Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT)
Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 02/19/2024
What is rational emotive behavior therapy?
Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is a type of therapy that helps people who are struggling with irrational beliefs. It’s designed to help you identify, challenge, and change any beliefs or thoughts that lead to unhealthy or harmful feelings and behaviors.
Created by Albert Ellis, PhD, in the 1950s, REBT was an early form of what’s now known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).1 Today REBT stands as its own therapeutic approach, similar to but separate from CBT.
REBT vs. CBT
Rational emotive behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy have a common origin story and share several characteristics. However, they are distinct therapies with different strengths and limitations.
Both approaches assume that our beliefs influence our feelings and behaviors, and both aim to change harmful thought patterns. The goal of these two therapies is to create positive changes in how we think, feel, and behave. Unlike CBT, though, REBT has a slightly more direct and confrontational approach. It specifically targets the beliefs clients use to appraise the world rather than the thoughts they use to describe it.2
In addition, while both approaches help examine the accuracy of your thoughts and beliefs, REBT focuses on whether your beliefs are rational or irrational.
REBT vs. DBT
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a highly structured form of therapy that combines principles of CBT with mindfulness skills. Originally developed to treat chronically suicidal clients with borderline personality disorder (BPD), it uses four treatment modules to help you gain greater awareness of the present and learn to regulate your emotions, tolerate distress, and communicate better. Along with one-on-one therapy sessions, DBT also requires group therapy and offers phone coaching in times of crisis.
REBT is usually offered only as individual therapy, and it aims to help you challenge your irrational beliefs and replace them with more rational ways of thinking. Although REBT is helpful if you want to overcome negative beliefs, DBT works particularly well if you’re resistant to change or are engaging in dangerous behaviors like self-harm.
Key concepts of REBT
The ABC theory is specific to REBT. It’s a basic framework for understanding what causes our distressing thoughts or beliefs in the first place. This theory has three parts:
- Activating (or “adverse”) events: These are challenging events that happen to, near, or around you. They can be as simple as getting out of bed in the morning or as traumatic as a car accident. In some versions of the ABC theory, “A” stands for “adverse,” to emphasize that the event is difficult or distressing.
- Beliefs: This refers to what you think and believe in response to the activating event. Beliefs don’t have to be true or logical—they only have to feel true.
- Consequences: The ABC theory focuses on the feelings your beliefs generate and the actions you take in response. The consequences of your beliefs are usually both emotional and behavioral.
The goal of REBT is to challenge irrational beliefs and replace them with more positive, rational ones. This process expands the ABC theory by adding “D” and “E”:
- Dispute: Instead of letting your emotions lead to unhealthy behaviors, your therapist will help you challenge your beliefs and the emotions they cause.
- Effective new belief: It’s not enough to just challengeunhelpful beliefs; they must also be replaced with a rational, helpful belief. Your therapist will help you identify a new belief to apply in response to activating events.
Rational vs. irrational beliefs
Because REBT promotes the idea that rational beliefs produce healthy emotions and behaviors, being able to identify your beliefs as rational or irrational is crucial. Once you know a belief is irrational, you can take steps to push back and change it.
What makes a belief rational?
In REBT, rational beliefs are described as flexible, logical, and nonextreme.3 They don’t distort reality or rely on rigid thinking. REBT identifies four types of rational beliefs:
- Preference beliefs involvebeing honest about your desires and tendencies without being demanding (for instance, “I want to succeed in my industry, but that doesn’t mean I must”).
- Anti-awfulizing beliefs are honest about the possibility (or reality) of failure without viewing it as catastrophe (for example, “I’ll be disappointed if I fail this test, but I’ll have other opportunities to succeed in this class”).
- Resilience beliefs involve acknowledging reality while also believing in your own ability to recover from adversity (such as thinking “It’s disappointing that I didn’t get the job, but I will get through this and eventually find steady work”).
- Self/other acceptance beliefs allow you to value yourself and others, even in the face of failure (for instance, “I messed up in that meeting, but I’m still a valuable employee”).
What makes a belief irrational?
Irrational beliefs tend to be rigid, extreme, and illogical. Instead of allowing for complexity, they rely on black-and-white thinking that traps you into extreme, unhealthy outcomes. REBT identifies four types of irrational beliefs:
- Demanding beliefs involve placing inflexible or unrealistic expectations on yourself, others, or the world. They usually include words like “should,” “must,” or “ought to” (for example, “I must be perfect at everything I do”).
- Awfulizing beliefs view any form of failure or adversity as a disaster (“If I fail this test, I’ll never be able to bring my GPA back up”).
- Low frustration tolerance beliefs treat failures and setbacks as intolerable (“I can’t stand being rejected again”).
- Self/other depreciation beliefs treat one defeat or negative event as defining (for example, “My coworker was rude to me, so they’re a bad person ”).
What is REBT used to treat?
REBT is often used for:
- Eating disorders
- Social anxiety
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
If you have symptoms of any of these conditions, a therapist can help. Browse our directory to find a licensed mental health professional near you.
Limitations of REBT
REBT is effective at treating certain mental health disorders, but it has limits. Some critics feel this approach is too binary, categorizing thoughts as either “rational” or “irrational” instead of acknowledging that many beliefs are a mix of both.
REBT has also been criticized for being too harsh and confrontational. Critics point out that it puts too much focus on the present, neglecting to take past trauma into account. This makes the approach less effective for irrational beliefs caused by posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other trauma-related conditions.
Getting started with REBT
If you’re struggling, a mental health professional can help. Search our directory to find a licensed therapist near you.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.