It was the summer of 1933, and Albert Ellis was quite angry at himself because he could not talk to women.
“I was born and reared to be shy and scared.” says Ellis of his upbringing. “Throughout my childhood and teens I had a real social phobia."
Albert Ellis would go on to become one of the most influential psychologists next to Freud and Carl Rogers. His interest in psychology started in his early teens. He wanted to understand human behavior, and this began with studying himself.
“I viewed public speaking as a fate worse than public masturbation. I opened my physically large mouth only among a group of my close friends. I avoided telling jokes for fear of flubbing the punch lines.
“I said nothing, literally nothing, about my feelings for the pretty young girls that I kept falling madly–in fact, obsessively-compulsively–in love with. As for approaching any of the young women I immoderately lusted after from the age of twelve onward, forget it! I heard and saw nothing but ‘evil' and ‘horrible’ rejection–so I kept my big trap shut. In spite of my deranged passion for everything in skirts, up to the age of twenty my dating amounted to zero. Yes, nothing, nil, none, zero.”
Ellis beat himself up for his social phobia, particularly where it related to women. He knew what needed to be done, and his inability to take action caused him to beat himself up for that as well. “I knew I was scared witless. From reading, and my observations of my more popular male friends, I even knew what to do about it–take risks. I didn’t. I decided to–and didn’t. I almost began to–and froze."
“Naturally, I beat myself for all this evasion. I knew what I wanted–and I knew that I was copping out. So I castigated myself for, first, avoiding “dangerous” social situations, and, second, feeling desperately anxious and stubbornly refusing to go through the pain of overcoming it."
“I continued to put myself down for the efforts I made to overcome my social phobias. I read many articles and books on psychology and philosophy, particularly from the age of 16 onward.” Based on his readings of early behaviorists, Ellis decided to first try to overcome his public speaking phobia through deconditioning. He anxiously and painfully gave speeches.
Ellis discovered that firstly “he didn’t die.” And that his anxiety soon began to wear off. He found that, by doing it enough times, he was able to speak in public–and was quite good at it. This was the beginning of exposure therapy.
“What is more important to me than public speaking?” he said to himself. “What do I really want to do that I’m completely avoiding doing? Obviously: approaching the 100% of women that I lust after and want to mate with. I’d even like to marry a few of them! But what am I going to do about that?”
Ellis lived near the Bronx Botanical Gardens, which he describes as “one of the loveliest places in New York.”His normal course of action had been to go to the park and sit on a bench a few feet away from a woman on another bench.
“But no matter how much I told myself the time was ripe to approach,” says Ellis, “I soon copped out and walked away, cursing myself for my abysmal cowardice. I knew, of course, especially after overcoming my public speaking panic, that I wouldn’t die of rejection. But I still felt much too uncomfortable to try even a single approach.
“During the summer of 1933, when I was on vacation from college, about to go back for my final year, I gave myself a historic homework assignment that greatly changed my own life–and in some ways changed the history of psychotherapy."
“I spoke to myself very strongly. Albert, look!’ I said. You forced yourself to get over the horror of making public speeches and now you’re goddamned good at doing that. You actually enjoy it! So why not do the same with your silly terror of pick up women? No nonsense! Do, don’t stew!"
“My assignment to myself was simple. I would go to the Bronx Botanical Gardens every day when it wasn’t raining in the month of July; I would look for women sitting alone on park benches; and, instead of sitting a bench away, as I always anxiously did, I would sit on the same bench with them. Not in their lap–but on the same goddamned bench. I would then give myself one minute–one lousy minute!–to talk to each one of them. No debate, no caviling, no nonsense!! If they bit me, they bit me! One lousy minute!"
“That was a very wise homework assignment that I gave myself. For I was knowingly risking failure and rejection; and I was doing what was most uncomfortable for me to do. Moreover, I was giving myself no time to procrastinate about trying, no time to ruminate and thereby to build up my worrying."
“Well, I forthrightly did it. I went to the park every day in July and found–count em!–130 women sitting alone on the park bench: All manners, shapes and sizes. Certainly enough to provide me with reasonable excuses–that they were too young, too old, too short, or too tall to talk to. But I allowed myself no excuse whatsoever–none! I sat next to all of them–the entire 130."
“I found that 30 of them immediately waltzed away. They rejected me before I even got going! But, I said to myself, strongly, Albert, that’s okay. That leaves me a sample of an even hundred–good for research purposes! So I continued my research. I spoke to the entire hundred of these women, and within one lousy minute! About the birds, the bees, the flowers, the trees, their knitting, their reading–about anything and everything. Mind you, I had never done this a single time before. But I was determined! On to the fray!"
Ellis was successful that month. But not in the way one would guess. “For out of the hundred women I talked to, I was finally able to make only one date–and she didn’t show up! But I found, empirically, that nothing terrible happened. No one took a butcher knife and cut my balls off. No one vomited and ran away. No one called a cop. In fact, I had a hundred pleasant conversations, and began to get quite good at talking to strange women in strange places. So good, in fact, that for my second hundred subjects I became more persuasive, and was able to make three different dates with women. None of whom, fortunately, I married."
“Once again, as happened with my public speaking, I was able to make a 180-degree change. For the rest of my life I have been able to talk to women whenever I wish to do so–on planes, trains, elevators, park benches–you name it! And with one of these pickups I actually did live for a while!” (The Albert Ellis Reader, 1998)
I write about human behavior, meditation, body awareness, and a variety of other things that pique my interest.