Albert Ellis, Pioneering Psychologist

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In our Retrobituaries series, we highlight interesting people who are no longer with us. Today let's explore the life of Albert Ellis, who passed away in 2007 at the age of 93.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy changed psychology forever. Albert Ellis, who is perhaps psychology’s most colorful pioneer, was the man who developed the theory, practice, and school of thought. He died in 2007, but his work continues to resonate. Here are a few things you might not have known about the grandfather of scientific, evidence-based psychotherapy.

He was thrown out of the Albert Ellis Institute.

Albert Ellis was not afraid to break with tradition or offer bracing assessments, and this didn't always go over well. His work with Alfred Kinsey in the 1950s earned him bitter complaints from members of the American Psychological Association, and at some point, he even began to annoy the board of trustees of the Albert Ellis Institute (formerly the Institute for Rational Living), which he founded.

Every Friday night, Ellis held a workshop that was open to the public. Anywhere between fifty and one hundred people showed up once a week for live therapy. (Said Ellis: “I’m gonna cure every f***in’ screwball in New York one at a time!”) The board of the Albert Ellis Institute attempted to shut down the sessions in 2005—after he’d been doing them every week for 40 years—and then ousted Ellis from the Institute in what was described as a “palace coup.” This was in retaliation for Ellis’s wasting of financial resources. The charge, specifically? “Excess use of benefits.” At the end of his life, Ellis sustained a severe gastroenterological infection, and near death, had to have his colon removed. He required daily nursing care (though his mind remained as sharp as ever). The medical bills were pretty high, and the board, which established a trust for precisely this situation, decided that Ellis’s bills were just too high. (Really.) They wanted their money back.

After a legal skirmish, a judge quickly backed Ellis, and he was reinstated, his name cleared.

(Notably, after he’d been expelled from his own Institute, he continued having his weekly sessions. It’s not like anyone on the board was showing up for work on Friday nights, so Ellis, who kept his key to the building, simply let himself in and opened up the shop for business.)

He knew a few words from George Carlin’s list, and liked to share them on stage.

Albert Ellis's achievements are innumerable, but one thing of which he was especially proud: “I was the first psychologist ever to say ‘f***’ and ‘s***’ at the American Psychological Association conference.” His Friday night sessions were also known for their colorful employments of profanity.

He was the Stephen Hawking of psychology.

You might not have heard of Albert Ellis, but in many ways you're living in a world strongly influenced by his books, thinking, and research. Cognitive behavioral therapy tore through the field of psychology like a tornado, with Ellis directly challenging the work of Freud. Where the latter focused on neuroses from childhood, Ellis called neuroses "a high-class word for whining." His research concluded that true progress could be made with rational thinking and taking control of your life. Instead of spending years on a therapist's couch, he said happiness was really found in "forgetting your god-awful past."

"Your mother never told you she loved you? That's her right as a fallible f***ed-up human being."

In 1982, psychologists were asked to rank the most important psychotherapists in history. Ellis came in second—one spot ahead of Freud. Years later, Psychology Today proclaimed him the “greatest living psychologist.” 

He was against “musterbation.”

One of Ellis’s most important contributions to psychology is called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. As he told Psychology Today in January 2001:

People don’t just get upset. They contribute to their upsetness. They always have the power to think, and to think about their thinking, and to think about thinking about their thinking, which the goddamn dolphin, as far as we know, can’t do. Therefore they have much greater ability to change themselves than any other animal has, and I hope that REBT teaches them how to do it.

There are three “musts,” he said, that hold us back: “I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.” He famously called this “musterbation,” and said, “I sometimes think that as long as we keep the second must, which is socially learned, then some screwballs 100 years from now will manufacture atomic bombs in their bathtub and maybe annihilate the whole human race because they demand that the rest of the world must agree with their dogmas.”

He was a man of action.

“The trouble with most therapy is that it helps you to feel better,” Albert Ellis told the New York Times in 1994, “But you don’t get better. You have to back it up with action, action, action.” Albert Ellis’s starting point was breaking psychotherapy away from Freud, by way of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Until his death at 93, he worked sixteen-hour days, and over the course of his career, he wrote over three hundred linear feet of papers (stacked), contained in more than six hundred boxes. His 60-plus books—many of them bestsellers—included: A Guide to Successful Marriage, Overcoming Procrastination, When AA Doesn't Work For You: Rational Steps to Quitting Alcohol, The Art of Erotic Seduction, Sex Without Guilt, A New Guide to Rational Living, Optimal Aging: Get Over Getting Older, and The Myth of Self-Esteem. His last autobiography, published posthumously, was titled, All Out. 

Previously on Retrobituaries: Chuck Jones, the man behind Looney Tunes. See all Retrobituaries here.