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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

Feeling Better vs. Getting Better

Here to help you get better, not feel better

One distinguished principle of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), an effective psychotherapeutic method originated by Albert Ellis, is that practitioners of this technique do not aim to help people feel better though to get better.

Inviting an obvious question, a person may ask, “What’s the difference between feeling better and getting better?” A brief review of terms may be of use in order to proceed with this blogpost.

Defining terms

By “feel,” I’m referring to the experience of an emotion or bodily sensation. Though used colloquially to reflect thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and perceivably unexplainable experiences (e.g., I don’t know what I feel like eating), the word “feel” has a specific meaning in REBT.

Likewise, when using the word “feeling,” the same definitional standard is applied. Therefore, saying something like, “I’m feeling like you don’t love me,” is an improper use of the word.

Generally speaking, if you can substitute a thought, belief, or contemplation in place of the words “feel” or “feeling,” it isn’t an emotion or bodily sensation you’re referencing. As such, saying, “I’m thinking you don’t love me,” is a proper modification to the term.

As well, when I’m speaking of “emotion,” I’m largely referring to joy, fear, anger, sorrow, disgust, or surprise as primary emotions. Secondary emotions (i.e., guilty, hurt, proud, etc.) and tertiary emotions (i.e., apathetic, enraged, ecstatic, etc.) are typically influenced by thoughts and beliefs.

When I discuss the terms “get” or “getting,” I’m referencing success in attaining, obtaining, achieving, or experiencing an outcome or goal. If I get the general principles of REBT, thus getting better in the process, I’ve attained knowledge and experienced an improved outcome.

Admittedly a subjective concept, when I mention “better,” I’m speaking of an enhanced or more effective type or quality, and partly or fully recovered from illness, injury, or mental and emotional disturbance; less unwell. Also, each person’s version of “better” may differ.

What others have to say about feeling better vs. getting better

Definitional terms aside, I appreciate that when undergoing REBT training from The Albert Ellis Institute, one trainer stated, “You don’t want to reinforce dependency,” because the aim of this technique is to “make clients their own therapists.”

This is a profoundly different approach than many other psychotherapeutic interventions currently in practice. When discussing her late husband, Albert Ellis, Debbie Joffee Ellis once stated:

My husband studied at Columbia University and at that time, he had no choice but to study Freud and Psychoanalysis and to practice it with people. And as he did that, he noticed that some people were feeling better but they were not getting better, they were not getting to the root of the issue in order that they could stop creating their emotional suffering and start practicing healthy thinking and behavior.

REBT practitioners are trained to understand that catharsis—the process of releasing and thereby providing relief from suppressed or repressed emotions—may be meaningful in a session though this effect fades relatively quickly. At that point, people revert back to where they began.

Clients feel better when venting in a session though they don’t get better by learning how to cope with similar matters elsewhere or at different times. Suppose that whenever it rained, you had to drive to your local repair shop to have windshield wipers installed.

The catch is that the wipers are made of recycled material and last up to 48 hours or so. If it rains three days from now or if your windshield becomes dirty and your wipers have disintegrated, you’ll need to revisit the repair shop.

Would you prefer this approach to problem resolution? Would you instead like to know how to install your own wipers—those which last longer than disposable blades?

This is the essence of REBT. Helping people get better is a more effective long-term strategy than simply helping them feel better for a relatively short period of time.

Per one source, “REBT largely helps clients reduce or eliminate symptoms by uprooting the offending philosophies giving rise to them. It teaches clients how to get better by adopting a non-demanding philosophy, rather than temporarily feel better by improving their immediate circumstances.”

An offending philosophy manifests in the form of a rigid demand, generally by way of a should, must, or ought-type narrative. As an example, person X may demand, “People must not make me feel worse than I already do!”

Though person X may inflexibly yearn for her irrational requirement to be true, others simply aren’t beholden to her command. Therefore, a non-demanding philosophy would be for person X to flexibly suggest, “Though I’d like for people to make me feel better, no one but me is responsible for how I feel.”

In this way, person X can get better by taking personal ownership for her own feelings. Since coaching people in the ‘90s, and from the time of having begun to professionally practice mental health care in 2011, I’ve come to realize there is no foreseeable endpoint with self-improvement.

Sometimes, clients with whom I work express the notion that through treatment they may one day be free of self-disturbing thoughts and beliefs. Yet, as one source correctly suggests, “Ellis believed that we can’t stop ourselves entirely from having irrational beliefs, but we can get better at disputing them.”

Getting better can be uncomfortable and difficult work. After all, it isn’t as though most of us developed irrational beliefs overnight. Consequently, if takes time—perhaps even a lifetime—to get better, so I practice REBT on a daily basis in both my personal and professional life.

Of this, one source reports, “REBT is a life-long procedure, and the best way to get better and stay better through it is to challenge irrational beliefs, alter irrational ‘musts,’ and turn unpleasant emotions into more uplifting ones. Simply said, the only way to improve is to put in the effort to alter our views. And for this, time and practice are necessary.”

If feeling better may occur in a session and this effect fades relatively quickly, and getting better is the aim of REBT application over time, then staying better is the result of having consistently gotten better—and by understanding that the goal in REBT isn’t related to perfection.

Even as a licensed counselor and social worker, and a certified REBT practitioner, I’ll never fully expunge my mind of irrational beliefs. Addressing this matter, one source opines:

[T]here is usually no way to get better and stay better except by continual work and practice in looking for and finding one’s core irrational beliefs; actively, energetically, and scientifically disputing them; replacing one’s absolute “musts” (rigid requirements about how things should be) with more flexible preferences; changing one’s unhealthy feelings to healthy, self-helping emotions; and firmly acting against one’s dysfunctional fears and compulsions.

In addition to the aforementioned proposal, REBT uses the concept of unconditional acceptance. Understanding how little control and influence we have in life, and even if we don’t like of love what we encounter day in and day out, we can learn to tolerate and accept ourselves, others, and the world as is.

Per a separate source, “In contrast to more traditional types of counseling, REBT is generally shorter-term, solution-focused, and present-centered, which makes it a more affordable, practical, and efficient choice for those who not only wish to feel better in the moment, but to get better in the long-term.”

I see clients for both short-term and long-term care. Regardless of duration, each and every one of my clients is presented with tools they may use outside of session so that they can work on getting better on their own.

On the low end, it’s been reported that the “most frequent number of sessions in psychotherapy is 1.” On the high end, a separate source suggests, “the mean number of sessions […] was lower than 50 sessions with a range from 2.86 to 45.1 sessions.”

No matter the frequency of sessions or period of time a person chooses to seek help, my intention as an REBT psychotherapist is to help people get better, not feel better. Ultimately I agree with one source that concludes:

When considering therapy, the goal is to help one realize unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving, and developing new ways of coping. This may include asking people to face what they are most distressed about, sit with uncomfortable emotions, and practice behavioral changes. Yes, this may take more time than offering solutions and providing reassurance, but if we aren’t uncomfortable, why change? That is why we have our social supports to help us feel better, and we have REBT to help us get better.


I assist people with management of mental health and illness symptoms instead of “fixing” what was arguably not broken to begin with. This is accomplished through use of the REBT principle related to helping clients get better, not feel better.

If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.

At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW


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