Conversation with a genius: a tribute to Albert Ellis.
Article Type: Interview
Subject: Physicians (Appreciation)
Bullying (Analysis)
Nursing homes (Officials and employees)
Author: Garinger, Helen M.
Pub Date: 09/22/2008
Publication: Name: Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association Publisher: American Psychotherapy Association Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2008 American Psychotherapy Association ISSN: 1535-4075
Issue: Date: Fall, 2008 Source Volume: 11 Source Issue: 3
Topic: Event Code: 540 Executive changes & profiles
Product: Product Code: 8011000 Physicians & Surgeons; 8050000 Nursing & Rest Homes; 8366000 Homes for Aged NAICS Code: 621111 Offices of Physicians (except Mental Health Specialists); 623 Nursing and Residential Care Facilities; 623312 Homes for the Elderly SIC Code: 8011 Offices & clinics of medical doctors; 8051 Skilled nursing care facilities; 8052 Intermediate care facilities; 8059 Nursing and personal care, not elsewhere classified
Persons: Named Person: Ellis, Albert
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 187049616

As I departed on a balmy Friday night in mid-May 2006, from what was to be Dr. Albert Ellis' last Friday night workshop, I told Debbie Joffe-Ellis, his wife, that I would call her in September to schedule a visit for another group of counseling students. In September 2006, I learned that Dr. Ellis was recuperating from pneumonia. In October, his condition had not improved. January might be a better time for Dr. Ellis to resume his Friday evening sessions.

I suggested we visit Dr. Ellis at his nursing home. In December, on three different occasions, groups of students experienced Dr. Ellis replicating his Friday night workshops. On one Saturday, we even managed to see him in the emergency room.

At each visit, in spite of his visible discomfort, attached to a feeding tube and speaking in a raspy voice, he was his former spirited self, simply dazzling everyone. He was in his element, a shining star. The students were enthralled.

Throughout the spring, I was able to continue my visits to the nursing home and hospital. I had the unique opportunity and rare privilege to interview Dr. Ellis with his wife about bullying. What follows are excerpts from our meetings in which I asked questions regarding the use of REBT and bullying.

Debbie Joffe-Ellis, PhD, is a psychologist trained in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. She assisted her husband in his workshops, writings, and in other aspects of his work. During the interview, she was able to complete his thoughts and explain his words when he faltered.


"In essence, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) theory holds that people are primarily responsible for their feelings about themselves, others, and the environment and/or whether they want to be perpetually disturbed by them" (Thompson & Rudolph, 2000, p. 188). The bully seems to enjoy wearing a victim down. Espelage, Mebane, and Adams (2004) question whether or not bullies lack empathic feelings. They claim further research needs to be conducted to study the link between prosocial behaviors and empathy (Espelage, Mebane, & Adams, p. 39). If bullies receive empathy training, will that change their actions? Utilizing REBT might be a viable intervention strategy to assist bullies and victims. Could it be applied to a bullying situation? If victims can rationally control their feelings after being bullied, will this diffuse the bullying? Will this shift in attitude change how the victim feels about himself or herself? Could the bully benefit? Ellis' earlier theory, Rational Emotive Therapy, PET, states "... our emotions stem mainly from our beliefs, evaluations, interpretations, and reactions to life situations" (Corey, 1991, p. 327). The victim of a bullying situation seems to react emotionally to events perpetrated by the bully. And, the bully's behavior is most likely a reaction to a previous incident or condition that he or she experienced. "The focus is on working with thinking and acting rather than primarily with expressing feelings" (Corey, p. 327). Therefore, the initial aim of working individually with the bully would be to change his or her irrational beliefs. With the victim, the emphasis would be on the resultant irrational beliefs about oneself, which frequently lead to self-loathing and depression.

Ellis (1990) developed the ABC model to demonstrate how beliefs determine the way human beings feel and behave. "A" represents Activating Events or Adversities, "B" refers to Beliefs about these events, and "C" is the emotional and behavioral Consequences of A times B (Ellis, 2002). Ellis explained that when something adverse (A) occurs in the clients' lives, invariably they immediately react to experience dysfunctional consequences (C). Thus, they believe that A directly causes C (Ellis, 2002, p. 10). Clients are resistant to making the connection between Beliefs, B, and Consequences, C. They have difficulty understanding that their beliefs about A strongly influence C, (Ellis, 2002).

Ellis understood that nothing could be done to change the client's childhood experiences, which might influence the activating event (Corey, 1991). "Although we cannot change the past, we can change how we let the past influence the way we are today and the way we want to be tomorrow" (Albert Ellis Institute, 2007). This notion could be an effective counseling intervention technique to work with both the bully and the victim.

Perhaps, something from the bully's past triggered an action, A. And, the belief, B, for his actions, justified his or her behaviors. "... B, in particular, does not merely include the individual's belief system but also includes integral aspects of his/her emotional and behavior system" (Ellis, 2001, p. 19). This idea might better explain why the bully attacks his/her victim and reinforces what some researchers speculate that the bully lacks feelings of empathy (Espelage, Mebane & Adams, 2004). Lacking empathy, the bully's belief system remains flawed. How could REBT aid the victim and the bully? With these thoughts in mind, the discussion with Dr. Ellis ensued.


Helen: I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on bullying, which has become a popular topic. People have always done it. (Albert Ellis: Right.) But, in my opinion, bullying has become worse. And, women can be horrendous bullies. We are more subversive than men. The way men interact with one another is different.

AE: Right.

Helen: I believe the manner in which bullying occurs during adolescence has similarities and differences to bullying in adulthood. How would you utilize REBT in a bullying situation among middle school children? I understand that REBT requires a certain level of cognitive ability to be effective.

AE: Find out what's bothering them and see what they're telling themselves to make them bullies, which is usually, "I must be better than they are. I'm going to show them that ! can do better." Then, keep after them that it's their responsibility to make them bullies.

Debbie: Keep after them to make them bullies?

AE: Yes. They're making themselves bullies.

Debbie: Right. Then how would you convince them to change?

AE: That's rough.

Ellis emphasized that changing the bully is difficult. But, he explained that the bully is bothered by something, which then manifests itself as a directive to make him/her a bully. The bully feels that he must prove something to himself. We create these demands when saying, ought, should, and must (Corey, 1991). Utilizing the word must "... refers to conditions that we set in our minds in order to feel okay or good or satisfied about a matter about yourself. If the conditions aren't met, you make yourself unhappy" (Sonoma State University, 2007). Basically, we create our own disappointments and failures. Learning how to change such thoughts is critical. For example, "I need love and approval from those significant to me, and I must avoid disapproval from any source" is an irrational statement. But, this can be restated rationally, "Love and approval are good things to have, and I'll seek them when I can. But, they are not necessities. I can survive (even though uncomfortably) without them. (Ellis, n.d.). This acknowledges the value of love and approval but also the ability to survive without them.


Helen: Bullying is a learned behavior. Perhaps, kids witness it at home or are treated that way.

AE: Even if they're not, they turn out to be bullies.

Debbie: So, what are you saying?

AE: You don't have to be bullied to be a bully. You're making yourself a bully out of feelings of inferiority.

Debbie: In some cases if they want to feel superior, to change themselves.

AE: Right.

Helen: The parents can compound the problem.

AE: What about them?

Helen: I've read that bullying, like violence, is a learned behavior. And kids watching this at home see this as a way to interact.


AE: Sometimes.

According to Ellis, the bully may or may not have learned the behavior from his or her parents, but the feelings of inferiority are a precipitating factor for the bullies' behavior or actions. The bully wants to feel superior and changes feelings of inferiority to being superior over others.

Debbie: Not all parents of bullies are bullies.

Helen: Agreed.

Debbie: What about instances of a bully who's learned it because his or her parents behave like that?

AE: You show them that their parents are wrong and they don't have to be wrong. And they can accept themselves without bullying.

Helen: It's not an easy task.

AE: No, it's very hard, but it's worse if you don't try.

Debbie: It seems one of the things for us therapists to accept is that this is one of those areas where there's no easy solution and a high probability of not achieving what we prefer. Is that correct?

AE: Right.

Debbie: We have to work on ourselves whilst doing our best for them. It's a real tough area.

Helen: Yes. I plan to take my bully research further. I see the connection between female adolescent bullies and female bully bosses. I would like to study women in authority who are supreme bitches, who squash their subordinates. It's most difficult in a job situation where the woman has the power over you. You can try to talk yourself into understanding, but it's amazingly difficult.

AE: Right, and the forgiving is hard.

Helen: That's godly! The forgiving part is the enormous challenge.

Debbie: A few weeks ago, you answered a question I had that was similar, only a god or a godly acting person can have compassion for a person who has acted atrociously.

AE: It will do more harm than good if they act impatiently.

Debbie: So you're saying to be patient?

AE: Yeah. They'll screw themselves if they're not. They'll get worse bullying.

Helen: The hardest thing is to remain rational during this time, because people do buckle under pressure.

AE: And, if you don't remain rational, then you screw yourself.

Helen: And, that's the hardest thing. How do you cope with that?

AE: You don't see it as horrible but as a pain in the ass.

Helen: It's not that she's a bitch, but it's what she's doing is bad or evil.

AE: Right.

Helen: So you remove "it," the bullying, from the person.

AE: Right.

Helen: So you can see her in a different light.

AE: You hate what they do, but not them.

Helen: That's very difficult.

AE: Very. But it's more difficult than if you don't.

Helen: Ultimately, you're 100% correct, but you have to have the cognitive ability to understand that.

AE: Right.

Debbie: And, the willingness and strength to do the work. We can be lazy and feel the easy emotion of anger. Or, we can be willing to work on ourselves to achieve something that is humanly possible. However, we know there are exemplary humans, like Al, who model it. It takes a lot of work. And, so, it is our choice: Do we want to do the work? As Al tells us, if we don't do the work, in the end, it's harder for us. Or, we can wallow in the automatic emotions, using automatic thinking.

Helen: There are few at your level of higher order thinking. (AE: Right.) Not to be demeaning to others, but everyone does not have your enlightenment, your intelligence. As far as pushing bullies to adopt a rational attitude, that's really challenging.

AE: Yes, save yourself first.

Helen: Yes, but back to my example, if I were to contact some of the people who worked under the bully and tell them, "She's not awful, but what she does is awful ..."

AE: Right.

Helen: And if they could separate her doing, from her essence, from her being ...

AE: Even though she did it.

Helen: Yes, and does it all the time, then you can begin to make progress in beginning to accept the bully in a rational way.

AE: Right.

Debbie: A different approach is to consider that the person is handicapped. These individuals don't have the ability to think more rationally, more calmly or fairly. Therefore, they're bound to think that way because they don't know they have a choice or want to choose differently. You once said that to me in a different conversation with a similar kind of issue. Have compassion, because if you thought the way they thought, you would behave the same way as they do.

AE: Right.

Helen: The hardest thing to understand is you'll never make a dent in the person who's a bully and has the power.

AE: You don't have to ...

Helen: Change them.

AE: Right.

Helen: But in terms of living with them, it's how you cope.

Debbie: You can change that.

Helen: Yes, I changed a job because my supervisor was such a bully.

Debbie: You changed the activating event.

Helen: I discussed with my current colleagues the issue of dealing with women in power, who are irrational and destructive.

AE: The bully bosses don't see how irrational they are. The most difficult task is to emotionally remove oneself from the bully boss's injurious behavior. One cannot change the bullies' actions, but an individual can change his or her irrational beliefs about the event, which in turn changes the consequences. Debbie suggested to regard the actions of the bully as if the individual was handicapped because they have the inability to think rationally.

Helen: Do people stay with REBT as a life philosophy or as a way to change their thinking?

AE: They have to keep practicing.

Helen: Do they ever return for a booster session if something is failing?

AE: Yes, right.

Helen: Can most adjust and change their lives?

AE: Temporarily, they have difficulty permanently doing it.

Helen: Why is that?

AE: Because they're fallible screwed-up humans.

Helen: Don't they see that it works much better, alleviating their pain?

AE: Sometimes, not always.

Debbie: Practice and perseverance.

Helen: You're asking for real commitment for change.

AE: Permanently.

Helen: It's being committed and being committed to change.

AE: Absolutely. To be utterly committed to change and keep changing.

Helen: It's a philosophy.

AE: You can blame the actions and the words and not people. Even though they're young, they can learn. They have low frustration tolerance, and that's what they need to work on.

Dr. Ellis became visibly fatigued, and our conversation ended.


The challenge is to implement REBT in schools and create intervention strategies to work with bullies and victims. When I asked Dr. Ellis about working with people of average and below-average intelligence, he stated, "Make it plain and simple." A bully possesses traits, which enables him or her to manipulate and wield power. Most likely a bully has above average intelligence, a common characteristic for those who benefit from REBT. Working with both bullies and victims, school counselors need to simplify, explain, and reinforce the REBT principles. I am convinced many students might benefit from learning REBT.


Albert Ellis In.stitute. (2007). REBT: Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Retrieved on July 31, 2007, from how_it_work_main.html

Corey, G. (1991). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy (4th ed). Behnont, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company. A Division of Wadsworth, Inc.

Ellis, A. (1990). Rational Emotive Therapy and cognitive behavior therapy. New York: Springer Publishing Company, Inc.

Ellis, A. (2001). Overcoming destructive beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Ellis, A. (2002). Overcoming resistance: A Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy integrated approach (2nd ed). New York: Springer Publishing Company, Inc.

Ellis, A. (n.d.). Retrieved on July 28, 2007, from cognitive-behavioral.html

Espelage, D., Mebane, S., & Adams. R. (2004). Empathy, caring, and bullying: Toward an understanding of complex associations. In Espelage, D. & S. M. Swearer (Eds.). Bullying in American schools: A social-ecological perspective on prevention and intervention. (37-62). NJ & London: Lawrence Erlbauam Associates, Publishers.

Thompson, C. L., & Rudolph, L. B. (2000). Counseling children (5th ed). Belmont CA: Wadsworth.

Dr. Helen Garinger, PhD, LPC, MHLC, NCC, is an Assistant Professor of Education, Human Services, and Counseling at St. John's University, training graduate students to become school counselors. She has been working with children and adolescents for over 30 years. Dr. Garinger presents workshops and seminars to faculty, students, and parent groups on bullying, cyber bullying, Internet safety, racial identity development, and the social and emotional needs of gifted students.
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