Sunday, August 12, 2007


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.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the graphic at the end of this entry. I am laughing laughing laughing.

Anonymous said...

That started me wondering, DR. Was he any relation of the Victorian "sexologist" Havelock Ellis? Just googled him. Guess what! He was an Aquarian - 2nd Feb 1859 and specialised in perversions of various types.

Melody Scott Zindell said...

“I know someone else with a Cardinal t-square involving these planets, and this person is not pleasant!”

Albert Ellis doesn’t sound very pleasant either. Freud would say he has some serious mother issues – and it’s interesting that his extreme cognitive approach puts up such a strong defense (Pluto/Mars conjunction in Cancer) against the idea of early childhood influence.

In his autobiography, Ellis characterized his mother as a self-absorbed woman with a bipolar disorder. At times, according to Ellis, she was a "bustling chatterbox who never listened". She would expound on her strong opinions on most subjects but rarely provided a factual basis for these views. Like his father, Ellis' mother was emotionally distant from her children. Ellis recounted that she was often sleeping when he left for school and usually not home when he returned. Instead of reporting feeling bitter, he took on the responsibility of caring for his siblings. wikipedia

As you mentioned, with the sunrise chart (which I have found to be thematically valid), the Venus / Moon is sextile Pluto (conjunct Mars / 10th) in Cancer, and in a yod with Uranus in Aquarius as the focal point in the 4th house. This suggests his sensitivity was traumatized by this apparent lack of motherly love, and the crisis resolving itself through this very heady approach (where’s the heart?)

I’m also intrigued with the strong Chiron retrograde in Pisces in the 6th, which is inconjunct Mercury (Libra / 1st). This, along with the North Node in Pisces / South Node in Virgo in the 12th seems to suggest he was a healer of the mind before, but again, to my mind, I wonder if the crisis which somehow involves his Piscean unconditionality, misses the boat somehow – literally in finding the appropriate balance for himself.

Barry Goddard said...

Ellis claimed to be happy. I think it is possible to change how you are without necessarily knowing the source of why you're like what you're like. This would certainly apply to stuff from past lives, if you believe in them, so why not stuff from childhood as well? All you can be certain about is how you are now, you don't know what happened when you were 1,2.

At the same time, knowing how you were shaped by your parents etc can also be helpful.

He does seem to have dedicated his life to helping people change themselves, and I'd say there's a lot of heart in that. Moon-Venus conjunction?

Melody Scott Zindell said...

If I may add, I agree Dharmaruci with the idea of not needing to know the source, and certainly both he as a person and his work was/is powerful. And if someone claims they are happy, it would be very wrong for anyone to say "no you aren't". His work clearly resonates for some, and the cognitive / behavioral tool is especially good for mentally ill cases just because you don’t have to go into their past.

He also seems to stir up a lot of both controversy and conflict, including a level of harsh speech which unequivocally puts down anyone who, in a weak way, can't deal with his "tough love" approach as you put it (which by the way I think is a brilliant way of describing Mars/Pluto conjunct in Cancer!). There is a charge for him that seems to be projected regularly into his environment.

It’s not that I personally can’t resonate with his approach. I’m tough in my own right, overcoming childhood challenges through the power of my will and mind, with no care to blame or point fingers at anyone, but just to get on with life. For years I just couldn’t understand why, if I could make it through my disturbing childhood, my four siblings couldn’t. My attitude was similar, if not as harsh as Ellis’s, the strength of will for me is South Node conjunct Mars/Mercury (for mental) and Ellis’s Mars/Pluto and his strong Mercury. I have a brother who was a basketball star and prom king in high school, now living on Social Security with severe brain damage from a mugging in an alley, a dead and useless arm from a motorcycle accident, all from an alcohol problem and who knows what else. He sexually abused my younger sister who has her own set of issues. My other brother is a recovering alcoholic but struggles with life, same with my other sister. Because of abusive and aggressive behavior towards me and my family over the years, I am completely estranged from 2 of the 4.

I unknowingly used Ellis’s approach doing a similar thing that he did to overcome my extreme nervousness and shyness as a child. I would blush beet red when someone said hi, was pretty much a loner, and my hands would shake whenever I had to do something whether write on the blackboard, give a piano recital or serve tea. And so at 18, I took a job as a waitress. Even though I spilled a whole tray of drinks on someone, and would shake every time I put down a plate, no one fired me, and I ended up as manager.

BUT, his personal happiness still judges harshly other’s difficulties, and the heart I don’t see in his work includes the compassion for the present moment space of another as even possibly being Piscean perfect regardless of how it may look from the outside.

Barry Goddard said...

I don't know what the guy was like, you obviously know more about him and his approach than I do!

But how about this: in order to be effective, to help people identify the beliefs/musts that were holding them back, he would have needed empathy and compassion, or he wouldn't have got very far. That wouldn't stop him also being abrasive and shooting from the hip and calling Freud horseshit and all the rest of it. Some people are like that, and I enjoy it!

Anonymous said...

To melody and others, I was trained by ALbert Ellis and had the great pleasure of seeing him do therapy and conduct therapy with him. This I can assure you. At not time did he ever, I mean ever demean or blame someone. This is so utterly opposed to his philosophy and his way of being in the world that only someone who is simply ignorant of him could say that. On his 90th birthday part which I attended he was given the white silk scarf by the Dali Lama. A very high honor for his contribution to human happiness. He was vigorously accepting of people and strongly encouraged them to accept themselves no matter how many times they made mistakes. He was adored by his patients. He was without doubt a man without the narcissistic ego that so many greats have. In fact he would bristle at being called great and would in that quintissential twangy voice say "I am just Human and fuck up as much as anyone!" And he meant it. He foes not deny that he went thru hard times as a child. And it is incorrect that he ignored peoples formative influences. What he knew is that life is difficult and very difficult at times and that our only option is to live as contentedly as possible because we have so little control over so much. If you want to really understand Ellis study Buddhism.