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Understanding Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT): Techniques and the ABC Model

Katie Mantooth, Lisa Roundy
  • Author
    Katie Mantooth

    Katie Mantooth is a writer who lives in Indianapolis, IN. She graduated from Marian University with a Bachelors in English. During her time at Marian, she worked at the Writing Center on campus where she helped run the social media and tutor at the collegiate level.

  • Instructor
    Lisa Roundy

    Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

Learn all about rational emotive therapy (REBT), its techniques and see the differences between REBT and CBT. Also, learn about the ABC model. Updated: 11/28/2021

Table of Contents


What is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy?

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, or REBT, is a clinical therapy type used to treat irrational thought patterns which lead to emotional or behavioral issues. This type of therapy helps to target a specific thought or pattern of thinking, examine the consequences or outcomes, and replace those thoughts or patterns with rational thinking to change the consequences. REBT relies on the idea that people generally want to find happiness and reach their goals, but are sometimes hindered by negative thoughts. Since our thoughts influence both our actions and worldviews, REBT, sometimes called Ellis REBT after it's creator, Albert Ellis, targets these thoughts and focuses on how to best bring back a positive mindset. Using an "ABC" model, the goal of REBT is to take "toxic" negative mindsets and maladaptive behaviors and turn them into rational, realistic mindsets that will allow the patient to achieve their goals.

A Patient Undergoing Therapy

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Vs. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, are both therapies used to address negative thought patterns, and it is important to note that both therapies believe that emotions and behaviors stem from these negative thought patterns, ideas and attitudes and NOT specific or general events. However, they also differ in some major key ways:

  1. REBT recognizes and treats the philosophical reasons behind specific thought patterns as well as the disturbed cognitions. For example, if Sarah and Skylar go on a date and Skylar does not text Sarah back immediately afterwards. Sarah says to her therapist "Since they didn't text me back, it must mean that they hate me!" In CBT, this would be passed off as a negative distorted cognition and Sarah would be probably be reminded that we cannot read minds. In REBT, the underlying need for acceptance and fear of rejection would be treated and examined.
  2. REBT treats and recognizes the significance of the second disturbance, while CBT tends to ignore this phenomenon. Second disturbance is simply being disturbed about being disturbed. For instance, if someone is anxious about the fact that they are anxious, that is a second disturbance. REBT recognizes this as an important aspect of negative thought processes, while CBT as a whole does not.
  3. While CBT focuses on building self-esteem through focusing on a patient's strongest, most positive qualities, REBT practices Unconditional Self Acceptance (USA). This means that no matter a patient's short-comings, mistakes or failures, this therapy will teach them to love themselves unconditionally, rather than placing the responsibility of self-esteem on qualities that may be fleeting or unreliable.
  4. REBT also understands that there are such a thing as appropriate, helpful negative emotions, as well as inappropriate harmful negative emotions, while CBT largely does not believe in helpful negative emotions. For example, if someone was suffering from an intense loss, their sadness, while a negative emotion, may be helpful in allowing them to process loss.
  5. In contrast, however, CBT views all anger as bad, while REBT understands that there can be some helpful, and even righteous anger.

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History of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

In 1957, an American psychologist named Albert Ellis penned and published perhaps his most influential piece entitled "Rational Psychotherapy and Individual Psychology" where he outlined a new type of therapy he referred to as "Rational Therapy." While his idea to change negative thought patterns in order to change negative moods and behaviors is not a new concept, he was the first to pen and outline a scientifically-testable paradigm. This earned Ellis the honor of now being referenced as one of the founders of the "cognitive revolution" within clinical psychology.

After receiving feedback that the title of his budding therapy seemed to ignore emotions (largely because of his use of rational in the name), he renamed his therapy Rational Emotive Therapy in 1961, and a year later, released his seminal novel Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Even still, the name was misleading practitioners to be "too cognitive" and largely ignore behavioral factors, so once again, in 2005, he renamed the therapy "Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy" to avoid confusion. Before his death, he had even expressed a desire to change it a third time to "Cognitive Affective Behavior Therapy" but never got the chance to do so, as he passed in 2007.

Today, through the work of the Albert Ellis Institution, REBT is still being used alongside CBT and other forms of therapy.

Theoretical Assumptions and Techniques

So how does REBT actually work? Generally accepted as an effective type of therapy, REBT uses an ABC model to treat negative symptoms and moods. Refer to the chart below for a breakdown of this simple acronym.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between REBT and CBT?

REBT is similar to CBT, but it differs in a few key ways. First, REBT therapists tend to be colder and less emotional than CBT therapists, and while CBT therapists view all forms of anger as negative, REBT recognizes that some anger is beneficial. Lastly, REBT employs an unconditional self-acceptance system while CBT tends to build self-esteem by focusing on positive attributes of a patient.

What is REBT and how does it work?

REBT is a type of behavior therapy that focuses on correcting negative thought patterns and cognition in order to correct destructive or negative behaviors or moods. It's most often used to treat depression but can also be used to treat anxiety, disordered eating, anger, aggression, addictions and sleep problems.

What is the main goal of rational emotive behavior therapy?

The main goal of REBT is to correct negative cognitions or mindsets so that a patient can live a fulfilling life and achieve their goals.

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