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Practical Applications of Rational Emotive Therapy
10 CEUs Practical Applications of Rational Emotive Therapy

Section 24
What is and is not RET?

Question 24 | Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | RET CEU Courses
Psychology CEs, Counselor CEUs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs, Nurse CEUs

Perhaps one of the most fundamental aspects of human mentation is the drawing of a distinction--the noting of a difference or contrast (Kelly, 1955; Varela, 1979). Although novel conceptual distinctions may lead to new and viable forms of knowledge, it is important not to lose sight of the idea that such distinctions--rather than being discrete and inherent properties of the world--are the products of human invention and conjecture. Recently, Mahoney and others have drawn the distinction between rationalist and constructivist cognitive therapies (Guidano, 1990; Mahoney, 1991; Mahoney & Lyddon, 1988). 1 have further proposed (Lyddon, 1990) that the distinction between first-order and second-order change (cf. Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974) may be related in a meaningful way to the rationalist-constructivist differentiation. In particular, I suggest that rationalist approaches tend to focus on first-order change goals, whereas constructivist approaches tend to emphasize second-order change principles and processes.

Although Ellis (1992) seemed tentatively to accept the viability of the distinctions drawn between types of therapy and types of change, he strongly objected to the implications that rational-emotive therapy (RET) represents an exemplar of rationalist cognitive therapy. In response to this objection, I would like to clarify some of the ways RET--especially in its "elegant" form--tends to exemplify a rationalist cognitive approach with regard to how I and others use the term. Before addressing these issues, however, another distinction--one that Ellis makes--needs to be underscored.

Although the earliest descriptions of the rational-emotive model provide an explicit formulation of the central role of specific irrational beliefs as mediating the relationship between environmental events and the experience of emotional distress (Ellis, 1962, 1971), over the years RET has been characterized by a continual elaboration of the model itself and of the therapeutic procedures incorporated into the model (Ellis, 1977a). Although critics suggest that these elaborations and assimilations have produced an overly vague and general theoretical base for RET (Ewart & Thoresen, 1977; Mahoney, 1977; Meichenbaum, 1977), Ellis (1977b, 1980) contended that RET actually exists in an "elegant" and "inelegant" form. Elegant RET is the preferential form and corresponds to Ellis's initial theoretical formulations, while inelegant RET is nonpreferential, "virtually synonymous with cognitive behavior therapy' (Ellis, 1984, p. 20), and incorporates a wide array of psychotherapeutic techniques, including in vivo desensitization, flooding and implosive therapy, stimulus control, skill training, modeling, operant conditioning methods, encounter exercises, Gestalt therapy, and psychodrama techniques (Ellis, 1980; Ellis & Bernard, 1985). In short, elegant RET has to do with rational-emotive theory and not necessarily with the wide range of techniques that may constitute the-practice of inelegant RET--techniques that may or may not be consistent with the elegant model. The elegant-inelegant distinction is significant in that when it is not made, RET has the potential to take on a chameleon-like quality and merge with almost any aspect of applied psychotherapy. When I suggested that RET is an exemplar of a rationalist approach to cognitive therapy (Lyddon, 1990), I am referring to elegant RET--that form of RET which is distinctive, is preferred by Ellis, and focuses on the role of irrational ("musturbatory" and "absolutistic") thinking in the creation and maintenance of emotional distress.

Rationalist Cognitive Therapy and RET
The term rationalist cognitive therapy is not synonymous with RET but rather represents a family of approaches that may be distinguished from constructivist approaches along several philosophical, theoretical, and practical issues. In most instances these distinctions have more to do with emphasis rather than with absolute cognitive judgment. Although in-depth coverage of these distinguishing features may be found elsewhere (cf. Mahoney, 1991; Mahoney & Lyddon, 1988), I limit my comments to three aspects of elegant RET that, in my view, particularly warrant the rationalist characterization.

Rational Supremacy
By definition, rationalist cognitive therapies tend to endorse a position of rational supremacy--the idea that "higher" intellectual processes should functionally rule over the more "primitive" dimensions of feelings and actions (Mahoney & Lyddon, 1988). Constructivist approaches, on the other hand, tend to construe the three categories of thought, feeling, and action as holistically intertwined and functionally inseparable (Mahoney, 1991). Because thinking, feeling, and behaving are thought to reciprocally influence and determine each other, constructivists do not postulate a "prime mover" among these dimensions of experience. Although Ellis (1992) objected to my implication that RET embraces the rationalist premise that the cognitive appraisal of an event determines the emotional response to it, a primary causal relationship between thinking and feeling is explicitly advanced in his descriptions of elegant RET:

These [irrational beliefs] are the premises that literally cause them [clients] to feel and behave badly .... (Ellis, 1973, p. 153, emphasis added)

The basic tenet of RET is that emotional upsets as distinguished from feelings of sorrow, regret, annoyance, and frustrations, are caused by irrational beliefs. (Ellis, 1989, p. 207, emphasis added)

Further indication that RET reflects a cognitive primacy position comes from analyses of the etiological hypotheses identified with the model. Schwartz (1984), for example, pointed out that 14 of the 16 etiological hypotheses set forth by Ellis (1977a) place cognition in the role of independent variable and emphasize its causal and/or mediating role in affective, physiological, and behavioral domains. Schwartz also noted that not a single specific hypothesis delineating a causal role for either affect or behavior is contained within these core tenets. Although Dryden and Ellis (1988) have recently espoused a position that views cognition, emotion, and behavior as interdependent, they also make the point:
A model that emphasizes the interactive and interdependent nature of intrapsychic and interpersonal processes does not however, have to take the position that such processes have equal explanatory variance in accounting for human psychological disturbance. Indeed, RET has become renowned for the central role it has given to cognition in general and to evaluative beliefs in particular in its theory and practice. (p. 218)

This emphasis on rational supremacy is congruent with Ellis's (1985) self-proclamation to be "one of the main modern theorists on the primacy of cognition in the creation of emotional distress" (p. 471) and is a salient feature of what I and others refer to as "rationalist cognitive therapy."

Conceptualization of Affect
Another primary distinction between rationalist and constructivist approaches concerns their differing assumptions about the nature of emotionality and the role of affective experience in the change process. By definition, rationalist cognitive therapies tend to view emotions as the products of thoughts, images, perceptions, or a combination of these. In particular, intense "negative" affect (anger, depression, anxiety) is generally construed as dysfunctional and maladaptive and is believed to stem from irrational and incorrect patterns of thinking (Mahoney, 1991). As a result, one goal of rationalist therapy is to eliminate or control intense "negative" feelings by altering irrational thought patterns. By way of contrast, constructivist approaches tend to value emotions as another way of knowing--a way that is just as functional to the human system as cognitive knowing. Similarly, constructivists emphasize the functional and adaptive role of intense emotional "disorder" in psychological development--particularly when development is second-order (or structural) in nature. As a result, the constructivist emphasis is on the following:

. . . the experience and appropriate expression of emotions, as well as on the exploration of their development, functions (past and present), and possible roles in emerging life developments. (Mahoney, 1991, p. 207)

Ellis (1992) objected to my suggestion that RET--as an exemplar of a rationalist cognitive approach--tends to focus on the elimination of "negative" emotional responses through rational thinking. Nonetheless, his statements in other contexts belie this objection:

RET holds that virtually all serious emotional problems directly stem from magical, empirically unvalidated thinking and that if disturbance-creating ideas are vigorously disputed . . . they can be eliminated or minimized and will ultimately cease to reoccur. (Ellis, 1989, p. 199, emphasis added)

Although Ellis (i992) also contended that RET encourages client emotional experience and expression, I can only assume he is referring to some of the practices associated with inelegant RET. The following statements by Ellis (1989) reveal his "elegant" (and presumably preferential) view of client affective processes--a view that is more congruent with rational-emotive theory:

As for clients' presenting feelings, the more we focus on them, the worse they are likely to feel. If we keep talking about their anxiety, getting them to reexperience this feeling, they can easily become more anxious. The most logical point to interrupt their disturbed process is to get them to focus on their anxiety-creating belief system .... (p. 208)
No matter what feelings the client brings out, the [RET] therapist tries to get back to [the client's] main irrational ideas that most probably lie behind these feelings .... (p. 220)

Therapeutic Style and Relationship
Rationalist and constructivist therapies also differ in strategic style and conceptualization of the therapeutic relationship. Technical instruction and guidance tend to be the mainstays of the rationalist view of the client-therapist relationship. This usually takes the form of authority-based knowledge and information imparted from the therapist to the client.

Constructivist approaches, on the other hand, tend to view the counseling relationship as the primary crucible for change and accordingly seek to establish a secure and caring relationship in and from which the client may explore and generate new conceptions of self and world. As Neimeyer (1990) pointed out, constructivist therapy is more a creative than corrective enterprise in which the therapist helps the client invent new and perhaps more viable understandings rather than directly challenging the validity of the client's existing belief system. Regarding this distinction, Ellis (1992) contended that only a myopic view of RET would not acknowledge RET's "constructivist" focus on clients' self-construction of new meanings and beliefs. This may be true. In fact, based on Ellis's (1989) following description of elegant RET methodology, "myopic" and "elegant" may be one and the same thing:

Rational-emotive practitioners often employ a fairly rapid-fire active-directive-persuasive-philosophic methodology. In most instances, they quickly pin the client down to a few basic irrational ideas. They challenge the client to validate these ideas, show that they contain extralogical premises that cannot be validated; logically analyze these ideas and make mincemeat of them; vigorously show why they cannot work . . .; reduce these ideas to absurdity . . .; explain how they can be replaced with more rational theses; and teach clients how to think scientifically .... (p. 215)

In contrast to exhorting clients to relinquish their "faulty" belief systems according to various warranted standards of rationality, constructivist therapists tend to be much more tentative, cautious, and respective of the integrity of the client's values, beliefs, and self-protective processes (or "resistances" to change). From a constructivist perspective, significant psychological change is often slow, difficult, and related to individual differences in psychological development (Mahoney, 1991).
- Lynddon, William J.; A Rejoiner to Ellis: What Is and Is Not RET?; Journal of Counseling & Development; Jan/Feb 1992, Vol. 70, Issue 3.

Personal Reflection Exercise #10
The preceding section contained information about what is and is not RET. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

What is “inelegant” RET? Record the letter of the correct answer the Answer Booklet.

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