Albert Ellis: Father of Cognitive Therapy Dr. Albert Ellis was sometimes called the Lenny Bruce of psychotherapy: He was funny, profane and controversial. His theories on cognitive therapy, first presented in the mid-1950s, challenged the thinking of Sigmund Freud. By the time he died this week at age 93, Ellis had become considered by many to be as influential as Freud.
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Albert Ellis: Father of Cognitive Therapy

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Albert Ellis: Father of Cognitive Therapy

Albert Ellis: Father of Cognitive Therapy

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up: Getting a steal on some hot items off the Web.

But first, Dr. Albert Ellis was sometimes called the Lenny Bruce of psychotherapy. He was funny, profane and controversial. When he first presented some of his theories in the mid-1950s, they were considered controversial because they seemed to challenge some of the thinking of Sigmund Freud. By the time he died this week at the age of 93, Dr. Ellis had become, considered by many of his peers, to be just about as influential as Freud.

Dr. John Norcross is a psychologist who worked with Albert Ellis and knew him well. He joins us from member station WVIA in Pittston, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Norcross, thanks very much for being with us.

Dr. JOHN NORCROSS (Department of Psychology, University of Scranton): You're welcome.

SIMON: And how would you define this phrase, cognitive therapy, with which he is associated?

Dr. NORCROSS: It's a brand of psychotherapy that posits that it's not the life events, it's not our early childhood, nearly as much as it is our thinking that determines our feelings - be that anxiety or depression. Therefore, in order to change how we feel, we fundamentally need to change how we think.

SIMON: How do this work for somebody?

Dr. NORCROSS: People would come in and one would take a history and within -somewhere between five and 20 sessions, Ellis and other cognitive therapists would focus specifically on the underlying rational thought. They may be over-generalizing. For example, since I've been dumped by one person I'll never have another successful experience. Or the patient is only looking at the negative events rather than the bigger picture. So once you identify these dysfunctional thoughts, you develop specific strategies to change your thinking.

SIMON: I apologize in advance for reducing everything to a baseball metaphor, but it does strike me that one might be apt here. There are great hitters who will tell you that when they are in a slump, the worst thing they can do is go to the plate and say, gee, I was out the last 10 times, the odds are overwhelming. I'll be out this time. Instead, they go up to the plate saying, this is a whole new opportunity for me, there's no reason why I should be out now.

Dr. NORCROSS: And Al Ellis followed exactly that philosophy. He was concerned about us getting into these negative, self-fulfilling prophecies instead expectancy really determines much of our daily reality. Reality isn't simply what happens to us. It's how we think, perceive and respond to that world.

SIMON: Is this the sort of thing that sounds more simple for a human being to do than it is?

Dr. NORCROSS: Yes, it's a homeostatic neurosis that we all seemed to be born with, and Al Ellis thought we probably all have a neurotic predisposition rooted in our biology to take us toward the negative side. So he thought it was a lifelong challenge to stay healthy in our thinking.

SIMON: And when he had reverses in life, did he take his own advice?

Dr. NORCROSS: Al was distinguished in practicing what he preached, was married three times. Later in his life, he had a series of medical complications and legal entanglements. And instead of blaming the situation and the people involved, he worked very hard to keep himself clear in thinking.

SIMON: Dr. Norcross, thanks very much for being with is.

Dr. NORCROSS: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Dr. John Norcross. He's a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

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