicked. But I was worried about innumerable performances and was preoccupied with succeeding at them and avoiding any risks of failing. I was particularly phobic about speaking in public from the age of 5 onward, so I did my damnedest to avoid doing so and beautifully succeeded. Naturally, with every avoidance of public speaking, I became more phobic about it, as is often the case!
Portions of this article also appear in the Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy published by Kluwer. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Albert Ellis, Ph.D., Albert Ellis Institute, 45 E. 65th Street, New York, NY 10021; e-mail: aiellis@aol.com.

JCLP/In Session, Vol. 61(8), 945–948 (2005) © 2005 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10.1002/jclp.20166


JCLP/In Session, August 2005

Similarly, I began falling madly in love with a succession of girls from my fifth year onward, and for fear of being rejected, I never talked to them if I could possibly help it. During my adolescence, I lusted after about 101 of 100 females and flirted with many of them at a distance, but, again, I never approached any of them and consequently never had a single date. Naturally, I was disturbed about my phobias; equally naturally, I was anxious about my anxiety—particularly because my younger brother, Paul, was an inveterate lady-killer as soon as he reached early adolescence. How shameful of me not to equal his exploits and to be capable of talking with the girls to whom I was attracted only when they approached me first! Otherwise, my mouth was frantically closed. I completely overcame my social anxiety at the age of 19 when I gave myself the homework assignment of going to Bronx Botanical Gardens every day in August and forcing myself to sit next to and talk to 130 women on the park benches. I was enormously afraid of rejection but used philosophy to convince myself that nothing terrible would happen if I kept failing to date them. Actually, I failed miserably, for of 130 prospects, I made only one date—and she didn’t show up! But I saw philosophically that nobody cut my balls off, no one called a cop, and none of the women ran away vomiting. Although I was totally unreinforced, and Fred Skinner (1971) would have thought I would have been extinguished, I valiantly continued, talking to another 100 women, and I made a few dates. Gone was my social anxiety! I also worked on my performance anxiety, especially in sports, and was soon able to play badly, acknowledge my many errors, and stubbornly refuse to put myself down. My performances were often bad, but I never saw myself as an inadequate person—just as a lousy ballplayer. As I have related elsewhere (Ellis, 2001b), I turned to philosophy, especially the philosophy of happiness, in order to conquer my extreme shyness, as well as my panic about speaking in public. My protective hobby, from the age of 16, was reading all the leading philosophers, ancient and modern, and learning from their constructivism. I particularly learned from Gautama Buddha, Epicurus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, John Dewey, and Bertrand Russell. I saw that Sigmund Freud and John B. Watson highly exaggerated family and environmental causes of human disturbances. Instead, most of the philosophers I read clearly pointed out that people partly constructed their own feelings of anxiety, depression, and rage. As Epictetus (1890) said 2000 years ago, “ People are disturbed not by events that happen to them, but by their view of these events.” This idea was a revelation to me, which I took seriously and with which I trained myself to be much less anxious about many things—but unfortunately not dating and public speaking. I was still scared shitless and phobic about those two enormously “risky” situations. Using my constructivist tendencies, I finally cured myself of my phobias for public speaking and approaching new women by using the in vivo desensitization techniques of John B. Watson and his associates (Watson, 1919). Without inquiring where a young child’s fear of animals originated, they desensitized several 6- to 9-year-olds to exposure to feared rabbits or mice and, within 20 minutes or so, had the children pleasurably petting the animals. Great! I combined my newly acquired philosophic teachings and forced myself, when I was 19, to take the homework assignment of making myself speak in public twice a week for 7 weeks. This exploit was also the first time for me and I was exceptionally anxious about doing it. Voilà! I almost completely got over my panic states—yes, for the rest of my life. In the process, I seem to have invented cognitive behavior therapy and primed myself to create rational-emotive behavior therapy (REBT) later. My reading paid off very well!

Why I Became a Therapist


I was thrilled with my quick cure of my phobias, told many of my relatives and friends about it, discovered that they could also use my methods to lessen their own disturbances, and became a volunteer psychotherapist at the age of 19. Mostly, however, my goal was to become a writer and to write essays, books, novels, plays, poems, and songs with philosophic leanings. I wanted to spread the gospel according to Saint Albert to the heathens, especially in regard to bringing about a liberal sex revolution. So between the ages of 19 and 28 I wrote many articles and 20 book-length manuscripts, most of them with my meticulous therapeutic messages. Unfortunately, these articles and books were often given accolades by editors and publishers—but, alas, still rejected. Nothing daunted, I decided to go to graduate school when I was 28 to become a professional therapist. Naturally, I was already philosophically and behaviorally prepared. My graduate school, Teachers College, Columbia University, was almost completely psychodynamic and client centered. So I gracefully put up with its psychotherapeutic teachings and went my own highly active-directive way. My philosophic and behavioral techniques, which I mainly learned from my reading, took a no-nonsense approach and often helped people to improve themselves, very often in record time. So I adopted their hard-hitting methods. I sidetracked myself for 6 years because I foolishly thought that the neo-Freudian psychoanalysis of Fromm, Horney, and Alexander and French was deeper and more intensive than other forms of psychological treatment. So I was trained in liberal psychoanalysis by Richard Hulbeck, a training analyst of the Horney school, and practiced psychodynamic therapy for 6 years. But I found that even liberal psychoanalysis was quite long-winded and inefficient and was lacking in behavioral homework assignments. I therefore abandoned it after 6 years. I wrote two monographs summarizing scores of therapy techniques and started using REBT in January 1955. It soon became the first popular cognitive-behavior therapy, now one of the most used integrative therapies in the world. REBT theorizes that people, in order to make themselves minimally disturbed, had better achieve unconditional self-acceptance (USA), unconditional other-acceptance (UOA), unconditional life-acceptance (ULA), and a philosophy high frustration tolerance (HFT). In my personal life, I follow my theory in all three of these major ways: 1. I give myself unconditional self-acceptance (USA), no matter what my personal and professional failings are—and they often are considerable! I also accept myself unconditionally, no matter who disapproves of me and my therapy. Because REBT was anathema to most therapists for many years and because I was reviled for creating and practicing it, I was able to keep it going and turn it into one of the most popular psychotherapies by not giving much of a damn for the scathing criticism that I and it kept engendering. Let the benighted faultfinders criticize! I didn’t give that much of a shit. I accepted me with my crummy performances (Dryden, DiGiuseppe, & Neenan, 2003; Ellis, 2001a, 2001b, 2002; Ellis & Harper, 1997; Walen, DiGiuseppe, & Dryden, 1992). 2. Although I have been unfairly presented to the professional and lay public many times because of my liberal sex and love views (Ellis, 2003; Ellis & Blau, 1998), and although some of the best elements of REBT have been unjustly copied without my consent by writers and therapists who gave me no credit, I have never hated my detractors and purloiners and am not angry at them. In accordance with REBT theory, I deplore their unfair behaviors, but I do not denigrate them as persons for behaving badly. I thereby use my and REBT’s philosophy of unconditional other-acceptance (UOA) (Ellis & Blau, 1998).


JCLP/In Session, August 2005

3. In spite of the hassles and adversities mentioned, and in spite of my physical disabilities—among other things, I have had insulin-dependent diabetes for 47 years, with its innumerable problems and difficulties—I keep working to develop REBT and to spread it around the world. My unconditional life-acceptance (ULA) and my high frustration tolerance (HFT) in this respect have enabled me to write more than 75 books, to publish more than 700 articles, to see thousands of individual and group therapy clients, to give hundreds of lectures and workshops, to train almost innumerable therapists, and to do various other nefarious things. How do I do it? With REBT theory in mind, I follow one of its main rules incessantly: PYA—push your ass. So far, my ass hasn’t worn out, though I admit I’ve fallen on it quite a few times (Ellis, 1962, 1994, 2003). Am I, then, a self-made therapist? Not exactly—largely self-read and self-activated. But I had plenty of dead and living mentors for whom I am very grateful. Summary I really became a psychotherapist mainly because I was very anxious in several respects and wanted to solve my own problems. This led me, first, to use the constructivism of many philosophies combined and integrated with the behavior therapy of John B. Watson (1919) and Fred Skinner (1971). To these techniques I later added the emotionalevocative and experiential methods of several Buddhist philosophers and of psychotherapists. But before I used them with other people, I actively-directively, philosophically, and emotionally tried them out on myself. They worked! And they have continued to work with many of my clients, workshop attendees, and readers. In many respects, then, I have experimented with my favorite and most fascinating subject: me. As the years go by, I continue these personal experiments and the guidelines I discover from them to help others. But primarily, I help myself and try to benefit others. Both/and, not either/or! Select References/Recommended Readings
Dryden, W., DiGiuseppe, R., & Neenan, M. (2003). A primer on rational-emotive behavior therapy. Lafayette, IL: Research Press. Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and emotion in psychotherapy. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel. Ellis, A. (1994). Reason and emotion in psychotherapy (Rev. ed.). New York: Kensington. Ellis, A. (2001a). Feeling better, getting better, staying better. Atascadero, CA: Impact. Ellis, A. (2001b). Overcoming destructive beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. Amherst, NY: Prometheus. Ellis, A. (2003). Rational-emotive behavior therapy: It works for me, it can work for you. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. Ellis, A., & Blau, S. (1998). The Albert Ellis reader. New York: Kensington. Ellis, A., & Harper, R.A. (1997). A guide to rational living (Rev. ed.). North Hollywood, CA: Melvin Powers/Wilshire. Epictetus. (1890). Works of Epictetus. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Skinner, B.F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Knopf. Walen, S., DiGiuseppe, R., & Dryden, W. (1992). A practitioner’s guide to rational-emotive therapy. New York: Oxford. Watson, J.B. (1919). Psychology from the standpoint of a behaviorist. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

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