I’ve just read two obituaries of a guy called Albert Ellis who I hadn't heard of, but who was, apparently, ‘the grandfather of cognitive-behavioural therapies’. He was voted by the American Psychological Association to be the second most influential psychotherapist of the 20th century after Carl Rogers, and ahead of Freud.
“Freud was full of horseshit,” he liked to say, while Freud’s central concept of neurosis was “just a high-class word for whining.”
He used to run Friday night workshops which became legendary. “Let me tell you why people are always making you so angry,” he informed a troubled young woman in 2005 (when aged 91), “Because they’re screwed up! They’re out of their fucking minds! We’re all out of our fucking minds!”
This mantra, which he repeated regularly, was behind his 'Rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT)'. Its starting point was that we have negative emotional reactions not to events themselves, but to our beliefs about them. He rejected Freud’s focus on unpicking a patient’s childhood experiences. Instead, he advocated identifying and modifying these “irrational beliefs”, which usually take the form of a hidden demand that reality should be different than it is.
“There are three musts that hold us back,” he wrote. “I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.” We upset ourselves with the grandiose requirement that we should perform perfectly, and that others should be nice to us. But in fact we are imperfect: we fail, in love and work, all the time. And other people, often enough, “act like jerks.”
This approach led him to emphasise short-term treatment, aimed at changing one’s way of thinking, here and now. “As I see it, psychoanalysis gives clients a cop-out,” he said, “ They don’t have to change their ways or their philosophies; they get to talk about themselves for 10 years, blaming their parents and waiting for magic-bullet insights.”
Early glimmers of REBT could be seen in a nerve-racking experiment Ellis conducted as a teenager, with himself as the subject. As a 19 year-old, he was painfully shy around women. So during a month of visits to the Bronx Botanical Garden, he sat on a bench and spoke to every woman he saw. His 130 attempts at conversation did not lead to true love, but that was beside the point. He had proved to himself that rejection, though unpleasant, was not unbearable: there was no need to “awfulise” it. “Nobody vomited and ran away,” he wrote. “Nobody called the cops.”
The experience led directly to the “shame-attacking exercises” he later prescribed to his patients. “Stop somebody on the street,” he advised, “and say ‘I just got out of the loony bin. What month is it?’ And learn not to feel ashamed when they look in horror at you, and think you’re off your rocker, which they think you are. But you’re really not. You’re being very much saner than they are.”
In his final years, the Directors of his Institute threw him out and stopped paying for his accommodation and medical care. He took them to court last year and won, and ended up back at the institute. True to the principles of REBT, he insisted that the contretemps hadn’t upset him: there was no point, after all, in demanding that the whole universe fall in line with his wishes. The other board members, he said, were “ fucked-up, fallible human beings, just like everyone else.”
He probably was one-sidedly rational. I found this quote by him: "Witness, for example, the fervent testimonials that innumerable people keep giving for cults, superstitions, and hoaxes like astrology, shamanism, psychic surgery, fortune telling, channeling, witchcraft, communications from ghosts, satanism, and demonism."
Mind you, I don't necessarily think people are being unreasonable if they think astrology is nonsense. There's no reason why it should work, which makes it all the more wondrous that it does. And you can't write off people's opinions just because they haven't tested astrology: so many ideas and theories come our way, astrology is just one of them, and we have to be able to form opinions about things. Like whether we really are ruled by aliens, or whether the moon is hollow (as I was knowingly informed once). I don't think a belief in astrology is any less strange.
Back to Albert Ellis. He was born 27 Sept 1913 (no time). His chart has a powerful signature: a Cardinal t-square involving the Sun, Jupiter and a Mars-Pluto conjunction. I know someone else with a Cardinal t-square involving these planets, and this person is not pleasant! Always starting fights and plotting, and never getting anywhere.
But if you can live it, it's very powerful and creative. Ellis had Sun in Libra (relationship to other people) in a t-square with Jupiter in Capricorn (structured philosophy) and Mars-Pluto in Cancer (tough love! - or transformative care for others that goes to the root of the matter.) That Sun square Pluto demanded of him that he become authentically powerful (hence the experiment in the park aged just 19 - apparently he eventually became very good at picking up women), and with Mars involved as well, he was tough enough to stand up to the hostility of the psychotherapeutic establishment to his ideas. This tough, combative power, so necessary to his life, also led to an enduring criticism: that his tone could make him sound as though he was urging people who, for example, were severely depressed, simply to pull their socks up.
He had another side: Venus in Virgo conjunct the Moon and sextile to Pluto. So under the abrasiveness was a real sensitivity, insight and care. Venus is about how we relate to others (Don't expect others to be perfect! he would say with Venus in Virgo), and his natal placement was at 1.15 Virgo. It is an important planet for a therapist, and appropriate that he should have died on 24th July under a Venus Return, with Venus stationing at 2.41 Virgo.