Albert Ellis, the founder of cognitive behavioral therapy, has spent the past 50 years encouraging patients to “forget their goddamn past!” The best way to cure people’s unhappiness, he says, is to just tell them—firmly—to stop acting irrationally. The author of more than 75 self-help books and 400 songs, including “Beautiful Hang-Up” and “Whine, Whine, Whine,” Ellis has “almost died” multiple times and is now, thanks to a recent operation, missing his major intestines. Still, he’s teaching and writing at an alarming pace and was recently named, by the American Psychological Association, the second-most-influential therapist of the century. He spoke to me in a nightgown, under the sheets of his king-sized bed, with the help of his doting, blond assistant.
When did you decide that Freudian analysis was a waste of time? Freud was full of horseshit. He invented people’s problems and what to do about them. Tell me one thing about the past. I’ll prove it’s not what upset you. It’s how you philosophized about it that made you disturbed.
If Freud is horseshit, why are so many people still spending hours on the couch, talking about their dreams? Because people are crazy and stupid! And especially psychologists and therapists are stupid! That’s the main reason.
Many of your books include charts, questionnaires and equations, which show readers how to more efficiently deal with their unhappiness. Are there dangers in seeing deep mental processes as a formula? It’s not a formula. It’s several different formulas. I encourage USA, Unconditional Self Acceptance. I accept me, myself, my personality, whether or not I do well. I prefer to do well, but I don’t put my worth on the line. And I accept you—with your [cough attack] stupidity and failings—whether or not you do well. And I accept life, which is bad, without demanding that it be exactly the way I want it to be. I avoid the words “should,” “ought” and “must.”
Do you think depression is indulgent? Yes, it’s “I run the fucking universe and it should do my bidding.” That’s arrogant and indulgent.
You seem very comfortable swearing—in writing as well. Much more than your average 91-year old. I was the first psychologist at the American Psychological Associate Convention in Chicago in 1950 who was able to use “fuck” and “shit.” The rest were scared shitless. It strikes home. It’s direct. It doesn’t beat around the bush.
If you had 50 more years, where would you take your theories?
[Assistant interrupts: “He does have 50 more years. He has to. At least! He promised!”]
I want to teach my therapy to every school child from nursery school onward so they can all stop upsetting themselves. It can be taught to everyone who isn’t feeble-minded.
What are you working on now? I’ve written about five or six books recently, since I had my intestines out. And this one [points to a pad of paper] is on how to conquer envy and jealousy. I’m also working on the second volume of my autobiography. It’s about my sex and love life and all the famous people I met and how idiotic most of them were.
Do you apply your theories to yourself? Yes, I used them on myself. First my own feelings improved, and then my sex, love and marriage feelings got a lot better because I got informed how to satisfy women. It did me a world of good.
[Assistant: “And Al, what about more recently? Tell her how about the doctors.”]
They told me I’d have to have my major intestines out and I said, “Too fucking bad! So I’ll have them out. It won’t kill me, and if does, I won’t suffer after my death.” There is nothing deeper than a person’s philosophy. I refuse to make myself crazy.