Albert Ellis, 93; psychology icon delivered his advice in blunt fashion
Albert Ellis, the provocative icon of modern psychology who helped bring psychotherapy to the masses by urging people to examine their problems rationally and to quickly take control of their feelings, died of natural causes Tuesday at his New York City home. He was 93.
Ellis’ death was announced by the Albert Ellis Institute, which he founded in 1959. He lived on a top floor of the midtown Manhattan institute, which was the site of legendary therapy sessions that the influential psychologist held weekly for four decades until 2005, when the institute removed him from its board of directors amid reports of an internal power struggle and financial worries.
Ellis was later reinstated by a judge, but controversies continued to swirl around one of psychology’s most colorful figures.
The author of 78 books, including such bestsellers as “Sex Without Guilt” and “How to Control Your Anxiety Before It Controls You,” Ellis was voted the second-most influential psychotherapist in history in a 1982 poll of 800 clinical psychologists.
Carl Rogers, the father of humanistic psychology, was No. 1, and Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was No. 3.
Ellis was recognized because of his rational emotive behavioral therapy, also called cognitive behavioral therapy, which emphasizes quick results and an active role for the therapist. He directly challenged the protracted protocols of Freudian analysis, often remarking that success is contingent upon forgetting “your god-awful past.”
“He opened the door to the therapy room for thousands and thousands of people,” said David B. Baker, director of the Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron.
By developing techniques that were relatively easy to learn and institute on a wide scale, Ellis brought about “a sea change in the practice of psychotherapy in America at midcentury,” Baker said.
As a therapist, Ellis was not merely active: He was confrontational.
No matter what the trauma -- a terminal illness, an abusive past, the murder of a loved one -- his response was essentially: Stop complaining and deal with it.
One of Ellis’ favorite words was “awfulize,” as in don’t awfulize an upsetting situation. He taught people to view their problems rationally and separate their sense of identity or self-fulfillment from the source of their unhappiness. He delivered this message in language that was often unprintable and always blunt.
“Why can’t you understand that some people are crazy and violent and do all kinds of terrible things?” he once told a woman whose sister had been killed by a drug dealer. “Until you accept it, you’re going to be angry, angry, angry.”
When something bad happens, “you can easily upset yourself, but you always have a choice to feel sorry, regretful, frustrated, annoyed and not depressed, anxious and despairing,” he told National Public Radio in 2004.
While seen as brutal and superficial by some, Ellis’ methods won wide acceptance, with 1 out of 4 psychotherapists in a recent survey identifying themselves as sharing his cognitive behavioral approach.
“Someone has to come along and forcibly shake up the status quo, and that person needs to be powerful, innovative and largely unbothered by most colleagues’ negative criticisms early on. Al Ellis did that perfectly with cognitive therapy,” John Norcross, a past president of the psychotherapy division of the American Psychological Assn., once said.
Ellis’ style of therapy evolved from personal experiences. As a teenager, the Pittsburgh-born, Bronx-raised psychologist was painfully shy around women and devised a program to change his behavior. He spent much of one summer by a bench at the New York Botanical Garden. Every time a woman sat down alone at the bench, he forced himself to speak to her. Within one month, he had spoken to 100 women.
The experiment was life-changing. “Nobody vomited and ran away. Nobody called the cops,” Ellis recalled in a New York Times interview a few years ago. “I completely got over my shyness by thinking differently, feeling differently and, in particular, acting differently.”
He attended City College of New York, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1934. He worked various odd jobs, including assistant to the president of a wholesale novelty gift company.
At the same time, Ellis was writing novels and plays, but none were published so he switched to nonfiction. He wrote about love, sex and marriage, and before long, friends began consulting him about their sex problems. His success helping them overcome their hang-ups led him to enter the clinical psychology program at Columbia University, where he obtained a master’s degree in 1943 and a doctorate in 1947.
Psychoanalysis was the rage then, and his first published book -- “An Introduction to the Principles of Scientific Psychoanalysis” (1950) -- capitalized on it. He opened a full-time psychoanalytic practice in New York a few years later.
Ellis soon became known in his profession for his sexual liberalism. He knew pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and explored sexual behavior in his next books, including “The American Sexual Tragedy” (1954) and “Sex Without Guilt” (1958).
At the same time, he was growing impatient with psychoanalysis as a form of treatment, largely because it took so long for patients to arrive at any insights. And unlike Freud, he did not believe that sexual issues were the cause of all their problems.
He began laying down the framework of rational emotive therapy, which he wrote about for the first time in “How to Live With a Neurotic” (1957).
At the end of the 1950s, he founded the Albert Ellis Institute to offer training and therapy. Soon he became famous for his Friday night workshops, held in the former dining room of the townhouse that was home to both him and the institute.
Open to the public, the workshops attracted 50 to 100 people each week and featured live therapy, with Ellis choosing two volunteers from among the participants. He spent about half an hour on each person, subjecting them to his alternately profound and unruly counsel and inviting audience members to put in their two cents. Sometimes he broke out in song to lighten the mood, singing his own lyrics to famous tunes and giving them humorous titles, such as “Love Me, Love Me, Only Me” and “I’m Just Wild About Worry.”
He once described the sessions as his way of “curing every screwball in New York, one at a time.”
The workshops were abruptly suspended in 2005, when he became embroiled in a dispute with the institute’s board of trustees. The trustees ousted him from the board and sought repayment of hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on Ellis’ medical bills. He battled a series of illnesses in recent years, including a near-fatal gastrointestinal infection in 2003 that led to the removal of his colon and a bout of pneumonia last year. A lawyer for the board told reporters that the payouts were jeopardizing the institute’s tax-exempt status. Ellis sued the institute, which was forced to reinstate him after a judge ruled that he had been improperly removed.
Legal battles on other issues may continue, according to executive director Robert O’Connell. Among the lawsuits Ellis filed was one alleging age discrimination.
Legal issues aside, “we owe him a great debt,” O’Connell said Tuesday. As a progenitor of the self-help philosophy that propelled figures such as Wayne Dyer and “Dr. Phil” McGraw to celebrity, Ellis urged people to “take responsibility for their own actions ... and moving on with life,” O’Connell said.
“He said you can’t get stuck in the mud of your past. He lived what he preached,” O’Connell said.
Ellis, who was twice divorced, is survived by his third wife, Debbie Joffe.