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therapeutic process

How to Dispute Irrational Beliefs

Albert Ellis is known as the grandfather of Cognitive Behavior Therapy. He combined humanistic, philosophical, and behavioral therapy to form Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) in 1955. A main assumption of REBT is that people contribute to their psychological problems by the way they interpret events. Further, our emotions stem mainly from our beliefs, evaluations, interpretations, and reactions to life situations. REBT assumes that cognitions (thoughts), emotions, and behaviors interact significantly and have a reciprocal cause-and-effect relationship. Additionally, REBT postulates that people are born with a potential for both rational and irrational thinking.

According to Ellis, we have an inborn tendency toward growth and actualization, yet we often sabotage our movement toward growth due to self-defeating patterns we have learned. We originally learn irrational beliefs from significant others during childhood, and we actively reinforce these self-defeating beliefs by repetition, and by behaving as if they are useful. But it is not useful to blame ourselves and others; instead, it is important that we learn how to accept ourselves despite our imperfections. Therefore, a major goal of REBT is to achieve unconditional self-acceptance and unconditional other acceptance; the more one is able to accept him or herself, the more likely he is to accept others.

The therapeutic process involves identifying irrational beliefs, and replacing such beliefs with more rational and effective ways of thinking. Changing one’s thinking results in changing one’s emotional reactions to situations. Ellis succinctly puts it this way, “You mainly feel the way you think.” Some examples of irrational beliefs that lead to self-defeat include: I must have the approval of all the people in my life, or else I am worthless. I must perform all tasks perfectly, or else I am a failure. It is better to avoid life’s difficulties than to try and end up looking foolish.

The A-B-C framework and method of disputing irrational beliefs is central to REBT theory and practice.

A = an event, behavior, or attitude
B = belief about the event
C = emotional & behavioral consequence or reaction (can be healthy or unhealthy)
D = disputing irrational or self-defeating beliefs
E = effective philosophy of replacing unhealthy thoughts with healthy ones
F = a new set of healthy feelings

A (the activating event) does not cause C (the emotional consequence); rather, B (the person’s belief about the event) largely causes C. D is the application of methods to challenge irrational beliefs by detecting, debating, and discriminating irrational (self-defeating) beliefs from rational (self-helping) beliefs. E is the new and effective belief system that consists of replacing unhealthy thoughts with healthy ones. In doing this, F (a new set of healthy feelings) is created.ABC Framework 11

In summary, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy entails the following steps: (1) acknowledge that we are largely responsible for our own emotional problems, (2) accept that we have the ability to change these disturbances significantly, (3) recognize that our emotional problems often stem from irrational beliefs, (4) accurately perceive these beliefs, (5) see the value of disputing such self-defeating beliefs, (6) accept that we need to counteract our dysfunctional beliefs/feelings/behaviors, and (7) practice these methods to improve current and future circumstances.

Corey, Gerald. Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Belmont. Thomas Learning, Inc. 2005.

3 Core Conditions for Therapeutic Change

The person-centered counseling approach was established in the 1940’s by humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers. The goal of a person-centered therapy is to create the necessary conditions for clients to engage in meaningful self-exploration of their feelings, beliefs, behavior, and worldview, and to assist clients in their growth process, enabling them to cope with current and future problems.

A major concept of this approach is that people are generally trustworthy, resourceful, capable of self-understanding and self-direction, able to make constructive changes, and able to live effective and productive lives. Another key concept is that the attitudes and characteristics of the therapist, and the quality of the client-therapist relationship are prime determinants of the outcome of the therapeutic process.

Rogers maintains that therapists must have three attributes to create a growth-promoting climate in which individuals can move forward and become capable of becoming their true self: (1) congruence (genuineness or realness), (2) unconditional positive regard (acceptance and caring), and (3) accurate empathic understanding (an ability to deeply grasp the subjective world of another person).

Congruence refers to the therapist being real, authentic, and genuine with their clients. It’s called congruence because their inner experience and outward expression match. In being authentic, the therapist shows they are trustworthy, which helps in building a good therapeutic relationship with the client. It also serves as a model for clients, encouraging them to be their true selves, expressing their thoughts and feelings, without any sort of false front.

Unconditional positive regard means the therapist genuinely cares for their clients and does not evaluate or judge their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors as good or bad. Each client is accepted and valued for who they are, as they are, without stipulation. Clients need not fear judgment or rejection from the therapist.

Accurate empathic understanding means that the therapist understands their client’s experience and feelings in an accurate and compassionate way. The therapist recognizes that each client’s experience is subjective and therefore strives to see things from the client’s unique perspective. An important part of accurate empathic understanding is for the therapist to convey that they “get it” by reflecting the client’s experience back to them. This encourages clients to become more reflective with themselves, which allows for greater understanding of themselves.

If you’ve ever had an experience where you felt like someone just really got you…they completely understood where you were coming from, or could truly relate to the way you felt – that’s accurate empathic understanding.

Rogers asserts that empathy helps clients (1) pay attention and value their experiencing; (2) see earlier experiences in new ways; (3) modify their perceptions of themselves, others, and the world; and (4) increase their confidence in making choices and pursuing a course of action. Jeanne Watson (2002) states that 60 years of research has consistently demonstrated that empathy is the most powerful determinant of client progress in therapy. She puts it this way:

“Therapists need to be able to be responsively attuned to their clients and to understand them emotionally as well as cognitively. When empathy is operating on all three levels – interpersonal, cognitive, and affective – it is one of the most powerful tools therapists have at their disposal.”


1. Watson, J. C. (2002). Re-visioning empathy. In D. J. Cain (Ed.), Humanistic psychotherapies: Handbook of research and practice (pp. 445-471). American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.
2. Corey, Gerald. Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Belmont. Thomas Learning, Inc. 2005.