“The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny.” – Albert Ellis
Sometimes life seems frightening, with anxiety looming around every corner. In many ways, the truth is that the root of real fear lies within. It is the meaning that we attribute to thoughts, emotions, sensations, and events that results in the subjective experience of fear and anxiety. The external world cannot “make” us feel much of anything. It is the thoughts that we create in our own minds, interpreting and labeling events, that result in our internal emotional experience.
Often, this happens so quickly that we may feel unaware it is taking place. This feeling of being cast about on a lifeboat amidst life’s stormy sea can result in a sense of helplessness, fear, and anxiety. It doesn’t have to be this way. You can take back control of your own emotional experience by mindfully examining your patterns of thinking and adjusting them in a way that results in less emotional distress.
Albert Ellis, developer of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), devised the ABCDE method to provide a clear framework within which people can examine these internal processes in a new way. When you learn how to systematically break down events into clear steps, you will begin to notice yourself gaining back control. You can choose to take away the seeming “mystery” behind why you react the way that you do to particular events. Once you shine the bright light of mindful awareness onto your internal processes, you will begin to see they’re not so mysterious or frightening after all.
You are the creator of those thoughts and images that swirl around in your mind, leading you to feel a flurry of emotions. Just as you create internal experiences that result in feelings of fear or anxiety, so can you begin to assign new meanings and interpretations to events. We feel emotions in direct response to the thoughts we create in our minds. These thoughts lead us to have powerful emotional reactions to the meanings that we assign to events. You don’t have to be powerless to overwhelming emotions or urges. Take the time to break down an emotional experience step by step with the ABCDE method to gain mastery over your thoughts and emotions.
Master Thoughts & Emotions with the A-B-C-D-E Method
Reflect upon a recent event that resulted in a strong emotional reaction. This should be an event where you would have liked to respond differently. Read through each of the five steps of the ABCDE method and write down your own experience each step of the way.
“A” – Adversity or Activating Event
Consider the event that triggered the emotional response in you. This would be whatever happened right before you noticed yourself feeling an emotion such as anxiety, sadness, or anger. When you become more mindfully aware of events that typically trigger strong emotional responses, you can learn to watch out for these events in the future and be better prepared to deal with them more effectively.
Example: A friend asks you if he/she can borrow money again.
“B” – Beliefs
We all tell ourselves stories about what events mean. For the moment, avoid judging your beliefs as “right” or “wrong” and simply notice what they are. We often have irrational beliefs that serve to fuel maladaptive emotional responses and perpetuate problems. A belief is generally “irrational” when it lacks clear evidence, is overgeneralized, or is otherwise based on faulty reasoning.
Example: “I always get taken advantage of like this – it’s not fair.”
“C” – Consequences
Consequences are more than just the clear cut “outcome” of the event. Consequences can take behavioral and emotional forms. Sometimes we observe consequences externally, such as noticing that another person is lashing out at us or withdrawing from us. Other times, consequences are internal, such as experiencing debilitating anxiety or sadness.
Example: Regret, disappointment, and withdrawal from the friend. Refusal to give in to friend’s expectations.
“D” – Disputing
This step involves actively disputing harmful belief systems through mindfully examining, questioning, and challenging them. First, locate the harmful beliefs in your stream of consciousness in such a way that you can examine them carefully. Next, prepare to enter the “disputation phase” by asking yourself the following six questions:
- Does this belief fit with reality?
- Does this belief support the achievement of reasonable/constructive interests and goals?
- Does this belief help foster positive/healthy relationships?
- Does this belief contradict parasitic thinking?
- Does this belief seem reasonable and logical given the context in which it occurred?
- Is this belief generally detrimental or generally helpful?
These questions are intended to facilitate the process of separating realistic from harmful/dysfunctional thinking. Through mindfully examining your beliefs in this way, you are also increasing your own self-awareness and insight into the ways that you tend to think and behave.
- No, there have been exceptions to my friend asking me for money. I have even asked him/her for money before.
- No, it actually defeats my interest in overcoming the anxiety related to these demands.
- No, my emotional reaction only served to harm the friendship.
- No, the belief that it’s unfair makes me feel weak and overwhelmed, which is parasitic thinking.
- No, my friend actually asked for money when I knew she really needed it.
- In this case, it’s generally detrimental. It only costs time and emotional energy, with no beneficial return.
“E” – Effects
Notice the effects that result from actively examining and disputing parasitic/faulty thinking. Once you identify and clarify your emotionally charged beliefs about a situation, you can begin to create an alternative line of thinking that is based upon more plausible and reasonable beliefs.
Example: A better perspective on the situation, sense of encouragement, and less emotional attachment to idea of “fairness.”
Keep in mind that the ABCDE method will not defer normal/healthy emotions, such as appropriate loss, regret, realistic fears, or frustration. Not all emotions need to be “changed” in this way. Quite often, emotions are incredibly valuable and useful tools that are providing you with important information about the situation. In these cases, it is crucial to mindfully attend to your emotional experience and receive the lessons embedded within those emotions. Other times, when emotional responses are causing unnecessary suffering or are based in faulty thinking, mindfully applying the ABCDE method can shed light on a situation where you feel “stuck.”
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Knaus, W.J. (2008). The cognitive behavioral workbook for anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Featured image: Hopscotch by Jan Tik / CC BY 2.0