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No. 30, July 2010

Albert Ellis Goes All Out! -- A Candid and Insightful Look Inside the Life and Work of One of the World's Most Influential Psychologists


All Out!While he may not be a household name like Sigmund Freud, in more than one professional survey, Albert Ellis has been ranked the more influential psychologist. On the publication of his long-awaited, posthumous autobiography, Prometheus Books asked his widow and work partner, Debbie Joffe Ellis, to shed some light on why Albert Ellis's life, work, and story offer insight on better living for all of us:

Prometheus Books: Why is this book called All Out!? Will readers familiar with Albert Ellis learn of anything from this autobiography that will surprise them and that has not already been written about his character, his life, and the events in his life?
 
Debbie Joffe Ellis: Al titled his autobiography All Out! as it's a full, open, honest, and uncensored exposition of the upbringing, growth, developing years and major events of the life of this brilliant and groundbreaking pioneer in the world of psychology and rational thinking. It includes his brutally honest self-reflection and self-evaluation of his thoughts, emotions, and behaviors during those times. Penetrating insights result.

Even those who have read some, or many, of Al's eighty books and over eight hundred articles, or who've heard him speak over the years, will discover aspects of his personality and character that have not been revealed before, certainly not with the depth present here. For example, the potent emotions he experienced in some of his personal relationships, and how he dealt with them, are vividly described.

Included in All Out! are some stories that have never before been written about. Some may shock readers; others will inspire and touch their hearts, such as Al's description of intensely difficult circumstances in his final years of life, and the courage and nobility that is evident in the way he dealt with those adversities.
 

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PB: How did Albert Ellis change the course of psychology and help to improve the lives and belief systems of countless millions of people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?
 
Debbie Joffe Ellis: Al studied psychology when Freud's psychoanalytic technique was dominating the field. He loudly and bravely challenged that approach, to the jeers and disapproval of most in the field at that time, yet now cognitive psychology -- including Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), which he pioneered -- is the most widely practiced mode in the psychotherapy world.

As part of his psychology studies, Al had to go through analysis himself and practice it with his clients. He discovered that it was not helping most get better, even if some of them temporarily felt better after talking about themselves. He did not want clients to simply feel better temporarily but wanted them to get better in a lasting way, by learning how they created their own disturbances, by learning how to uncreate them, and thereby to become healthier in their thinking, feeling, and behaving. He increasingly became more active-directive in his approach, and he developed REBT.

Al was a pioneer in the self-help movement -- being one of the first to push for people to help themselves, and to not depend on therapists and therapy alone for improvement in their lives. He helped the self-empowerment of millions by showing them how they are the creators of their own emotional destinies and need not be the victims of circumstances. He taught people how to create healthy ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Countless numbers of people wrote to Ellis over the years thanking him for what he taught them, and many wrote that he had literally saved their lives.

Many forms of cognitive therapy have developed from his work. His principles and methods are also incorporated widely into other fields of personal development, such as coaching, management, and assertiveness training. New age and spiritual movements have incorporated his descriptions of the relationship between thinking and feeling, and many of his methods. Dr. Phil is a proponent of the cognitive approach. Variety magazine (in November 2005) named Albert Ellis as one of the icons of the past century-demonstrating that his influence extended way beyond the fields of psychology and psychotherapy, and that he had positively contributed to the lives of millions, helping individuals to help themselves and live happier lives.
 
PB: The well-known director and writer Dalton Trumbo called Albert Ellis "the greatest humanitarian since Ghandi." What are some examples of his humanitarianism?
 
Debbie Joffe Ellis: One of the most important goals in Al's work was to help as many people as possible to suffer less emotional misery and to enjoy life more. He fought for unpopular causes, speaking out loudly and vigorously against rules and attitudes that immorally and unethically restricted civil rights. He fought to help achieve equal rights for women and gay people. He fought against the banning of interracial marriage. He defended Dr. [Jack] Kevorkian's espousal of assisted suicide. He spoke loudly against the attacks on abortion clinics, and he defended legal abortion. He fought against censorship of books and for freedom of expression. He argued against rigid, conservative views on sexual behavior, such as sex before marriage, and masturbation.

A significant example of his humanitarianism was his tireless and vigorous urging of people to develop unconditional acceptance of themselves, others, and life itself. He taught people how to develop tolerance for themselves, others, and the world, encouraging them to change undesirable circumstances if they could, but to work on accepting any circumstances that could not be changed. He recognized that only tolerance and healthy actions and attitudes would help lessen the rage and violence that exists in our world.
 
PB: Albert Ellis is known as being a pioneer and maverick who was not afraid to shock people with his use of strong and colorful language. Why did he choose to do this?
 
Debbie Joffe Ellis: Al wanted people to get healthy ways of thinking in their heads. He wanted to have maximum beneficial impact on others. He recognized that many people had believed their irrational and destructive thoughts for many years and might benefit from being shocked out of their complacent acceptance of unhelpful nonfacts. His outrageous expression helped achieve that for some, as well as helping others remember better his recommendations with the help of his striking delivery! The humorous and entertaining manner that accompanied his language contributed to keeping things in healthy perspective and engaged the attention of his listeners.
 
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PB: You, his widow, wrote the final chapter of this autobiography. Albert Ellis called you the greatest and most profound love of his whole life. What was remarkable about your relationship and the unique bond you shared with one another?
 
Debbie Joffe Ellis: One of the remarkable aspects of our relationship was the profound depth of our love and commitment. Words cannot adequately describe it. We loved simply being together. Our passion for, and attraction to, the other never waned -- if anything, it increased over time. We shared the same sense of humor. We were remarkably compatible: we shared the same work goals and ideals and dedicated ourselves to helping as many people as possible suffer less emotional misery and experience great joy throughout their lives. We loved working together.

We communicated with each other openly and well. We felt like a unit -- not needy, clingy, or co-dependent -- our togetherness enhanced our individuality, and our individuality enhanced our togetherness. We often, gladly and willingly, would put aside our individual preferences in order to embrace those of the other-not out of any sense of obligation, but purely out of love for the other and choosing to put the other's wants first. It was not sacrifice but comfortable choice. We were on the same wavelength.

The difference in our ages was a nonissue between us. We did not experience any problems in our relating to and loving each other due to the age difference. We encountered some prejudice from those who questioned the motives of two people with such extreme age difference coming together. As usual, we practiced REBT and unconditionally accepted the right of others to think in ugly ways, while knowing their distorted ideas were wrong and malicious.
 
PB: In All Out! Ellis writes very openly about his love and sexual affairs, including his union with you, which began when he was in his eighties and you were in your forties. What can readers learn about love and relationships from reading about his experiences?
 
Debbie Joffe Ellis: Readers will have an opportunity to see the difference between healthy love (such as the love he and I shared), and unhealthy, needy, or neurotic love (as was experienced in some of his prior relationships). They'll be reminded of a point Al often made when he spoke to audiences or wrote his books and articles: the importance of wise discernment when choosing the people in our lives.

Parts of the experiences described will raise the eyebrows of more conservative readers and bring smiles and laughter to others, as my husband shares in considerable detail some of the rather saucy and funny aspects of his encounters and relationships.
 
PB: How did he use the challenges and misfortunes that he experienced in his life to benefit himself and others so greatly? What were his greatest difficulties? What were his greatest joys?
 
Debbie Joffe Ellis: From an early age Al had difficulties to deal with. He decided that he wanted to enjoy this one life he had, and to do so with intensity and passion, so he would look for solutions to problems and ways to reduce any sadness and suffering in his life. He was determined not to suffer from anxiety, rage, or depression when bad things happened -- and he succeeded.

After finding success in the strategies he discovered and practiced on himself, he would recommend them to others -- first his friends, and later his clients -- and observed the great benefit they enjoyed as a result of their applying what he taught to them. Throughout his enduring long stays in hospital, ongoing health challenges, uncomfortable relationships, and immense disruption and disappointment in his institute [The Albert Ellis Institute] in his latter years, Al would practice what he preached and continue to be an outstanding model of the efficacy of his REBT philosophy and approach. He did not hate the people who acted against him. In fact, he felt compassion for them.

Al's greatest difficulties were enduring the changes made in his institute against his wishes and the brutal and unfair removal of his power within his institute by the board and directors; his declining health in his final year and, despite his superhuman efforts to recover, the inevitability of continuing decline; and his not wanting to leave me without him.

His greatest joys were our love; his work -- writing, teaching, and helping others to suffer less; and composing songs.
 
ellis 3PB: What was unusual about his childhood years?
 
Debbie Joffe Ellis: His brilliance and intelligence were unusual. His creative and innovative thinking was unique. He read thousands of books. For most of his childhood he endured health issues and spent months in the hospital during many of those years. Instead of succumbing to deep sadness at being deprived of freedom and doing things he loved to do, and sadness about his rarely being visited in the hospital by his parents, he invented things to do and think about that would bring him some enjoyment and reduce his sadness. Even in his childhood he liked helping others.

He fell in love more often and more deeply than many other children of his tender age! He was quite inquisitive and experimental in his love life from an early age and on throughout his life. In his teenage years he cured himself of intense shyness about speaking to women and speaking in public.

The methods he used to overcome these inhibitions became part of his REBT approach, and literally millions of people who have used them have benefited.
 
PB: What was his greatest lesson in life, and when did it come?
 
Debbie Joffe Ellis: The healthy, unconditional love with a partner (me) -- in a manner more profound than he had ever experienced -- came in his late years. The depth, authenticity, and beauty of it were something he had never experienced, nor anticipated that he would. The lesson learned was that a unique, unexpected, and profound experience could come at any time in life.

A more difficult lesson -- also learned in his later years, though he knew it intellectually earlier -- was to be more firmly discerning about the people who were around him, both in his work and personal life. He learned, the hard way, the wisdom of separating from one's life (when possible) people who lack interest in the well-being of others and who hold only their own interests as important; people who are unreliable, untrustworthy, irresponsible, and unkind. He learned that while unconditional acceptance is healthy, one can unconditionally accept another, yet also choose to not stay connected with them.
 
PB: What will his legacy be, and what is your part in carrying it forward?
 
Debbie Joffe Ellis: In All Out! Al answers a similar question asked during a presentation at a major conference, about a year and a half prior to his death.

He said, "My legacy, I hope, is myself and the way I refuse to upset myself when bad things happen. And all the principles of REBT, including: You largely upset yourself. You can change it. You have choices. And you can choose, choose, choose unconditional self-acceptance, unconditional other acceptance, and unconditional life acceptance. . . . So go work your ass off and choose it!"

My part in carrying his legacy forward will be to continue to teach, train, and present on REBT and the magnificent contributions of my husband: addressing health professionals, teachers, students, and members of the general public; writing about it; encouraging others to apply REBT in their own lives and to share it with whom they interact; encouraging teachers and school principals to teach the REBT philosophy to children; running groups and seeing individual clients; and reaching out to as many as possible through a variety of media modalities.

It is my passion, my purpose, as it was of my husband's, to help as many people as possible to help themselves live happier and healthier lives. I will continue to keep my husband's love and spirit alive within me, and hopefully through me. And I will persistently do my best to practice in my life the principles and philosophy that I preach, as my husband so impeccably did.
 
PB: How would the world as we now know it be different if Albert Ellis had not existed and contributed as he did?
 
Debbie Joffe Ellis: Psychoanalysis might still have a more dominant place in the psychotherapy roost. While cognitive approaches may still have evolved, in all probability they would have done so more slowly and with less precision.

There would be fewer self-help and self-empowering books and approaches. Al brought his method for living a happier life, in commonsense language with colorful delivery, to many millions of people in his lifetime. For over forty years, he gave his famous Friday Night Workshop with its low (five-dollar) attendance fee -- making himself and his work accessible to many.

Without his influence, many lives might have gone in different and less healthy directions. The sexual revolution may have started a decade or more later than it did, and the absence of his commitment, energy, and vigor in the fight for women's rights, gay rights, racial equality, freedom of expression, and other civil liberties may have delayed progress in those areas.

Millions who now accept themselves unconditionally, warts and all, might still feel sad, guilty, and unworthy, yearning unhealthily for more approval and love from others. The world would be filled with more who feel unhappier, less liberated from rigid dogma, and pessimistic. The world would be a less colorful place, less kind, less hopeful, and less encouraging, if the remarkable Albert Ellis had not existed.
 
PB: Is this life story of Albert Ellis simply one that informs and touches the heart of the reader, or does it also provide the wisdom of his philosophy in a way that will inspire and benefit readers?
 
Debbie Joffe Ellis: This book does all of the above -- inspire, benefit, inform, and touch the heart. When readers discover the degree of hardship and disappointment Al faced with courage, dignity, and the unflinching ability to practice what he preached in such dire circumstances, they may consider it less daunting to face their own trials and tribulations. They will be able to see in the example of Albert Ellis that it is not what happens that creates our emotional destiny, but how we perceive what happens, our determination to refuse to make ourselves miserable about it, and our willingness to act accordingly.

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Debbie Joffe Ellis was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia. She is affiliated with several major psychological associations and societies, including being a member of the Australian Psychological Society, and an international affiliate member of the American Psychological Association. Devoted to her husband and his mission, she continues to present, practice, and write about his groundbreaking psychotherapeutic approach of REBT. She currently has a private practice in New York City and also delivers lectures, workshops, and seminars throughout the United States and across the globe.

Michael McGuireAlbert Ellis was born in Pittsburgh and raised in New York City. He was founder and president of The Albert Ellis Institute in New York City and practiced psychotherapy, marriage and family counseling, and sex therapy for sixty years. He created Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), the first of the now-popular cognitive therapies. Consistently ranked among the most influential psychologists, Ellis has published over eight hundred scientific papers and articles, more than two hundred audio and videocassettes, and over eighty books (including a number of bestselling popular and professional volumes). Ellis died in 2007, at the age of ninety-three.
Other books by Albert Ellis that may interest you include:
 
Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and Behaviors

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: It Works for Me -- It Can Work for You

The Road to Tolerance

The Myth of Self-Esteem

Why Some Therapies Don't Work

Enjoy life!
 
Jill Maxick
Prometheus Books


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