Irrational Dr. Albert Ellis

Other than the couple’s counseling my wife and I had about 10 years ago, I’ve never had any therapy. It’s not that I had anything against the idea of therapy; it’s just that I never thought to seek outside help. Many men don’t ask for directions when they get lost, and I’m one of them (although, in many situations, not asking for directions is rather stupid). My wife is now studying to be a therapist, so our apartment is littered with books about psychology and psychotherapy. One of them, which was sitting on our dinner table, is “A Guide to Rational Living” by Albert Ellis. My wife told me that it’s one of the classics in psychology. I started reading it and was intrigued by his definition of “neurotic” because I felt like he was describing me personally, and at the same time I was surprised to find that he talks like I do; arrogant, sarcastic, and annoyingly rational. Later I learned that Ellis himself was “neurotic”.

I don’t do this too often these days, but whenever I see a friend who is emotionally distraught (crying, depressed, furious, etc..), my immediate reaction is to point out the wrong way they are thinking which is just adding to their own misery. It’s quite similar to the approach Ellis employs. The only difference is that I almost always fail to calm down my friends (in fact, I tend to aggravate them more). This is particularly true with women. My wife and the couple’s counselor we hired told me that women don’t want their men to solve their problems when they are upset; they just want their feelings to be validated. I always thought this was rather irrational, but I have come to accept it. Also, the big difference between Ellis and I is that his clients chose to go see him and get his particular type of therapy. My friends aren’t expecting that I play a therapist with their woes. That’s obviously a big difference.

In any case, to be a good therapist, I think one has to be “neurotic” himself. (After all, could one become a good baseball coach if one never played it?) Ellis has a very specific definition of “neurotic”; someone who developed emotional disturbance because his parents did not give enough (or any) attention, recognition, or affection. The term “neurotic” these days has a much broader meaning, so it confused me a bit at first, but for the purpose of this essay, I’ll stick to his definition of “neurotic.” Ellis had parents who entirely neglected their children, so he had to act as a parent for his younger siblings. The core of the problem is low self-esteem, although he doesn’t use that word much in his book, and also uses it differently from how I use it. To avoid confusion, let me define what I mean by “self-esteem”.

“Self-esteem” is how you feel about yourself, as opposed to “self-image” which is how you think about yourself. For instance, you could think of yourself as a “doctor” but this does not determine how you feel about it. You could feel miserable about being a doctor, or you could feel great about it. To have a low self-esteem would mean that regardless of what you are technically or factually, you feel bad about it. This isn’t my own definition; I’ve seen other people use it in the same way. Ellis probably does not distinguish the two because he believes that what we think about ourselves is the same as how we feel about it (or that the former determines the latter). I disagree; I think this distinction is crucial.

As a child, if you are deprived of recognition, appreciation, and affection, your self-esteem would be low. After all, if your own parents don’t appreciate or recognize you, who else would? It would be natural (or “rational”) to assume that the world doesn’t really want you to exist. From what I read, many psychologists today believe that a significant part of our self-esteem was formed in the first 3 years of our lives. This sounds about right to me, and if true, it would mean that our self-esteem was formed without language. That is, our self-esteem was not something we consciously interpreted; it was how we were made to feel by our parents. Once we get our fingers caught in a door and experience the pain of it, the fear of it is instilled in us forever, and it goes deeper than our thoughts. I agree with Ellis that our thoughts can make our fear unnecessarily greater, but what triggers our thoughts is not necessarily our “Belief” or our irrational “philosophy”. It’s instinctive or even reflexive. Part of it may even be genetic or evolutionary (like our fear of snake). When we feel ourselves to be worthless, it’s not just our conscious beliefs that perpetuate the feeling; the sense is almost physical, like our instilled fear of our fingers getting caught in a door.

Interestingly, Ellis himself exhibits typical signs of low self-esteem in this book. There is a certain sense of arrogance in his tone (as if to say, “I know better, so let me tell you”, which is what I’m also doing in this essay). Arrogance is like a small dog barking nonstop; it’s a way to make up for one’s low self-esteem. He also exhibits a sign of grandiosity. All the clients mentioned in this book are magically transformed by his reasoning, and I cannot help but feel that they were more like his fantasy scenarios than what really happened. He also uses sarcasm often, and he is apparently known for it. Sarcasm too is a typical sign of low self-esteem. When you see your own weakness in someone else, you treat him with sarcasm (or disdain), so that you can feel like you are already beyond it.

So, did Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or to be more specific, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), really work for the master/inventor himself? I would say yes and no. Yes, in the sense that he managed to eradicate his neurotic symptoms in order to function well in our society. No, in the sense that being able to function in our society shouldn’t necessarily be our goal, especially if low self-esteem is just being hidden from the public view.

I think his most significant contribution to psychology was his argument that our thoughts create unnecessary pain and suffering for ourselves. As he himself recognizes in his book, he is not the first person in history to realize this. In Eastern philosophy, this is taken for granted, and even in the West, many philosophers have realized the same problem. Zen Buddhism, for instance, shun written doctrine because reading it would only encourage more thoughts. It wouldn’t make sense when the point of it to make the practitioners realize the fact that it’s their own thought that is creating the problem in the first place. One of the objectives of Zen is to eliminate unnecessary pain and suffering caused by our own thoughts (not all pains but the unnecessary ones). So the goal of REBT is similar, but the solution is decidedly different. In REBT, Albert Ellis suggests countering negative thoughts with positive thoughts. In Zen, the idea is to do nothing but simply observe what goes on in your head. REBT has an active (or proactive) “solution” whereas Zen has a completely passive attitude towards it.

Some practitioners of REBT may argue that they do not counter negative thoughts with positive thoughts, and that they simply show how “irrational” their negative thoughts are. However, when you start to probe deeper into the nature of what they call “rational” or “irrational”, we find contradictions that are fundamentally irreconcilable. One such example comes up in the book.

...Thus, they can legitimately tell themselves, “I am good because I am human and am alive.” This seemed a very practical solution to the problem of human worth, since people who adopt it accept themselves merely because they are alive, and practically never consider themselves valueless. Unfortunately, as noted in later REBT writings, this “solution” isn’t too good, because since some bright clients object: “What makes me ‘good,’ just because I am alive? Why couldn’t I just as legitimately say, ‘I am bad because I am alive’?” Well, they are right! [p.217]

Here we see that what Ellis means by “rational” isn’t really rational; it’s whatever works. We commonly use the word “rational” to mean something objective and universal. The advantage of using rationality in psychology is that it provides an external and objective anchor by which to stabilize the chaotic world of subjectivity. The sea of subjectivity has no anchor; everything is relative and in flux. This is a problem for therapists because their objective is to stabilize their clients’ psyche enough so that they can function in our society. Their clients are floating (or drowning) in the ocean with no island or ship in sight. They need an external means to anchor themselves. Some people may seek God or religion, but therapists want to find a self-sufficient way to achieve the same end. The solution: Rationality.

Rationality, reason, or logic is an external device that can be used to anchor yourself because it is assumed to be universal and absolute. But here is the catch, if you are smart enough, you know this is “hogwash” too. There is nothing in this life that is absolute or universal; we only suspend disbelief for the sake of convenience. This suspension of disbelief is what allows us to build everything in this world. I’m sure Albert Ellis knew it too, and that’s why he had to add disclaimers like “flexible, open-minded, and changeable” to his definition of “rational” in order to protect his conscience, even though that contradicts why we are drawn to “rationality” in the first place (to escape the sea of subjectivity). It’s a contradiction that he hoped his clients would willingly overlook. His “rational” philosophies are as irrational as everyone else’s. But for the practical purpose of making neurotic people functional in our society, he needed to convince them that his rationality was the one they could count on. And, this indeed would work as long as his clients are willing to suspend disbelief. It’s a white lie that has significantly beneficial effects on some people, like some placebos do on some people. Ironically, it’s not far from finding a religion, as religions too work by suspending disbelief.

Sadly the bottom line is that everyone is being rational in his/her own system of rationality. Rationality too is subjective and it cannot be relied upon to stabilize one’s own psyche. My father, for instance, had his own assumptions about how parents influence their children, and acted quite rationally based on those assumptions. For instance, he thought, since the world is a cruel place, he figured it would make sense to create a cruel environment at home also, so that I would get used to it early on, and learn coping mechanisms for cruelty. (How considerate!) Given what we know about child psychology now, this may strike you as outrageous, but given what he knew then, it made perfect rational sense to him. And, there lies the problem of being rational; it’s only as good as your own assumptions. What we know as true about child psychology today could easily be proven false in the future. Ellis argues as if nobody could dispute his rational arguments, but that is nonsense. As Derrida says, everyone fantasizes about having the final word, but that is a matter of impossibility. So, we are back to square one. Rationality is no silver bullet either.

And, we can see it too. When you observe someone who is stabilized with a form of CBT, it is obvious that their positive thinking as a coping mechanism is what is stabilizing it. In other words, their artificial stability is quite transparent, like learning how to hold up the house that is built on a swamp. They keep learning more and more coping mechanisms to prevent their houses from falling apart, but they don’t pay any attention to the swamp itself. When you get rid of one attachment by forming another attachment, you just replace one attachment with another. The end result may be stabilizing, but the original problem is still there (attachment).

The answer to this problem in Zen is: Don’t build anything on the delusion of stability. If you want to build something, go ahead but don’t expect it to stay up too long. In other words: Don’t allow yourself to attach to anything you build (like Tibetan sand painting). Zen, therefore, does not pretend to offer any solution. We are by nature unstable, so don’t fidget. You fidget only because you are afraid of what this instability might cause, but fidgeting doesn’t address that problem anyway.

This leads to the question of why we need to do anything about our own neurosis. When we drink too much, we are in pain the next day. We often try to get rid of the pain by employing all sorts of tricks (folk as well as pharmaceutical remedies). The fact that we feel pain means our bodies are working well. If we didn’t feel the pain, we would be in trouble. Just because we have pain, it does not mean that we need to do anything about it. By the same token, when we have neurosis, it often leads to emotional and psychological pains, but it doesn’t mean that we need to do something about it. In fact, it’s this feeling that we need to do something about it that leads to more unnecessary pain and suffering. This is why some Eastern philosophers use the analogy of trying to find money at the bottom of a pond; the more you actively look, the muddier the water gets, so you cannot see where the money is.

Let me give you another example that illustrates why we shouldn’t bother doing anything about our neurosis. In the book, Ellis mentions his detractors who argue that being rational in the way he is would lead to less productive life particularly in the areas like art. Ellis argues that his method would not make you less emotional, in fact, you would experience more positive emotions. This argument assumes that great art somehow correlates to the amount of positive emotions, which is clearly wrong if we look at all the famous and successful artists in history. Many of them (I would say the vast majority of them) are “neurotic”. Never mind emotions (whether it’s positive or negative), it’s not the amount of emotions that produces great art in the Western cultures; it’s the degree of neurosis that does it. If we were to get rid of all the neurotics in the Western societies, art as we know it would cease to exist. (No films by Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen, for instance.) Everything in this life has two sides, even neurosis. If we get rid of one side, the other side goes too.

I believe that much of the problem of neurosis stems from our need to conform. In a society or community that is more accepting of neurosis (like the art world and Hollywood), the neurotic people don’t suffer as much. My own attitude towards my neurosis is to find a community and a job that are more tolerant of neurosis (part of the reason why I have my own business as opposed to working for someone else.). I’m also keenly interested in how my neurosis works, but I try to avoid doing anything proactive other than to learn and observe. Whenever I try something proactive, I just become more miserable. This isn’t to say that CBT is useless. I’m sure it helps a lot of people with severe problems. It’s probably the best solution available for desperate cases. Contrary to what Ellis claimed, CBT is not a “rational” solution, it’s a pragmatic solution. When it’s a matter of life and death, we can’t afford to be so philosophical, and we need to be pragmatic, and suspend disbelief if we have to. If it works, it works. Don’t ask questions. But if your own neurosis is relatively under control, then I believe it would be beneficial for you to let go of “rationality”, your coping mechanisms, and see your neurosis for what it is. The way I see it, if my neurosis fades as I become older, that’s fine; if not, that’s fine too. I’ll just have to let it be as there isn’t any choice in the matter; so why fidget?