Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT)
Reviewed by therapist.com team
REBT is a type of short-term therapy designed to help you challenge and change unhelpful beliefs that lead to unhealthy or harmful feelings and behaviors.
Rational emotive behavioral therapy, created by Albert Ellis in the 1950s, was actually the first form of what is now known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Ellis’s REBT framework, combined with Aaron Beck’s work on cognitive therapy, led to the development of CBT in the 1960s. Today, REBT stands as its own therapeutic approach, similar to but separate from CBT.
Like cognitive behavioral therapy, rational emotive behavioral therapy draws heavily upon the idea of the cognitive triangle. The cognitive triangle refers to the concept that our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are interconnected and shape our experience of the world.
Many people with mental health struggles experience distressing thoughts, which lead to overwhelming emotions and unhelpful or even harmful behaviors. REBT seeks to disrupt this triangle by challenging the distressing thoughts and beliefs. That way, people can experience calmer emotions and choose healthier behaviors.
Specific to REBT is the ABC model. Although similar to the cognitive triangle, the ABC model takes a step back and looks at what causes distressing thoughts or beliefs in the first place. The three parts of the ABC model are:
- A – Activating event: An activating event is something that happens in your life. It can be as simple as getting out of bed in the morning or as traumatic as getting into a car accident. In some REBT models, “A” stands for “adversity” to emphasize the difficult or distressing nature of the event itself. What matters is that it happens to, near, or around you.
- B – Belief: This refers to your thoughts and beliefs regarding the activating event. Beliefs do not have to be true or logical; they only have to feel true.
- C – Consequence: Consequences of your beliefs are typically emotional before they are behavioral. The ABC model focuses on the feelings generated from your beliefs before taking a look at what actions you take in response to those emotions.
The goal of REBT is to dispute your negative, irrational beliefs and to replace them with a more positive, rational belief. This disputation process leads to an expanded version of the ABC model known as the ABCDE model. In this model, the previous ABC steps are the same, though a “D” and “E” are added:
- D – Disputation: Instead of letting your emotions lead to unhealthy behaviors, REBT proceeds to disputation. Your REBT therapist will help you develop ways to dispute and challenge your beliefs and the emotions they cause.
- E – Effective new belief: Unhelpful beliefs cannot simply be disputed; they must also be replaced with a rational and helpful belief. Your REBT therapist will help you identify a new belief to implement in response to the activating event.
At the core of REBT is the concept of rationality. REBT posits that rational beliefs produce healthy emotions and behaviors. Being able to correctly identify if a belief is rational or irrational is therefore critical for a client’s progress. Only when a client views a belief as irrational can they then take the steps to challenge and ultimately change it.
In REBT, rational beliefs are characterized as flexible, logical, and non-extreme. They do not distort reality or rely on rigid thinking. Instead, rational beliefs are honest about reality without being overly demanding of yourself or others. REBT identifies four types of rational beliefs:
- Preferences: Being honest about your desires and inclinations without being demanding (e.g., “I want to succeed in my industry”)
- Potential: Being honest about the potential for and reality of failure without allowing that failure to snowball into catastrophe (e.g., “I’ll be disappointed if I fail this test, but I’ll have other opportunities to succeed in this class”)
- Resilience: Acknowledging reality while also acknowledging and believing in your own resilience (e.g., “It’s disappointing that I didn’t get the job, but I will get through this and eventually find employment”)
- Acceptance: Accepting yourself and others, even in the face of failure (e.g., “I messed up during that work presentation, but I am still a valuable employee”)
Irrational beliefs tend to be rigid, extreme, and illogical. Instead of allowing for the complexities of life, irrational beliefs rely on black-and-white thinking that traps the believer into extreme, unhealthy outcomes. REBT identifies four types of irrational beliefs:
- Demandingness: Placing inflexible or unrealistic expectations on yourself, others, or the world, usually with words like “should,” “must,” or “ought” (e.g., “I must be perfect at everything I do”)
- Awfulizing: Viewing failure and adversity as terrible catastrophes (e.g., “If I fail this test, my grade will never recover”)
- Low frustration tolerance (LFT): Believing that failure is intolerable or even unsurvivable (e.g., “I cannot stand being rejected yet again”)
- Self-depreciation: The belief that one adversity or failure is proof that you are a failure as a whole (e.g., “If I mess up even once, it means I’m a failure”)
REBT is a short-term therapy that is used to help people struggling with irrational beliefs. It’s often used for:
- Anxiety, particularly performance anxiety in sports
- Eating disorders
- Social anxiety
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
- Conduct disorder
- Oppositional defiant disorder
Although REBT is an effective treatment for certain mental health disorders, it also has its limits. Some critics suggest that REBT is too binary, categorizing thoughts as either rational or irrational instead of acknowledging that many beliefs are a mix of both. It has also been criticized for being too harsh and confrontational.
Others point out that REBT puts too much focus on the present, neglecting to take past trauma into account. This makes it less effective for irrational beliefs that may be caused by posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other trauma-related conditions.
REBT and CBT have a common origin story and share several characteristics. In particular, they are both built on the assumption that our beliefs influence our feelings and behaviors. Therefore, changing maladaptive thought patterns can lead to positive changes in how we feel and behave.
However, REBT and CBT are largely considered distinct, separate therapies with their own strengths and limits. In contrast to CBT, rational emotive behavior therapy seeks to explore the philosophical underpinnings of emotional and behavioral disturbances. REBT also has a more direct and confrontational approach, whereas CBT places greater emphasis on the use of Socratic questioning and guided discovery.
In addition, while both REBT and CBT aim to help clients examine the accuracy of their beliefs, REBT focuses on the rationality/irrationality of the beliefs, whereas CBT focuses on the functional/dysfunctional nature of the belief.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a highly structured form of therapy that integrates the principles of CBT with the principles of mindfulness. It was originally developed to treat chronically suicidal individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD). DBT comprises four specific treatment modules, each of which are intended to help clients cultivate greater present-moment awareness, reduce emotional vulnerability, tolerate distress, and communicate their needs in relationships.
REBT does not comprise these same treatment goals. Instead, the aim is simply to help clients dispute their irrational beliefs and replace these with more rational ways of thinking. In addition, REBT can exist simply as a form of individual therapy, whereas DBT also requires group therapy and therapist consultations.
Although REBT is helpful for people struggling with irrational beliefs, DBT works particularly well for clients who are resistant to change, skeptical of therapy in the first place, and/or engaging in dangerous behaviors, such as self-harm and suicidality.
If certain irrational beliefs are holding you back, REBT can help. Click here to find an REBT therapist near you.
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