The ABCDE method for positive change

The idea of implementing positive change in your life is actually quite simple. Want to lose weight? Start eating healthy and exercising. Want to become a music composer? Start composing music. Want to find a better job? Look for one. The idea of implementing positive change is straightforward. The actual process, however, is not. More often than not, when it comes to implementing positive change, you already know what you need to do. However, despite knowing what you need to do, you often fail to do it. You don’t go to the gym. You don’t start that blog. You continue to waste money on luxuries that you cannot afford.

So what exactly is going on here? We know what we want to do, and we know what we need to do, yet we do not do it. There must be something getting in the way.  More often than not, it’s a mental barrier. Something is wrong with our mental wiring that prevents us from taking action. The good news is that we can rewire our brains and change the way we think, and this can help us turn our thoughts into action.

One method that is used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the ABCDE method. ABCDE is an acronym where “A” stands for activating event, “B” stands for belief, “C” stands for consequence, “D” stands for disputation or distraction, and “E” stands for energization or effect.

“A” stands for Activating Event

Activating event refers to a trigger in the environment or an event that occurs. You get into a fight with your best friend. You cheat on your diet. You bump into an old friend at the grocery store. These are all examples of triggers. As you can tell, the activating event can be positive, negative, or neutral.

B” stands for Belief

The activating event triggers a belief. Our beliefs are derived from past occurrences in our lives, and they are largely automatic and habitual. We may not even be aware of how they influence us. You may hold a belief that to be successful, you need to be perfect or stick to a plan 100% of the time. Alternatively, you may hold a belief that being perfect is unrealistic and that small setbacks are inevitable.

Many of our beliefs are strongly rooted within us and can be stubborn and difficult to change. They’ve been reinforced over and over again by our external environment and then by our internal thoughts. Some of these beliefs are good and constructive, while others are bad and destructive.

C” stands for Consequence

When an activating event occurs, it triggers a belief which causes us to feel a certain way and heavily influences what we do next. It’s the result of when you combine A and B.

ABC Combined

To a large extent, the activating event, the beliefs, and the consequences are all automated. Even if we don’t consciously focus on them, they will still happen. It’s how we are programmed. Below are a few examples of what this looks like. You will notice that the activating event is almost always the same, but based on the belief (positive vs. negative), the consequences are different:

Example 1a:

  1. Activating Event: Your friend hasn’t responded to your text messages in the past two days
  2. Belief: You think that your friend is not interested in talking to you.
  3. Consequence: You get upset and decide to have a few drinks to feel better

Example 1b:

  1. A: Your friend hasn’t responded to your text messages in the past two days
  2. You assume your friend is probably busy.
  3. C: You don’t give it much more thought and go on with your day.

Example 2a:

  1. A: You ask your sister a question, and she responds rudely
  2. B: You think she’s disrespecting you
  3. C: You get angry, yell back at her, and it results in a big fight

Example 2b:

  1. A: You ask your sister a question, and she responds rudely
  2. B: You assume she has had a stressful day
  3. C: You let it pass, give it some time, and ask her how she’s doing later on.

Example 3a:

  1. A: You’re jogging and you trip on something and fall. You sprain your ankle.
  2. B: You assume that you cannot train for the marathon anymore
  3. C: You give up

Example 3b:

  1. A: You’re jogging and you trip on something and fall. You sprain your ankle.
  2. B: You’re not thrilled about the setback, but you acknowledge it was a freak accident
  3. C: You continue to eat healthy, you focus on recovery, and when you get healthy in a few weeks, you continue your training.

How to change your beliefs

As you’ve noticed through these examples, it is our beliefs that influence these consequences (or outcomes). Some of those negative beliefs are stubborn, but the good news is that you can change them. The very first step to changing your beliefs is to become aware of them. Start to identify your ABCs. Similar to how I did above, think of a few activating events you’ve had this past week. What beliefs did you associate with them and how did that influence the consequences (your reaction and behavior after the event occurred)?

If you are trying to implement positive changes, but have been unable to do so, try to figure out why through the ABC framework. Keep in mind that an activating event can also be something that did not occur or something you did not do (e.g., not going to the gym, not waking up on time). Once you’ve mapped out a few of these ABCs from your past week, I’d encourage you to do that at least 1-2 times a day for the next few days. Get into the habit of trying to transition from ‘automatic’ mode to ‘manual’ mode.

Once you’ve become aware of your thought process, you’ll start to identify patterns and problems in your thinking that you want to resolve. That’s where the “D” and “E” part of ABCDE comes in.

“D” stands for Disputation

Disputation is when you identify a belief that you want to change and you attack it. You dispute it. Counter the pessimistic and/or irrational belief with a more optimistic and rational one. In his book on learned optimism, Martin Seligman states that there are four tactics that you can use to dispute your beliefs:

  1. Evidence – Show to yourself how your belief is factually incorrect. More often than not, you will realize that you are blowing things out of proportion. When possible, try to quantify the evidence to make it more impactful. For example, let’s say I cheated on my diet one day and consumed 1,000 more calories than I wanted to. My belief might be that I’ve broken my diet or failed, but in actuality, 1,000 calories equates to less than 1/3 of a pound gained. When looking at it that way, one singular day did very little to undo the progress I have made over a week or a month.
  2. Alternatives – Identify alternative explanations to justify the activating event. There can be multiple causes for the event. For example, if your friend hasn’t responded to your messages in two days, it’s easy to think they don’t want to talk to you. However, maybe they broke their phone. Maybe they’re working overtime this week at work and then coming home and taking care of the kids. Maybe they saw your message when they were in a meeting, but then forgot about it afterwards. There are a million other possible reasons.
  3. Implications – What if the negative belief that you have is correct? For example, what if you failed an exam and you know it is your fault because you deciding to hang out with friends all of last week rather than studying? When you know the belief is accurate, the best thing you can do is to focus on implications. For example, one failed exam does not mean you’re stupid. It doesn’t mean that it’ll keep you from getting accepted into graduate school or from getting a job. When you think about it, many negative occurrences that happen on a day-to-day basis have very little implications in the long run. Take for example the SATs. Think about how important they felt when we were in high school. However, now, years removed from high school, we look back and smile in amusement at how those were the simple days and how that exam had a very little impact on our lives.
  4. Usefulness – The last tactic you can use is to determine whether or not the belief is constructive or destructive. Maybe you hold a negative belief that is true, and the implications are also big. If that is the case, you need to ask yourself if the belief is constructive or destructive. In other words, is it useful? In his book, Seligman provides an example of a technician doing a bomb demolition who comes to the realization that the bomb could go off in any minute and kill everyone around him. The belief is true and the implications are huge. However, that added pressure on him is not necessarily useful especially if it leads to increased nervousness and decreases focus in that situation. In this situation, it is better to (a) focus on what you can do, and (b) consider having that internal dialogue later when the situation (or your emotions) are not as severe. Even if the situation is not as severe, you can still try to focus on what you can do and have the internal dialogue later when you’re calmer.

“E” stands for Energization

Energization refers to reflecting on having successfully dealt with negative beliefs. Therefore, when you have a negative belief that you were able to successfully dispute, you reflect on the implications and how that resulted in a more positive outcome. This reinforces this idea of disputing negative beliefs, and it also energizes you.

Final Words…

The key to the ABCDE method is to (a) become aware of your destructive thoughts, (b) challenge them, and (c) replace them with more constructive thoughts. You could use this same approach to stop negative behaviors and/or implement positive ones (more on that another day).

I wouldn’t say it’s feasible to do this for an extended period of time, but at least for a few days, I would encourage you to actually write down your ABCDEs. If you find yourself thinking destructively or struggling to implement a positive change, open up a memo and answer these questions:

  1. Activating Event: What happened (or what did not happen) that has me feeling negatively?
  2. Belief: What internal beliefs are causing me to feel/act this way?
  3. Consequence: What resulted from this activating event and belief?
  4. Disputation: How can I counter my beliefs? What would disprove my beliefs?
  5. Energization: What has resulted from me disproving my destructive beliefs? How do I feel? How am I acting?

Do this a few times a day for 2, 3, or 5 days. If you have the discipline to do it longer, do it longer. You’ll notice that after some time, you begin to do this automatically in your head. The ABC are automated as usual, but the “D” and “E” also become automated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “The ABCDE method for positive change

  1. Thanks for sharing the ABCDE model with your readers! This is a really great way to address distressing thoughts in an effort to replace them with more positive ones. I think that this skillset in general can be very useful for people in living better quality lives. This is the inspiration behind my own blog posts as well. I write from a perspective of positive psychology, which asks what it means to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. Feel free to check out the content and leave any contributions that you would like, I think you would find the content interesting. Great post, keep up the good work, and I hope that you are doing well!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s