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Both Beck and Ellis departed radically from the dominant psychoanalytic approach by asserting that childhood events were largely irrelevant to the emotional problems of adults, and focused instead on changing the self-defeating beliefs (usually automatic) that kept people stuck in their own emotional morass. Ellis maintains that his version of CBT, called Rational Emotional Behavior Therapy (REBT), differs from Beck's because it isn't just a clinical approach, but a realistic and rational philosophy of life, based on unconditional acceptance of oneself, of others, and of the world as it really is.
The huge popularity of CBT—and that of REBT—owes much to Ellis's unflagging genius for self-promotion. The perennial bad boy of psychotherapy, he's achieved a mix of fame, cultlike worship, notoriety, and grudging respect as the revolutionary-in-chief for the new paradigm. It's hard, in fact, to separate REBT entirely from the Ellis phenomenon itself—manifested in countless profanity-laden, highly entertaining lectures, demonstrations, interviews, and weekly, open-therapy workshops he's held for about four decades at the Albert Ellis Institute, which he founded in New York City. (Currently, Ellis is involved in a bitter legal dispute with the institute's trustees about his compensation and health care benefits. They want him out, but in this contest, the smart money is on the deaf, stooped, medically frail, 93-year-old warrior, still unvanquished after all these years.)
Not hindering Ellis's fame is the fact that he never suffered much from writer's block. In the past half-century, he's produced 54, 65, or possibly 75 books (accounts vary), 600 or 700 articles, and dozens? hundreds? thousands? of pamphlets, making him an unexcelled propagandist for his own invention.
Ellis drew his basic idea for a therapy from a source that had given him some comfort early in life—the 1st-century stoic Greek philosopher Epictetus, whose signature aphorism was, "We are disturbed not by events, but by the views we take of them." Basically, says Ellis, we don't suffer from depression, anxiety, panic, horror, self-loathing, or rage because of the bad things that happen or have happened to us in the past, but because of the false beliefs we unconsciously carry that become activated when misfortunes strike.
These beliefs can be reduced, he says, to three internalized commandments: 1. I must be perfect and successful at all times, or else I'm a worthless failure—an attitude that leads to depression, self-loathing, and despair. 2. People I care about must love and admire me completely at all times, and if they don't, they're "completely rotten and deserve to be blasted straight to hell"—a pattern of thinking that opens the way to "anger, fury, rage, genocide and, maybe, atomic holocaust." 3. The world must always treat me well and give me exactly what I want when I want it—a belief that can create "depression, a low tolerance for life's inevitable frustrations, laziness, and self-pity."