The invisible profession

Although there are a lot of people who make big bucks as professional propagandists, using the identifiable tools of the trade, I’ve never heard anyone identify him/herself  as a propagandist. I’ve never seen a job listing or classified ad saying “Wanted — skilled propagandist.” It’s a profession that hides in plain sight and relies on secrecy to be effective.

Propagandists have job titles such as ad designer, ad copy writer, public relations consultant/agent, media relations professional, political consultant, talk show host and political pundit. Unlike journalists, they have no obligation to be objective. Indeed, their function isn’t to accurately inform, but to influence or persuade. Propaganda can only be effective to the degree that it’s invisible to its target audience, because nobody likes to know  that they’re being manipulated. I think it’s highly probable that the average American couldn’t identify even one propaganda technique, and that’s the way the influence industries want it.

I’m not saying that everybody in advertising and public relations is a propagandist, but the propaganda industries have developed expertise in using  behavioral science to manipulate behavior on a mass scale, without their machinations being apparent to the public at large. As a psychologist, it disturbs me greatly to see that our society’s primary systematic application of the principles of psychology has been as a tool for commercial and political persuasion, and for the manipulation of mass behavior in the service of commerce.

Edward Bernays, who is generally recognized as the “father of public relations,” wrote a 1928 book titled Propaganda, in which he wrote about “regimenting the public mind.” He asked “Is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?” and answered in the affirmative. His teachings were a blueprint for the influence industries, which have gradually made the techniques of unconscious influence (as detailed in my last post) so commonplace that they’re invisible to the average citizen/consumer. Although Bernays name isn’t widely known outside of the advertising, public relations and political consultancy industries, he was one of LIFE magazine’s “100 Most Important People of the Twentieth Century.” Talk about invisibility. . . .

Many people in the influence industries are specialists in the social sciences and use polling, interviews, focus groups, statistical analysis, and other proven techniques to constantly refine their ability to influence behavior on a mass scale. In aggregate they are social engineers, working to enable corporate agendas. Not only do influence peddlers utilize the classic techniques of propaganda, but they also use rhetorical devices (i.e. metaphor, euphemism, hyperbole) strategically to hammer home their persuasive messages. They craft presentations that combine propaganda techniques such as transfer with combinations of verbal and visual metaphors that effectively influence mass behavior. Propaganda wouldn’t be a highly profitable enterprise if it didn’t work.

Heuristics are mental shortcuts we all use to make decisions. Professional persuaders exploit them to sell goods and services. Examples are stereotyping (if this is the case, then that should follow), social consensus (everybody’s doing it), scarcity (“this offer is limited”), and the price-value heuristic (if it costs more, it must be better).

Edward Bernays was the nephew and confidante of Sigmund Freud, and his uncle’s teachings about unconscious influence had a great influence on the profession he founded. After his academic career ended, Dr. J.B. Watson – known as the “father of Behaviorism” – worked for a Madison Avenue advertising firm. Influence peddlers use behavior modification techniques along with propaganda and other psychotechnologies of influence.

The propaganda technique of transfer relies on classical – or Pavlovian – conditioning, where a conditioning stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (i.e. a bell is rung whenever food is presented), creating a conditioned response. In Pavlov’s experiments, dogs were conditioned to salivate when a bell was rung. Professional persuaders also use operant conditioning, where reinforcers (rewards) are systematically given or withheld in order  to shape behavior. An example is “call in the next ten minutes and shipping is free.” I’ve written about behavior modification in more detail in previous posts.

We’re bombarded daily with messages from propagandists and other professional persuaders. We’ve been systematically conditioned by experts to confuse manipulative messages with factual information. The key to removing infotoxins from your mental environment is education. As Bob Marley put it, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/ None but ourselves can free our minds.”

 

 

 

Information v. Propaganda

There’s a war going on in the media between information and propaganda. Propaganda has become so commonplace in our society that most people don’t seem to know it when they see it. The result of a successful propaganda campaign is  orchestrated ignorance on a mass scale.

Whether a message is information or propaganda isn’t just a matter of opinion or viewpoint. Information is based on facts, evidence and logic, and aims for the intellect. Propaganda relies on specific deceptive and manipulative techniques, and aims at the gut. Its purpose isn’t to inform, but to influence or persuade – often in the guise of information. Providers of information deal in facts and evidence; propagandists  care more about perception than facts. Here are some of the manipulative techniques used by propagandists:

Assertion is stating an opinion – or an outright lie – as if it were a proven fact. It’s not propaganda if you use a qualifier such as “in my opinion” or “I think/believe that ____.” Sometimes propagandists mix lies and opinions with half-truths, and even with selected facts that appear to support their message. Assertion is widely used in advertising, public relations, and political campaigns. Transfer is a term for creating an association. positive or negative, between two unrelated things. Using a giant American flag as a backdrop for a message is an example of positive transfer, whether you’re selling cars or candidates. A blown-up visual of hundred-dollar bills going up in flames, as a backdrop in a political attack ad, is an example of negative transfer. Transfer can be aural or visual, and is a staple of perception management.

Ad nauseam is the technique of incessant repetition. The phrase “A lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth” has been attributed to Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Political slogans are designed to be endlessly repeated, and to lodge themselves in your mind.  Three related propaganda techniques are lies of omission, card stacking and distortion, where facts are cherry-picked to promote the message, and any contrary facts are omitted or misrepresented. Glittering generalities involves the use of emotionally-loaded phrases that have no objective basis for definition: freedom fighter, perfect union, best country in the world, master race.

Bandwagon suggests that we should follow the crowd, join the Winners, and avoid being left behind with the Losers. “Everyone knows” and “anyone with common sense knows _____” can be used to prop up just about any political opinion. Name calling attempts to arouse prejudice or antipathy, sometimes in the form of an unverified assertion (i.e. Joe Smith is a secret communist), or in the form of sarcasm and ridicule. A related propaganda technique is ad hominem, in which the messenger is attacked, in order to discredit or distract attention from the message. Propagandists are professional perception managers, and name calling and ad hominem are among their favorite tools for molding public perceptions.

Simplification and pinpointing the enemy offer simple explanations for complex issues. and target a culprit for an identified problem. Both techniques were used to devastating effect by the Nazis, to justify the mass murder of Jews. Slogans are usually simplifications. (BUILD A WALL! comes to mind.) A related technique is the black-and-white fallacy, which says that if you’re not for us, you’re against us – no middle ground or room for compromise. Appeal to fear/prejudice relies on stereotypes to fire-up emotions – notably fear and anger. Appeal to authority attempts to link its message with people viewed favorably by the target audience. That’s why you often see white lab coats on actors who endorse medical products and services, so they resemble doctors or scientists. It also explains why you hear that “nine out of ten dentists recommend _____.” Celebrity endorsements are a variant of appeal to authority. Even though we all know that they’re staged and scripted, we nevertheless tend to form a positive association between the product and the admired celebrity. If he uses that product, it must be pretty good.

In my book Ad Nauseam: How Advertising and Public Relations Changed Everything, I write about how we became a Propaganda Society over the course of the twentieth century, and how propaganda is most effective when it’s invisible to the people most influenced by it. I also write about other “psychotechnologies of influence,” including rhetorical devices, heuristics and behavior modification. I’ll write about those in a future post.

 

Overcoming homophobia, Part 2

By my thirties I was already quite comfortable around gay people socially and professionally, and aware of many of the issues they faced, living in a homophobic society. But the final breakthrough in working to eradicate the vestiges of my own homophobia occurred when my older brother, Lindsay, came out of the closet. Now his homosexuality could become part of the weave of our lifelong ongoing dialogue. Things not previously apprehended about my brother fell into place.

Lindsay has told me that as early as age five, he knew that he was somehow different from most other boys. He grew up to be masculine in his demeanor, with no distinctly effeminate mannerisms. In high school he dated (though not much) and played football. It would take him many years before he admitted – even to himself – that he was gay. He preceded me by two years attending The Citadel, the Charleston military academy that was my father’s alma mater. He had an Army contract. While in graduate school, he went to a counselor and asked what he could do about his feelings of attraction to men. He received the rote -and ignorant – prescription “Find yourself a good woman and marry her.” Back in those days, homosexuality was still considered a psychiatric disorder, and many counselors believed that the cure was a good heterosexual marriage – if you really wanted to change.

I believe that Lindsay tried his best to become heterosexual, and that if he could have chosen, he would have chosen to be straight. He served in the Army, married a good woman, and fathered two children. He loved his wife in his own way, but knew he was living a lie. Sensing something amiss in their relationship, she persuaded him to join her in marital counseling. Lindsay finally confessed to the lie he was living. She was devastated, and filed for divorce soon afterward.

Lindsay called me in Beaufort, where I lived at the time, and asked me to drive up to our parents’ home, in the Charleston area. He had things to tell us. The four of us sat around the kitchen table, and he admitted to everything. He totally understood his wife’s feelings of fury and betrayal, and wouldn’t contest the terms of the divorce. We hugged one another and cried. Lindsay was afraid of our father’s judgment, but Dad came through. He allowed as how this was going to take some time to sink in, but said exactly what Lindsay needed to hear at that moment: “You’re still a man and you’re still my son, and I love you.”

Lindsay has been openly gay for decades now, and lives with his life partner. He still regrets what he put his ex-wife and kids through, saying “I found a good woman and messed up her life.” He came out in the local press  as a gay graduate of The Citadel – to my knowledge, the first ex-Citadel cadet to do so. At alumni gatherings some classmates were initially guarded, but most came around when they saw the he was the same old Lindsay they knew back then. My love for my big brother wasn’t influenced in the slightest by his revelation. I felt a little dumb for not having figured out on my own that he was gay, but he’s the same person I’ve known all my life. Now I fully understood that sexual orientation isn’t a lifestyle choice, but a part of who you fundamentally are. Homosexuality is a normal sexual variation, not a deviation.

I now recognize that I grew up in a racist, homophobic society, and that this has had consequences in my life. My father was less racist and homophobic than his own father, leaving me with less mental trash to discard. The first step in overcoming learned prejudices is to own them and examine them. Having biased beliefs about race or sexual orientation doesn’t make you a bad person, just someone with issues you need to examine and outgrow. It’s not who you love, with regard to gender or sexual orientation, that matters; it’s how you love. Being a sexually responsible but sexually active person means practicing safe sex with consensual partners who are capable of giving consent, and not using people sexually. Love is a natural sweetener, if not always a necessary ingredient.

Just as I’ve had to deal with the racist notions and memes I was exposed to in my youth, in order to understand and overcome any residual racist reflexes, I had to recognize the homophobia that still exists in our culture, in order to understand and rise above it. I take no pride in being either white or straight, because I had no choice in the matter. But – because black people have been told by so many that they’re inferior – if I were black, I’d embrace the Black Pride movement. Because of all the shaming and discrimination aimed at gay people, I fully support the Gay Pride movement as a corrective to intolerance.

Being openly gay isn’t easy when you have to deal with haters; but it’s so much better than having to live a lie. Living in the closet inevitably takes its emotional toll, and some closeted gay people end their own lives rather than coming out. Lindsay describes his own coming out as both a liberation and a “homecoming.” Gay and proud, he says he knows that there will always be homophobes, but he no longer fears them.

 

 

Overcoming homophobia, Part 1

My first memory related to homophobia is from middle school. I was about to attend my very first dance, at an international school in Vienna, and was talking to a friend who had already been to school dances. Asking for instruction, I reached out as if to a dance partner, left arm up, right arm at hip level. Jumping back, he said “What are you, a homo?” I’d never heard the term before. I didn’t know anything about homosexuality, except that it was bad.

Like most of my generation, in my teens I heard “fag” jokes, and my image of a gay person was the stereotype of the effeminate “fairy.” That image changed in high school, when I was groped by a “normal looking” man at a news stand in Columbus, Georgia. I was scared and disgusted, and practically ran from the store. I got propositioned by men a few times as a young man, and never had a positive, non-threatening encounter with a gay man until years later. When I was an Army Lieutenant, I was propositioned by a bisexual Major. When I thought about men having sex with men, I felt disgust.

I’ve already written about my time as a race relations educator in the Army.  Although I wasn’t raised in a racist family,  during my training at the Defense Race Relations Institute I realized that you can’t grow up in a racist society, untouched by racism’s taint. As I became aware of the need to work on ridding myself of my own residual racism, I also became aware of my homophobia. I’d grasped the principle that people often fear things they don’t understand;  and I certainly didn’t understand homosexuality.

Over time I came to the realization that homosexuality wasn’t a choice, and that the stereotypes I’d associated with being gay weren’t accurate. I saw the movie “The Boys in the Band” and for the first time realized that gay people are just as varied, as individuals, as straight people. I read a speculative fiction story about a future dystopian society where homosexuality was the legally-enforced norm, and heterosexuals were persecuted as “queers.”  It really made me wonder what it would be like to be labeled a “queer” just because of who I make love with.

After I got out of the Army, my then-wife Doris and I (we’re still good friends) visited a former soldier I’d worked, traveled, and even shared hotel rooms with during my time as a race relations educator. Although he’d successfully passed for straight during his Army service and I’d never suspected otherwise, seeing him in civilian life it was quickly apparent  that he was gay. He revealed that he’d always felt very attracted to me. I suddenly realized that I’d had many positive, non-threatening encounters with a gay man whom I considered my friend. And he’d never hit on me! It was a major breakthrough. Thank you, Scott, wherever you are!

In grad school I conscientiously worked on chipping-away at my residual homophobia, knowing that I’d have gay clients in therapy. My real-life test came when I attended an afternoon immersion-experience workshop at a psychology conference, titled “Being Gay for Part of a Day.”  We were split up into small groups by our gay facilitators, and asked to role-play being gay, in a bar with other gay men. (Each group had at least one gay facilitator in it.) I’ve acted on stage, and did my best to get into character, so as to make the most out of out of this educational experience. As instructed, I chose the man in my group that I thought I might be most attracted to if I were gay, and focused my attention on him.  After we ended the exercise and I broke character, it quickly became apparent that the guy was convinced that I was really gay, and either on-the-make or still in denial about my sexual orientation. At first, I felt humiliated and defensive. I protested that I was happily married and tried my best to convince him that it had just been an act; but my efforts just seemed to reinforce his belief. It was a liberating experience when I decided that it was okay for him to be convinced that I was gay. I just let it go and was immediately at peace, because I’d internalized the belief that I’d need in order to do therapy with gay people: There’s nothing wrong with being gay.

By the time I became a professional therapist, I felt comfortable working with gay (lesbian, trans, etc.) clients, many of whom were confused or conflicted about their sexual orientation/identity. Many were dealing with their own homophobia. As a non-judgmental straight male, I was in a good position to validate the client’s sexuality. More than once I said something like this: “I hear that you don’t want to be gay, but you can’t deny your feelings. I’d say that what’s important for now is to accept that you’re a sexual person, like everybody else, and that’s a good thing. In time, you’ll figure out what prefix – hetero, homo, bi, trans, whatever – to put in front of it. I just hope you know that there’s nothing wrong with you if it turns out that you’re gay. In the meantime, what’s important is that you’re a loving and sexually responsible person.”

In my next post I’ll tell you about my final breakthrough in overcoming my own homophobia.

Family systems therapy

Although I’ve never been a parent, during my thirty-plus years as a psychotherapist I taught parenting skills to many people in individual, family and group therapy, as well as community consultation and education activities. Even stable, functional parents might sometimes need coaching to improve their parenting skills, while some dysfunctional parents might not even grasp the concept, because they unquestioningly raise their children the way they were raised. The most dysfunctional parents can’t distinguish their child’s needs from their own. They rationalize abusive behavior, telling the child that they did it “for your own good” or “because you deserved it.” No child deserves to be abused, but many people have been taught by their families to blame themselves for abuse they suffered in childhood.

Family systems theory provides a helpful framework for doing family therapy, because the focus isn’t on simply achieving symptom remission in the child whose “problem behavior” is what brought the family into therapy. (“She throws temper tantrums.” “He can’t stop wetting the bed.”) Instead, the focus is on the family dynamics that perpetuate the symptom or problem behavior. The therapist avoids labeling Johnny as the identified patient when she says to the family, “This isn’t just Johnny’s problem, it’s a family problem.” If the therapist can facilitate specific changes in the dynamics of the family system, the problem behavior or symptom resolves itself. Dysfunctional families can learn to be more functional. I’ll give three examples: temper tantrums, bedwetting, and compulsive masturbation.

Tom and Linda have brought their daughter Sue in for family counseling because she throws temper tantrums.  She’s the identified patient in the parents’ minds, but her behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Tom and Linda say that they’ve tried everything, but the tantrums have just gotten worse. I explain that it’s normal for children to test the limits and try out new behaviors, to see what they can get away with. The first step in this family system interventions is to figure out the goal of Sue’s behavior – usually power or attention. If it’s power, Sue has learned from experience that she can wear one or both parents down, and they end up giving her something she wants (ice cream, a toy, staying up past her bedtime) in order to get her to stop. If her goal is attention, she’s learned from experience that one or both of her parents will hover over her and give their full attention to her, afraid to leave her alone when she’s having a tantrum.

In such cases I’d explain the behavioral psychology term positive reinforcement: rewarding any behavior, whether it’s seen as positive or negative,  tends to cause an increase in the frequency of its occurrence. Negative reinforcement isn’t  punishment, but rather the withholding of positive reinforcement. So if the child’s goal is power,  never give into her demands, in order to get her to stop screaming. (Both parents have to be consistent in their use of systematic reinforcement.) If it’s attention, both parents need to ignore her when she’s in tantrum mode, and give her positive attention when she’s behaving. Ignoring a tantrum can be very hard for parents at first, but when their response changes in a consistent manner, the tantrums stop.

I’ve already written about my “one-session enuresis cure,” and my family system intervention that enabled instant success in helping a ten-year-old boy to “keep a dry bed” after weeks or months of bedwetting. The mother came in with her miserable, humiliated son. She and her husband had “tried everything,” but the bedwetting was now a nightly occurrence. I explained that the cause of the enuresis was anxiety (“nerves”), and that anything family members did to increase his anxiety would just make the problem persist. I was told that the father yelled at him and spanked him when he wet his bed, and his siblings ridiculed him. We came up with a plan to change the family system response to Junior’s problem: No threats, shaming or corporal punishment. No yelling at him, or taunts from his siblings, etc. There was more to my one-session family intervention (involving the use of strategic metaphor and storytelling), but the mother was evidently successful in implementing our plan. When the family system response changed in a specified way, the symptom immediately went away.

A classic family systems technique called prescribing the symptom can be illustrated by the case history of a twelve-year-old “identified patient” (Ron), brought in by his red-faced parents (Tina and George), because they couldn’t stop him from compulsively masturbating. George and Tina were conservatively religious. They’d tried everything from prayer to punishment to pastoral counseling, and nothing had worked. At first it just seemed like Ron was always playing with himself whenever he thought he was alone. His parents had taught him that it was sinful, but he said that he just couldn’t help himself. Lately he seemed to be less cautious about when and where he masturbated, and his parents felt helpless.

Being family systems-savvy, the therapist knew that Ron’s “compulsion” was a symptom brought about by his parents’ response, and that Ron could control his autoerotic behavior if he felt motivated to do so. Paradoxically, by claiming to be powerless over his own behavior, Ron had power over his clueless, humiliated parents. The cure was to prescribe the symptom, and change the power dynamic within the family. So the therapist might need to convince the parents that private masturbation was something they could accept and not over-react to, as long as the behavior was no longer compulsive and indiscreet.

Once Ron heard his parents agree, in session, that he wouldn’t be criticized or punished for engaging in a normal sexual behavior – as long as it was done in private – the therapist might say something like this: “Now, what I say to Ron next might surprise you two but, believe me, this will work. Ron, paradoxically, your problem is that at this stage of hormonal development, you’re not masturbating enough! You say you average maybe four times a day? I think you need to do it at least five or six times a day, until you eventually reach the point where you feel like you have control again.”

By prescribing the symptom, the therapist has temporarily entered the family system and has taken the power out of (ahem) Ron’s hands. In effect, he has said to George and Tina that Ron is no longer responsible for/in control of his sexual excesses, he is. This defeats Ron’s tactic of being out-of-control and frustrating all attempts by his parents to establish control over this behavior. This change in the power dynamic – in behavioral terms – extinguishes the undesirable behavior. Ron no longer has a motivation to act like his behavior is out-of-control, because his parents are no longer freaking-out. A successful family systems-oriented therapist can accurately assess family dynamics and craft effective interventions that help make families more functional and harmonious.

 

Ericksonian hypnotherapy

Dr. Milton Erickson was one of the giants of psychotherapy, as evidenced by the fact that the largest convocation  of psychotherapists in the world, the Evolution of Psychotherapy conferences (held every four years), are organized by the Milton Erickson Foundation. He has been called the father of modern hypnosis. He not only developed a powerful alternative to traditional hypnosis, but introduced a new model of solution-focused brief psychotherapy.

I explained traditional hypnosis in a previous post. Ericksonian hypnotherapy was something new. Whereas traditional hypnotic inductions are characterized by commands and direct suggestions, implying that the therapist wields some kind of power over the “subject,” Ericksonian inductions use indirect suggestion, metaphors, and storytelling to induce trance states, circumventing client resistance to complying with the imperative voice. (You should, you will, etc.) Trance-inducing suggestions like “Your eyelids are getting very heavy and you want to close your eyes” were replaced by indirect suggestions such as “As you relax, you may find that you want to close your eyes.” Instead of hypnotic prescriptions for a person in trance, an Ericksonian hypnotherapist might say such things as “… and as you practice self-hypnosis, you may find that it’s easier for you to ________ .” Erickson also developed non-verbal methods for inducing trances.

Erickson’s life story is remarkable. Long story short, he was stricken with polio at age 17. Told that he would never walk, he taught himself to walk again. Told that he was too disabled to work, he went to medical school  and became a psychiatrist, and later a psychologist. He trained himself to be acutely aware of changes in peoples’ posture, respiration, vocalizations, skin tone (blanching or flushing) and pupillary dilation. He learned to “read people” and their immediate responses to his therapeutic interventions, adjusting his techniques to the unique individual and situation.

Erickson recognized that trances occur naturally every day in all of our lives. (There are many kinds of trance states, including confusion, daydreaming, rumination and jealousy.) He learned to induce them in non-traditional ways and to utilize the power of the subconscious mind to focus on solutions to the presenting problem that brought the person to therapy. He could induce a trance with a handshake or a story. Sometimes he used a confusion technique, framing his words with a deliberate complexity that caused confusion. This put the listener off-guard and receptive to suggestions aimed at the subconscious. The immediate results of some of his interventions would appear miraculous to someone unaware of the techniques being employed.

A well-told story can put listeners in a trance. Erickson was a master storyteller, as well as a master at crafting strategic metaphors that were aimed at the subconscious mind, pointing toward solutions. His verbal presentations – whether in conversation or telling a story – were often layered, talking about one thing on the surface, but using metaphors designed to become embedded at the subconscious level. Sometimes he’d prescribe specific activities related to the metaphors he employed, to amplify the embedding.

An example of this is a case history I remember reading, about a client who was an alcoholic. Erickson first asked questions until he felt he had a good understanding of the client’s life situation and his history of problem drinking. Then he gave a rambling discourse about cacti. “There are many varieties of cacti, but they all have one thing in common. They hardly ever need rain, because they have an amazing capacity to retain all the moisture they need. It’s like they’re never thirsty.” Having planted a strategic metaphor about thirst and resiliency, he then directed his client to take a hike on a specific nearby hiking trail (Erickson lived in Phoenix) the next day and study all of the different kinds of cacti. As I recall the case history, the client got and stayed sober after this strategic intervention. There are many such documented stories of Erickson’s successful brief therapies.

In his later life Erickson suffered from post-polio syndrome and lived with daily, severe pain, which he controlled using self-hypnosis. He knew first-hand how to harness the amazing powers of the subconscious mind, and taught many others how to do this. He frequently taught his clients self-hypnosis, for pain control as well a for anxiety and other psychopathologies. He was the founding president of the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis, and had a major influence on brief therapy, strategic therapy, family systems therapy, and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).

Albert Ellis

In my post “The Gloria Sessions” I wrote about a three-part video series titled “Three Approaches to Psychotherapy”  in which a brave young single mother named Gloria had brief therapy sessions with three of the twentieth century’s giants of psychotherapy. The three therapists were Dr. Carl Rogers (client centered therapy), Dr. Fritz Perls (gestalt therapy), and Dr. Albert Ellis (rational therapy). Little did I know  when I saw the series in grad school that I would actually meet two of these luminaries. I’ve already described my encounter with Carl Rogers. I’ll conclude this post with an account of my brief exchange with Albert Ellis.

Ellis is best known as the creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), and is widely considered one of the most influential psychotherapists since Freud. I first came across his work as a teenager, when I read his 1958 book Sex Without Guilt, which made the case that guilt about responsible sexual behavior is irrational. This was my first introduction to rational thinking, which made a lot of sense to me. However, parts of the book were (in retrospect) just his claptrap notions, like his theory of homosexuality – which was still considered a mental illness back then. He corrected his errors in later editions of the book.

Ellis was a foundational pioneer of what is now known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and I consider his A New Guide to Rational Living to be his single most important book. (He wrote or co-authored more than eighty books and many academic papers.) When I watched him in “Three Approaches to Psychotherapy,” I didn’t like his therapeutic style. He was the opposite of sensitive, gentle, avuncular Carl Rogers; he was a fast-talking, abrasive New Yorker, who seemed impatient in his dealings with Gloria. But I couldn’t argue with his logic, and Gloria seemed to get something from the session.

Although behavioral therapies weren’t popular in my humanistic Masters program, I started learning and practicing rational thinking in the eighties, and began teaching it in my clinical practice. Being a rational thinker has spared me a lot of unnecessary pain, and I’ve been known to say that if I had a Gospel to preach as a therapist, it was the Gospel of Rational Thinking. REBT focuses on the rational analysis of irrational and self-defeating beliefs and behaviors. Ellis continued to write and lecture and do therapy until shortly before his death in 2007, at the age of 93. He has been charitably described as having a “provocative personality.” I was in the audience for several of his presentations at Evolution of Psychotherapy conferences over the years, and witnessed his provocative style first-hand.

For one thing, his presentations were laced with profanity, and his response to any objections about his language was usually  along the lines of “F _ _ _ you!” If you didn’t like the words he chose, that was your problem. He was still the abrasive stereotypical New Yorker I’d first seen on videotape in grad school; but I’d come to appreciate his personality and his delivery, as well as his contributions to psychotherapy. He made the point in his public speaking that it’s what you say that  matters, not so much how you say it. In his own way he echoed Fritz Perls’ idea, “I am not in this world to live up to your expectations and you are not in this world to live up to mine.”

At an Evolution of Psychotherapy conference I happened to find myself on the same elevator as Dr. Ellis and his small entourage. Seizing on the opportunity, I asked him, “Dr. Ellis, didn’t you write a book titled Sex Without Guilt?” “Yes I did. Did you read it?”  “Yes I did.” “Did it help you?” “I’ve read several of your books and I think I’m a better man for it.” Dr. Ellis grinned at me and said, “I’ll bet you’re a sexier  man for having read Sex Without Guilt, too!”

I don’t know about that, but I do know that Ellis’ influence made me a better therapist. He enhanced my ability to reach some clients, helping them to understand that they didn’t need to feel guilty about being a sexual person, with sexual feelings and needs.