Albert Ellis: Stoicism as the Root of CBT

“You become what you give your attention to.” – Epictetus

Exploring Albert Ellis's impact on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, rationality, and the quest for self-acceptance.

What do I want to share with The Walled Garden about Albert Ellis?

I want to open and reflect on what has been said in previous meet-ups. We all come to The Walled Garden with different viewpoints. It is helpful to follow different viewpoints to help ourselves and others find what leads towards virtue or Wisdom. 

Previous meet-ups have particularly highlighted to me the literary side of philosophy. Trying on a different perspective, seeing through the eyes of the author and their characters. 

My story with Albert Ellis illustrates to me the current tension between Modern Stoicism and Traditional Stoicism. Do we need the perspective of the divine to truly understand virtue? Do we need the perspective of the divine to truly understand ourselves?

Albert Ellis certainly didn’t think so. He was unashamedly an Atheist (a probabilistic agnostic), which might put him at odds with the mission of the Walled Garden: “dedicated to the pursuit of Truth, Wisdom, Virtue, and the Divine wherever they may be found.”

Can you find “The Divine” from an Atheist perspective? You will have to bear with me and see where Albert Ellis takes us.

History of Albert Ellis

Born in 1913, Ellis was raised in the Bronx, NY. His paternal grandparents were Jewish, immigrated from the Russian Empire (maybe an interesting parallel to Brandon Tumblin’s meet-up on Dostoyevsky).

Before researching for this meet-up, I never knew that his parents divorced. His father often traveled for work when Ellis was a child and he was raised by his mother who had severe bipolar disorder. He likely experienced a great deal of judgment, shame, and guilt. High levels of expressed negative emotion.

I did know that Ellis had crippling social anxiety which led to his interest in psychology and Stoic philosophy. An anecdote Ellis was happy to share was that around age 18 he attempted to overcome his crippling fear of speaking to women, by going to central park one day and asking the first 100 women he saw for dates. He was turned down 100 times and he learned that “nothing terrible happened.” Nowadays we might call this sexually harassment, but this occurred almost a century ago.

  • Ellis was a psychologist and psychotherapist.
  • Obtained his Ph.D. at Columbia University. 
  • An early developer of Cognitive Behavior Therapy
  • “No individual—not even Freud himself—has had a greater impact on modern psychotherapy.” – Psychology Today.
  • A survey of psychologists in 1982 found Ellis to be considered the most influential psychotherapist after Carl Rogers (“On Becoming a Person”, Unconditional Positive Regard) and ranked before Sigmund Freud.  
  • Ellis founded the Albert Ellis Institute in New York City. 
  • He died in 2007.

In addition to his passion for helping people “think rationally”, his second passion was as a “sexologist”, helping people to reduce the shame and guilt around human sexuality. He is seen as a founder of the American sexual revolution in the 1960s. 

  • 1958 published “Sex without guilt”. 
  • He held a lot of controversial positions, particularly at the time, and even some that might shock us by today’s standards.

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy was the first form of Cognitive Therapy. It was developed by Ellis and initially published in 1956 and 57. The second most well known name associated with Cognitive Behavior Therapy is Aaron Beck who developed Cognitive Behavior Therapy in the 1960s. 

Over time CBT has essentially incorporated the principles of REBT. People who practice REBT today would have had formal training from the Ellis Institute. Christine Padesky (2003) stated the difference is that Cognitive Therapy is empirically based, while REBT is philosophically based. 

Essentially CBT uses whatever techniques can be shown to work empirically to reduce symptoms. REBT is theoretically derived, based on Stoicism and other philosophy. Ellis spent his career empirically validating the effectiveness of REBT in clinical trials. He was particularly critical of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory because of the long duration of treatment, inconsistent effectiveness, and the “irrational” nature of talking about childhood psychosexual repression and defense mechanisms. 

Ellis liked to talk in plain language and to be able to explain and prove why his form of therapy works. 

Ellis gave credit to the Stoic Philosophers for inspiring his REBT:

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.”

– Epictetus, also found in Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

The REBT Model

The core of REBT is disputing irrational beliefs. You come into therapy feeling concerned about your emotions and behaviors (consequences). You know that events happen which bother you. But you may not be noticing that your belief about the activating event is what determined what emotion you felt and how strongly you felt that emotion.

In cognitive therapy you can learn to dispute your irrational beliefs and replace them with more effective beliefs. Then you can behaviorally practice these new effective behaviors and really “lock in” the change.

Modern “third wave” CBT takes this initial CBT theory, disputing irrational thoughts, reinforcement and repetition of more effective behaviors, and adds ideas from Eastern Philosophies (particularly Buddhism) of Acceptance and Mindfulness (See Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)). 

Ellis was a prolific author, with over 70 publications listed on his Wikipedia page. He often wrote for the general public. 

“A New Guide to Rational Living” (1961) was his first presentation of his theory for the general public. 

“How to stubbornly refuse to make yourself miserable (about anything, yes anything!)” in 1988 was a step-by-step guide to apply REBT to yourself, (biblio-therapy).

“You may spend so much time and energy being disturbed that you have little left to devote to solving your practical problems. Thus you may spend so much time whining about having to decide, you may never actually get around to making a clear decision.”

How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything:

Learn to recognize your dogmatic demands. Your Shoulds, Oughts, Musts. Your I-can’t-stand-its.

Disputing: “Where is it written that my speech must come off marvelously? How would it be shameful if they laugh at me when I give it?

Answer: “It is not written anywhere-except in the foolish script I write for myself! It would be unfortunate if they laughed at me when I gave it, but only my speech would be bad, and I would not be a bad, incompetent, shameful person (no goodnick).”

Disputing: “Must I really get the best TV set for the money? Can’t I bear it if I get gypped?”

Answer: “No I clearly don’t have to get the best set for the money. I can end up with an inferior one. And if I do get gypped, I can still get a lot of pleasure out of the tv set. And if I don’t take the risk and buy one of the sets available I’ll never enjoy TV at all! So I better choose one!

Some of the most memorable lines from Ellis: 

  • “The tyranny of the shoulds.” Unrealistic excessive demands you place on yourself. 
  • “Stop MUST-erbating. Stop SHOULD-ing all over yourself.” 
  • “Stinkin’ Thinkin’”

When you find yourself saying “I should… I must…” ask yourself, “Who says Should?

When I started working with people as a therapist, I couldn’t bring myself to use REBT on the people I was meeting. Ellis’s style is very change focused. It can certainly benefit from the acceptance perspective in 3rd wave CBT.

The Myth of Self-Esteem (2005).

In ‘The Myth of Self-Esteem’, Ellis advocates for his concept of “Unconditional Self Acceptance” (USA) and dispensing with the myth of a need for healthy self-esteem.

Society teaches us Conditional Self-Esteem. You can have esteem for yourself and from others, but only if you meet the conditions set forth by society or your own unrealistic expectations you likely set for yourself.

Ellis advocates for Unconditional Self Acceptance. You have value just by virtue of being a human being. He argues from an atheistic humanist position on the question: “why does a human being have worth / value?” 

Ellis has chapters comparing and contrasting his Unconditional Self Acceptance perspective on why human beings have worth and can accept themselves to multiple philosophical perspectives: 

  • Christianity, 
  • Lao Tsu, 
  • Buddhism, 
  • Spinoza, 
  • Nietche, 
  • Kierkegaard, 
  • Heidegger, 
  • Sartre, 
  • Paul Tillich, and 
  • Aaron Beck. 

It’s a wonderful book but it does get a bit repetitive. We get it. Everyone places unrealistic demands on themselves which get in the way of self-acceptance.

“Nietzsche was a poet, rabble rouser, and humorous attacker of his own views, so it is hard to say exactly what his diatribes meant. But let us try!”

– Albert Ellis – ‘The Myth of Self-Esteem’

Unconditional Self Acceptance sounds wonderful. You want this for other people, particularly those who are unable to find self-acceptance and self-worth. But if you are lacking in self-acceptance, how can you give this to yourself? 

My summary of how Ellis would argue his position rationally: 

What is the value of a human being? Well what is the value of anything? Does a hammer have value? Well it has value to me, in so far as it achieves its purpose. The purpose of a hammer is to put a nail into a wall. It has value if it does this well. 

What is the purpose of a coffee mug? To hold liquid, maybe it’s insulated well and keeps it warm. Is a coffee mug a good hammer? Well it might put a small nail into drywall, but the mug might shatter. But why are you asking it to be a hammer when it’s a perfectly good mug.

What’s the purpose of a human being? Well it differs for every person depending on their strengths and temperaments. It would be unfair if everyone had to meet one universal purpose they were not suited for. What if you are not achieving your purpose? Well you always have potential. Even the most damnable person who spent their life only hurting others, could turn it all around in the end. As long as a person keeps on being, there is the potential for them to figure it out and pursue their purpose. 

To summarize: As long as a person exists, they have potential to achieve their purpose and that gives a person value. You can accept yourself. Even before you have changed your irrational “Stinkin’ Thinkin’.” 

My history with Ellis.

Why does anyone start to study psychology? 

I first read Ellis at age 17, after learning about the concept of CBT in high school advanced placement (AP) psychology class (shout out to Mr. Bickle who was a therapist and hypnotherapist who taught high school in his retirement). This was the first place I read quotes of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. These recollections directly led me to develop my interest in Stoic philosophy in 2020.

It started with a book report on REBT and then I read 5 or 6 other books by Ellis, leading to my sordid academic career constantly trying to force myself to accomplish a STEM major, but always coming back to clinical psychology. 

On a personal note, I grew up with a lot of anxiety, but I never had a word for it until reading Ellis. Growing up on the East coast (Washington, DC area, protestant work-ethic, etc.), it is shameful to have problems or to have to ask for help. It is “virtuous” to figure it out for yourself. 

It is necessary to have great accomplishments merely to be able to afford to live in that area. It is a clear measure of failure if you cannot do so. Let alone attempting to “fit in” and feel belonging in that culture.  

I had a terrible fear of public speaking. I was never quite as bold as Ellis to ask out 100 women in a day, but using his model, I started making a point to look everyone in the eye while walking around campus. 

An interesting anecdote: when I moved out to New Mexico, I would go out to bars with friends and if there was one person begging for money, out of a crowd of 50 people, they would walk right up to me without fail. We eventually determined that it was because I was the only person who would keep eye contact without looking away.

CBT and REBT are excellent places to start to understand psychotherapy. Just as Stoicism is an excellent place to start to understand philosophy and wisdom. 

As I have grown in my career, I have moved beyond REBT to a large extent. I continue to use Ellis’s perspective on Unconditional Self Acceptance to rationally dispute the perspective that a human being can lack self-worth.

More often I practice from the Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) perspective. Balancing Acceptance and Change. Emotion and Reason. Some people come from a place of acting on emotion too much. Others act on emotion too little.

A new perspective I recently was exposed to comes from Radically Open DBT. Rather than treating disorders of undercontrolled emotion, Radically Open DBT is for disorders of overcontrolled emotion. It is based on philosophy Sufi Islam, rather than the Zen Buddhism of standard DBT. 

The short summary of the perspective is that maybe there is room for the emotion of Shame. Ellis would teach that Shame is almost always irrational and excessive. Shame is a painful emotion. It leads people to avoid, shut down, and act in other maladaptive ways. Stop shaming yourself for the judgments and prejudices of others. Who cares what others think?

But maybe we want to belong. Maybe the feedback from other people is helping to give you feedback on how you are pushing them away? Maybe it’s not. Maybe they are selfish and do not have your best interests at heart. Or maybe they do.

The goal would be to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable feeling of shame and sitting with the feeling, rather than shutting it off as quickly as possible. Maybe the feeling is telling you important information you need to pay attention to.


Going back to my opening question, do we need the divine in Stoicism? Ellis paints an atheistic path towards understanding the “unconditional worth” of the human being. Said another way, what is divine about the human being. 

Ellis always feared that taking religion seriously led to superstitious, irrational thinking.

I don’t know how he would respond to the idea of rationality being the “divine spark” in Stoicism.

It was only studying Carl Jung that helped me understand that there is a rational perspective towards making sense of the concepts of the psyche, the soul, and the “image of God.”


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David Alexander

New Mexico-based psychotherapist exploring Stoic Philosophy and Jungian psychology to understand human nature, aiming for self-discovery and empathy through integrated disciplines.

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