American psychologist who originated rational-emotive therapy (RET), also known for his work as an author and counselor in the areas of marriage and sexuality.
Raised in the Bronx, New York, Albert Ellis was shy and physically frail when he was young. Although he had literary ambitions in his teens and twenties, he earned degrees in accounting and business. While in his twenties, he found that he had a gift for advising his friends on sexual matters and undertook an intensive independent study of human sexuality. Deciding to become a professional therapist, he earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the Teachers College at Columbia University in 1947, followed by four years of psychoanalytic training with Charles R. Hulbeck at the Karen Horney Institute. By 1952, he had a full-time practice in Manhattan.
However, Ellis soon became dissatisfied with the limits of psychoanalysis. He found it slow and ineffective, and he was frustrated with the passive role it assigned to the therapist. In 1953 he began experimenting with different therapeutic techniques, and within two
years he developed rational-emotive therapy (RET), which he then began to practice and advocate in writing. It was based on the idea that psychological problems are caused by self-defeating thoughts (such as "I must be loved or approved by everyone" and "If I don't find the perfect solution to this problem, a catastrophe will result"). Once such thoughts are changed, emotional and behavioral changes will follow. The therapist's task is to help the client recognize illogical and self-destructive ways of thinking and replace them with healthier, more positive ones. Ellis outlined an active role for the therapist: his own therapeutic style involved continually challenging the client's illogical and self-destructive ideas in a dynamic and provocative manner.
When Ellis first began promoting his new system of therapy, it was met with widespread professional opposition. However, the growing dissatisfaction with behaviorism created a climate that was more hospitable to a therapeutic method like RET that emphasized the role of cognition in changing behavior. Other psychologists, including Aaron Beck and social learning theorist Julian Rotter, developed their own cognitive-oriented therapies, and Ellis found himself the pioneer of a new school of therapy—the cognitive-behavioral approach. He has described himself as "the father of RET and the grandfather of cognitive-behavioral therapy." Ellis has also published numerous books on sexuality, including several popular best sellers (such as Sex Without Guilt) associated with the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s, and he was an innovator in the area of sex and marital therapy.
Bernard, M. E. Staying Alive in an Irrational World: Albert Ellis and Rational-Emotive Therapy. South Melbourne, Australia: Carlson/Macmillan, 1986.
Ellis, A., and W. Dryden. The Essential Albert Ellis. New York: Springer, 1990.