What Is… Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy

Rational emotive behaviour therapy ABCDE model of emotional disturbances

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is rational emotive behaviour therapy.

Rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) was developed in the 1950s by psychologist Albert Ellis, and it’s an early form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). A fundamental belief is that people are usually not emotionally affected by external events, but rather by their thinking about those events; this idea comes from the philosophy of Stoicism in Ancient Greek times.

Irrational beliefs

Ellis believed that many of our problems arise from twelve basic irrational beliefs, which arise from rigid demands we put in place when we don’t achieve our goals and desires. By learning to dispute those beliefs, we can change our mindset. He believed there were twelve fundamental irrational beliefs, which boiled down to three major musts (these are quoted from the REBT Network):

  1. I must do well and win the approval of others for my performances or else I am no good.
  2. Other people must treat me considerately, fairly and kindly, and in exactly the way I want them to treat me. If they don’t, they are no good and they deserve to be condemned and punished.
  3. I must get what I want, when I want it; and I must not get what I don’t want. It’s terrible if I don’t get what I want, and I can’t stand it.

ABCDE model

REBT has an ABCDE model to describe emotional disturbances:

  • Activating event
  • irrational Belief develops
  • emotional & behavioural Consequences
  • Disputes or arguments against irrational belief
  • new Effect

Other REBT concepts

Beliefs are disputed by identifying objective facts, looking at whether there’s proof to support the belief, and considering whether they’re based on unrealistic assessments of probabilities. Ellis believed that we can’t stop ourselves entirely from having irrational beliefs, but we can get better at disputing them.

REBT differentiates between healthy and unhealthy negative emotions. Healthy negative emotions come after a negative event and are rational and adaptive, meaning they can help things to go better next time. Unhealthy negative emotions are based on irrational beliefs and are maladaptive, meaning they just make things worse.

Unconditional acceptance of reality is an important element of REBT, and this includes acceptance of the self. Unpleasant events are viewed as something that just happens, and the choice we have is to deal with them in a healthy or unhealthy way.

Applying REBT

An REBT exercise on consequences analysis involves identifying both the positive and negative short-term and long-term consequences of continuing a particular behaviour, and then rating each on a personal importance scale of 1 to 100. This is similar to a decisional balance grid, but more structured.

Catastrophizing and “awfulizing” are addressed in an exercise that involves imagining the worst-case scenario, and recognizing how unlikely it is. In the blown all out of proportion exercise, this is taken to even further extremes to the point that it becomes comical.

REBT is used as the basis of SMART Recovery, a mutual support addiction recovery organization. I first heard of it from a former colleague who was telling me about SMART. I’ve never come across anyone who’s done REBT with a therapist, or even known of a therapist who used REBT. It kind of seems like when Aaron Beck came up with CBT, he took the best bits from REBT and left the rest.

Had you heard of REBT before or tried it in any form?

REBT resources


The post Psychotherapy Alphabet Soup: CBT, DBT, ACT, and More provides an overview of a variety of different therapeutic approaches.

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

20 thoughts on “What Is… Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy”

  1. I hadn’t heard of REBT. It sounds like it makes some good points, although as with CBT, I’m really not sure that ALL negative feelings are caused by negative thoughts.

  2. Thanks for the education on REBT – had not heard of it. I am familiar with considering the worst case scenario — I did this for years at my work in software development — it’s called risk management in that environment. At work we found risk mitigating actions to manage the worst case scenario. I try this mitigation approach to worst case scenarios in my real life in my mental health – sometimes I am successful but sometimes not so much.

  3. I had heard of REBT through SMART Recovery, but am more familiar with CBT. I took a 12 week CBT course. We rated our anxiety and depression throughout the course and everyone’s decreased. I was pretty symptomatic with schizoaffective disorder at the time and still got the benefits.

  4. Hey ashley. I’d never heard of this type of therapy before reading this post! I learned a lot just from the article. Ty for sharing about it!

  5. I’d forgotten about REBT. I remember Albert Ellis from university. I liked him. Shocking no one, my fundamental problematic belief rates to the number one must: desperate for approval. I do like the overt messaging re: healthy negative emotions. I think that gets bypassed sometimes. It’s not always appropriate for sunshine and roses. I do like the catastrophizing though. For someone like me, whose brain tends to default to bad but unlikely scenarios, it’s helpful to push it to a ridiculous extreme. It makes it easier to pull myself back to rationality and logic. I enjoy these posts. One learns and forgets so much that the revisiting is helpful. “Oh yes, I remember that thing that works.” Thank you ☺️

      1. Right? At first I’m distressed, but before too long, it gets ridiculously amusing. It helps that I’m basically logical.

  6. I remember having some fun with patients, getting overly extreme in their catastrophising………….. and it was good to see them laughing at themselves sometimes 🙂

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