Albert Ellis, Feisty Shrink

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The last of the canonical psychotherapists is Albert Ellis. You learned his name if you took Psych 101. Born in 1913, he's outlived all his colleagues on the intro-class syllabus: Rogers, Maslow, Adler, Erikson, Horney, etc. He hasn't even retired.

New York's Albert Ellis Institute is located in an elegant Upper East Side townhouse, at 45 E. 65th St. It offers classes, seminars and workshops based on Dr. Ellis' contribution to psychology, which is called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Once a week there's a special workshop, open to the public, during which the doctor demonstrates his technique on two volunteers from the audience.

One recent Friday evening, students, devotees, teachers, patients and spectators filled the folding chairs of the Institute's small auditorium to witness Ellis in action. Several rows were reserved for a psychology class on a field trip from a New Jersey community college, whose pupils dutifully signed and passed an attendance sheet. A host named Sy started the event with a little song called "You're Welcome to Sanity." He instructed the audience to give Ellis a hearty, welcoming applause when he arrived.

The doctor is a feisty old guy?thin, mostly bald, with large, black-rimmed glasses. He's hard of hearing and given to foul language. While the first volunteer tells of her problem, he interrupts several times to tell latecomers to quit respectfully pausing at the door and find a seat already. His loud scolding, in a voice a bit like that of the comedian Gilbert Gottfried, pierces the air and inspires giggling. The live sessions are taped, so that subjects can review their free (except for the workshop's $5 entry fee) therapy at home. Perhaps the interruptions are intended to underscore Ellis' no-bullshit approach.

The Institute's website notes that REBT "owes at least as much to the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, as to Sigmund Freud." It also quotes the Roman, who 1900 years ago opined that "What disturbs people's minds is not events but their judgments on events." Ellis doesn't advise people to be stoic in the everyday sense of the word. He tells them the bad things that happened or are happening to them are indeed bad enough to be worth feeling bad about. The mental-health danger, he says, comes from "horribilizing" or "awfulizing" such events.

At his recent workshop, Dr. Ellis' first volunteer is anxious about the potential loss of her marriage, home and sanity over a medical malpractice suit she says she is likely to lose. Her claim is that a hospital technician intentionally smashed her silicone breast implant with a mammography machine, and that the exploded material causes debilitating pain. Ellis does not deal with the specifics of the case. He locates the root of her problem in her irrational belief that justice must be served.

Ellis' medicine for the tendency to interpret situations as unworkable is Rational Emotive Imagery. He tells the woman to imagine herself losing her malpractice suit. She says she'd try to tell herself it's okay. The doctor replies, "It's not okay?it's a pain in the ass!" The subject indicates that she would experience self-pity. Ellis instructs her to practice visualizing defeat in court, then replacing that emotion with something along the lines of, as he put it, "If I lose, that's very too bad. I got screwed by injustice."

For intermission there are more humorous songs about REBT. MC Sy sings one, off-key but with gusto, about "Musturbation," to the tune of "Yankee Doodle." The last line goes: "?and should-hood leads to shit-hood." An audience member is an opera singer. She does a dramatic number about "a man from the Bronx" who "cures bullshit." The moment is deeply bizarre, yet the old doctor is visibly pleased. Humor is part of REBT. Ellis doesn't sing himself tonight, though.

The second volunteer seems a little more rational, less emotional. Her problem stems from what she advised her sister to do regarding her emotionally disturbed adolescent daughter (the subject's niece). The girl accused her grandfather (the subject's father) of inappropriate touching. The accusation wasn't believable. The volunteer tells Ellis she suggested the matter be brought up in family therapy, which her sister and niece were undergoing. Problem was, since therapists aren't allowed to keep such things secret, old Dad ended up in police custody. Now, with the matter under official investigation, our volunteer's whole family is angry at her.

"How would you feel if a friend of yours did the same thing you did?" asks Ellis. The subject says she'd be forgiving, but still, she should have known better. "Why must you have higher standards for yourself than for anyone else?" he replies. The root of her problem is that "must," according to the doctor. In elaborating on how mistakes can't possibly make anyone an evil person, Ellis goes off on a political tangent. He says that President Bush is crazy for concluding that "all Arabs are evil? He's going to get us into World War Three!"

The second subject's imagery training involves her finding a mental pathway from fear of familial rejection to self-acceptance. She was told to practice imagining her angry father, and to get in touch with the fear that inspired, but to eventually decide, "I acted wrongly but I'm not a rotten person." To wrap things up, Dr. Ellis told her, "You changed your thoughts. Anyone can do that."

For more information on the Ellis Institute or its programs, call 800-323-4738 or visit [](

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