I’ve been interested in various aspects of the mind ever since living and working in a residential therapeutic community in my early twenties. Since then, I’ve published papers and book chapters on psychotherapy, philosophy and psychedelics. I’ve presented and taught on psychedelics and I’ve also published widely on nature, mythology, philosophy and culture. I was an award-winning nature writer and a philosophy PhD student before realising that staring at Microsoft Word for months at a time was miserable and that I wanted to work in the moment.
I’m currently training in Rational-Emotive Behavioural Therapy at the College of Cognitive and Behavioural Therapies in London. I chose REBT/CBT for its evidence base but I’m sceptical of best-modality claims and inclined to see each as a toolkit whose value alters according to context. My approach is to take a broad view of the beliefs we hold, the meaning we attribute to them and the complex intersections of biology, history and our social environment in considering how best to live.
What is REBT?
Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy was developed by Albert Ellis in the 1950s and 60s. Ellis trained in psychoanalysis before becoming frustrated at its slowness and lack of efficacy. He noticed that much of what troubled his clients stemmed not from mysterious psychodynamic processes but from their philosophical view of their situation. At a time when psychoanalysis and behaviourism were the two dominant theories in psychology, Ellis departed from the idea that humans are inextricably subject to outside conditioning by focusing on the mind’s capacity to learn and change.
The mental distress we all experience at times tends to arise in certain situations. REBT looks at the precise elements of those situations and how they trigger particular beliefs. REBT is quick and effective at identifying and scrutinising beliefs that are holding us back in life. Sometimes we turn desires into absolutist demands that we then impose on ourselves or others. Sometimes these are ideas we’ve picked up socially – when Albert Ellis first developed what he then called Rational Therapy, he was working with clients mired in rigid 1950s attitudes around status, work and relationships. We may have moved on from there, but where there is outrage, fear or distress in human relations, there are usually some beliefs lurking beneath the surface that we would do well to examine.
The next step is to think how best to move forward. Often, we have patterns of emotion and behaviour that aren’t working for us, and changing our mindset is about changing practical as well as intellectual habits.
Not all mental distress is caused by beliefs. Sometimes we find ourselves in an intractably difficult environment, and some of us will struggle with predispositions to depression, anxiety or psychosis. However, there is always a window of agency, no matter how small it might look at first sight, in which we can think about how to orient ourselves towards the world as best we can. REBT works in this window.
REBT isn’t a panacea. It’s a therapeutic toolkit. Tools are really useful but they work best when they’re the right tool for the job, and any style of therapy making grand claims about its unique ability to solve all ills should be treated with caution. Any therapist who can’t see beyond their toolkit should be treated with caution too! A core teaching of Ellis was that rigid thinking causes problems down the line. That said, REBT is a tool that works very well for people who want to move on from mental distress. It isn’t such a good fit if what you primarily want from therapy is comfort and validation; it still needs a solid therapeutic alliance, but it does more than offering a listening space. It takes work, but we can work together as a team and move at your pace. We can take the time to explore how your beliefs fit into the bigger picture of your experience in the world, and how to create meaning as well as focused change.