What Is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on October 13, 2022
4 min read

Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is a therapy approach that focuses on managing irrational or unhealthy thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. In contrast to more passive talk therapy, REBT focuses on actions. Together with a therapist, REBT helps patients to identify and dismantle unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors. 

REBT was first developed by psychologist Albert Ellis in the 1950s as an alternative to psychotherapy. Today, the term "psychotherapy" encompasses numerous different types of talk therapy, including REBT. At the time that Ellis started developing REBT, however, psychotherapy mainly consisted of patients just talking with a therapist about what was bothering them, with no real focus on shifting thought processes or behavioral patterns.

Ellis took a different, more philosophical, approach when developing REBT. REBT is based on the idea that certain thought processes, particularly imperative thoughts that say we “must” or “should” do something, are irrational. When we don’t live up to expectations, these irrational thoughts can quickly turn into unhealthy behaviors or even secondary irrational thoughts.

Irrational beliefs about life experiences can cause increased emotional distress. Irrational beliefs can come up in response to things we experience, or difficult or stressful life events that inevitably happen. These beliefs can manifest as negative consequences such as unhealthy or self-destructive behaviors or snowball into more irrational thoughts and beliefs, all of which can cause even more emotional distress.

For example, running late for an important meeting that you have to be at can be a stressful event. 

  • An irrational belief in this circumstance may be that being late to the meeting makes you a terrible employee. 
  • A negative behavioral consequence may be deciding to skip the meeting altogether rather than be a few minutes late. 
  • A negative secondary consequence may be that you are now more anxious just thinking about your anxiety around the meeting. 

REBT focuses on challenging and disputing irrational beliefs. One of the goals of REBT is to challenge irrational thought processes and their resulting consequences. The core tenets of REBT can be summed up with the ABC model:

  • Activating events, which are difficult or undesirable, happen.
  • Beliefs around these events may be rational or irrational.
  • Consequences, either positive or negative, arise from our rational and irrational beliefs.

REBT works by challenging irrational thought processes that can create negative consequences, such as unhealthy behaviors or even increased negative thoughts. Challenging unhealthy beliefs is summed up by DEF:

  • Disputing or restructuring irrational beliefs and thoughts
  • Creating more effective, efficient beliefs and thoughts
  • Feeling better by incorporating these new rational beliefs and thoughts in response to activating events

The ABCDEF framework of rational emotive behavior therapy helps patients to take an active role in their mental health. The techniques used in REBT, which include recognizing irrational or harmful thought processes, challenging those beliefs, and focusing on rational thought processes, make it much easier to handle activating events when they inevitably arise.

To return to our example about running late for a meeting, the beliefs and consequences around it may look a lot different following rational emotive behavior therapy.

  • A rational belief may be that running late for one meeting does not make someone a terrible employee and that it could happen to anyone.
  • A positive behavioral consequence may be showing up to and being present for the meeting, despite being late.
  • Maintaining rational beliefs about being late to the meeting reduces negative secondary consequences, like becoming more anxious due to existing anxiety about the meeting.

Similarities between REBT and CBT. Rational emotive behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have similar foundations. Cognitive therapy, a precursor of CBT, was founded by psychologist Aaron Beck in the 1970s and incorporated a lot of ideas found in REBT. 

REBT and CBT both hold that thoughts, behaviors, and emotions are connected and must be worked on as a whole. Both types of therapy also encourage patients to actively challenge irrational or harmful thought processes and instead incorporate more adaptive beliefs. 

Differences between REBT and CBT. REBT and CBT are similar and are both considered types of cognitive therapies. However, there are some differences between them.

  • REBT was developed on a philosophical foundation. CBT was developed empirically through studies on patients with depression. 
  • According to REBT, some beliefs are always irrational. CBT works with patients to figure out whether their beliefs are functional or dysfunctional for them individually. 
  • REBT promotes unconditional acceptance of the self, acceptance that we can’t control what others do or think, and acceptance that we will encounter adverse events in life. In contrast, CBT focuses more on increasing self-esteem and employing healthy coping mechanisms.

Research has shown that rational emotive behavior therapy is helpful for a variety of people. It has been used effectively with numerous patients, groups, and organizations. REBT is effective at reducing symptoms of alcohol use disorder, mitigating distress about school performance, and helping patients with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

It’s important to speak with a licensed therapist, especially one with experience using REBT, to determine whether rational emotive behavior therapy is right for you. With your therapist, you can work through a plan of action and learn more about how REBT can help you challenge irrational thoughts and work on unconditional acceptance of yourself and the world around you.