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REBT and The Work of Byron Katie – A Comparison

Table of Contents

by Heidi Hanson

artist, writer, trauma survivor

guru-analytics1500(Guru Analytics Article 2)

The Work of Byron Katie and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (a cognitive therapy developed by Albert Ellis) have many similarities. Since I have been both a student of The Work and a group leader for SMART Recovery, a recovery group that uses REBT to help people overcome addictive behaviors, in this article I am going  to clarify the differences and similarities between the two.

Note that the reason there are plus and minus signs throughout this article is I am tallying all the pluses and minuses of The Work in all articles for the last article that is a meta-analysis of The Work.

Both REBT and The Work revolve around the question, “Is it true?” This is called inquiry in The Work and disputation in REBT. But they have many differences:

1. Different Format.

The other questions around the central question of ” Is it True?” are different:

The Work – The Four Questions

1. Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)

2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)

3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?

4. Who would you be without the thought?

Turn the thought around (the turn-around)


A. Activating Event – My partner yelled at me

B. Belief (irrational belief in the form of a demand) – My partner should not yell at me

C. Consequences (emotional and behavioral) – I eat a bag of chips. I feel upset.

D. Disputation (dispute or question the belief) – Is it true? Is there any law in the universe that says partners must not yell?

E. Effective New Thinking – There is no law in the universe that says…. It is not a must but I would prefer he not yell.

F. New Feeling – calm, relaxed, spacious, open

2. The Work Questions Many Kinds of Statements; REBT Only Questions Demands.

REBT isolates specific types of statements called “demands” or “should statements,” statements that use words such as must, should, have to, etc., and only does inquiry with them, not with any other kind of belief. REBT focuses solely on demands in order to prioritize the area of deepest disturbance and violence.

Note that other cognitive therapies branch out to the other types of cognitive distortions, in a sense these are like the second highest priority areas. For example, in the book Feeling Good by David Burns there is a handy list of 12 Cognitive Distortions (the Demand or Should Statement is one of them): J – Jumping to conclusions, A – All or nothing thinking, M – Mental filter, M – Maximizing / minimizing, E – Emotional reasoning, D – Downplaying the positive, S – Should statements, L – Labeling, O – Overgeneralization, P – Personalization (The acronym spells JAMMED with SLOP).

The Work begins with encouraging a judgment by having participants fill out the “judge your neighbor worksheet.” Although this process might end up as a demand such as, “My brother should not use drugs,”  what I have seen result is a whole variety of types of statements like, “My son is disobedient”, “I was sexually abused as a child”, “I am fat”, ” My father was aloof,” “I hate her.” The Work accepts a much wider range of statement types than REBT.

3. The Work Does not address Labels in the Same Way.

REBT (at least how we do it in SMART Recovery) also deals with statements in which there is a Label (note that Labeling is one of the Cognitive Distortions listed above). Labels are not part of the disputation process but are sought out and eliminated from one’s communications. For example, “I am an alcoholic” is considered a label that one should dispense with, and instead say, “I used to have trouble with my drinking interfering in my life” or something to that effect. If a Label arises in The Work, it is not defined as such but is put though the same inquiry as all other statements.

4. The Work Leave Out Practical Problems; REBT Distinguishes Between Emotional and Practical Problems.

REBT makes a distinction between emotional and practical problems and helps first with the emotional and then with the practical. Byron Katie focuses on the emotional problems just in the sense that people naturally hone in on difficult emotions most of the time, probably the idea is that this in and of itself can open up the way for practical problems to be solved.

5. Byron Katie Lets Go of All Attachments; REBT Identifies Important Life Goals.

In REBT you maintain a human attachment to goals. Before doing REBT you are asked about your goals in life and become aware of how your harmful beliefs (demands) are hindering them by causing addictive behavior. My understanding is the state demonstrated by Byron Katie is one in which there is no attachment.

6. The Work Expects Nonattachment; REBT Uses Preferences.

(-) Also, in REBT, we turn our musts into psychologically balanced preferences, which are realistic. In other words, one may ask, “Is it true my mother should stop yelling at me?” Using REBT one would end up with the statement, “No, but I would prefer that she not yell at me,” bringing about emotional balance. With The Work, my take on it is that one focuses on finding a way of totally accepting that person and not even holding a preference, just loving them exactly as they are. The preference is a reflection of where most of us are in our development. For most of us it is still helpful to know what our preferences are in life, and unrealistic to be completely unattached, although anyone is free to attempt complete nonattachment.  

In differentiating practical problems, focusing on goals and creating realistic preferences, REBT is more practical in terms of helping us to effectively handle the external world.  

7. The Work Risks Invalidating People’s Truth.

I heard of a therapist who went to Byron Katie and said it is “damaging” to say some people’s statements are “not true”; to say so is to invalidate the person’s feelings and their truth. I agree with this. The exception is the statements that are demands. Demands are always false and are always harmful, but other statements could be true and thus I agree it could be invalidating to insist they are not true. REBT avoids the danger of  invalidation by focusing on demands.

8. The Work has the turn-around.

(+) The turn-around of The Work is a useful tool to highlight projection, which is an ego defense mechanism, and also to increase mental flexibility, reduce perception of duality, and take responsibility for our contribution to the situation. This is not used in REBT. (Note that for trauma victims the turn-around could be re-traumatizing, discussed in the previous article about the Work and PTSD)

9. Focused on the Mind, Not on Emotions.

(-) Both REBT and The Work are cognitive therapies in that they explore how our thoughts influence our emotions. I would guess that therapists who focus on emotional processing may not think addressing thinking is the one key to solving everything like both The Work and REBT seem to imply at times. I personally think it is good to work with both the thinking and also if someone needs to process emotions work with them in that way too – in a sense this is balancing both masculine (mind, thought, insight) and feminine (emotion, process, flow, energy).

In conclusion, REBT is more precise than The Work by focusing solely on demands, which reduces the possibility of invalidation of personal truth. REBT has some aspects that address practical issues in life, like identifying practical problems as distinguished from emotional problems, setting goals, and forming preferences. The Work adds the turn-around, which can be helpful in addressing projection. Both are cognitive approaches, and do not address somatic and emotional level processes.


Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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