The ABC Technique

Overcoming Pessimistic Thinking

ABC Technique

Use this technique to think more positively.

© iStockphoto/Professor25

Robyn has worked hard on a report all week. The deadline was tight, and, as she hands it over to her boss for an initial read-through, she swells with pride. She knows her boss is going to commend the quality of her work.

However, as her boss reads it, she develops a small frown. A moment later, she hands the report back to Robyn.

"I think you did a good job," she says. "If you'll just rework section two and add the figures I sent over last night, this will be ready to present to the board."

Robyn heads back to her office, crushed. She worked so hard, and her boss thinks the report is lousy. She adds the new figures with a sinking heart, wondering how long it will be before she's demoted or fired. For the rest of the day, she can't get the image of her boss's frown out of her mind. Her mood is down, she's listless, and her work suffers. She even misses a sale with a key client, because she's not on her game.

Clearly, Robyn is blowing the situation way out of proportion. With her pessimistic outlook, she has assumed the worst, and has turned a small setback into a disaster.

How about you? Are you an optimist? Or would you have reacted in the same way as Robyn?

Optimists have been proven to be happier, healthier, more productive and more successful than pessimists. The good news is that optimism is a skill – you can learn how to be more optimistic. In this article, we'll show you how to use the ABC Technique to develop a more optimistic outlook.

About the Technique

This approach was originally created by psychologist, Dr. Albert Ellis. It was then adapted by Dr. Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania professor and past president of the American Psychological Association. Seligman's adapted version was published in his 1990 book, "Learned Optimism."

ABC stands for:

  • Adversity.
  • Beliefs.
  • Consequences.

In short, we encounter Adversity (or, an Activating Event, as per Ellis's original model). How we think about this creates Beliefs. These beliefs then influence what we do next, so they become Consequences.

Here's an example – you yell at your assistant because she forgot to print a key report before your meeting (Adversity). You then think, "I'm a really lousy boss" (Belief). You then perform poorly during your meeting, because your self confidence has plummeted (Consequences).

The key point occurs between adversity and belief. When you encounter adversity, how you tend to explain it to yourself directly impacts your mindset and your relationships. Seligman calls this your "explanatory style," and he says that it is a habit that influences your entire outlook on life.

There are three dimensions to your explanatory style:

1. Permanence

Pessimistic people unconsciously assume that the causes of bad events are permanent, while optimists believe that bad events are temporary.

For instance, imagine you had a bad day and had no time to help a colleague who needed your expertise. A pessimist might think, "I should never be friends with anyone at work because I'm a terrible friend." An optimist might think, "I was a terrible friend today."

The difference is subtle, but it really matters for your outlook!

2. Pervasiveness

Pessimists make universal statements about their lives when something goes badly, while optimists make specific statements.

For instance, a pessimist might think, "All my reports are useless." An optimist might think, "This report was useless."

Again, the difference is subtle. Pessimists take one negative event and allow it to turn their entire work, or life, into a catastrophe. Optimists recognize that they might have failed in one area, but they don't allow that failure to overwhelm other parts of their lives.

3. Personalization

When we experience a negative event, we have two ways to think about it. We can blame ourselves for the event (internalizing it). Or, we can blame something outside ourselves (externalizing it).

Pessimists often internalize blame. They think, "This is all my fault," or "I'm too dumb to do this job." Optimists have higher self-esteem because they tend to externalize blame, thinking, "This is all John's fault," or "I haven't learnt enough about this skill yet; that's why I'm not doing well at this task."

Note:

Remember – adversity doesn't always cause negative beliefs. This will depend on the event, and your explanatory style.

So, how can you reset your own ABC pattern?

Step 1: Track Your Inner Dialog

Begin by keeping a diary for several days. Your goal is to listen to your inner dialog, especially when you encounter a stressful or difficult situation.

For each situation, write down the adversity you experienced, the beliefs you formed after encountering the adversity, and the consequences of those beliefs.

Consequences can be anything, from happy or unhappy thoughts and feelings, to specific actions that you took. (Use our worksheet to get started.)

Example

Adversity: A colleague criticized my product idea in front of the team during our weekly meeting.

Belief: She's right; it was a dumb idea. I don't have much of an imagination, and now the entire team can see how uncreative I am. I should never have spoken up!

Consequences: I felt stupid and didn't speak up for the rest of the meeting. I don't want to attend any of the other team meetings this week, and have already made an excuse to avoid tomorrow's meeting.

Step 2: Analyze Results

Once you've written down several ABC situations, take a look at what you have found.

Here, you need to look for patterns in your thinking, specifically, how any broad beliefs have led to specific consequences.

To be optimistic, you need to change your beliefs following adversity. This, in turn, leads to more positive consequences.

Step 3: Use Distraction and Disputation

As you can see, the beliefs you develop after encountering adversity play a major role in your life, and determine whether you're an optimistic or pessimistic thinker. This makes it important to manage negative ABC patterns.

There are two ways to override these: distraction and disputation.

Distraction

If you want to interrupt your negative thoughts, you need to distract yourself. Simply telling yourself "not to think negatively" isn't going to work: you need to interrupt the cycle.

To do this, try distracting yourself when you start creating negative beliefs.

For example, you could wear a rubber band around your wrist. After you've gone through a stressful situation, and when you begin to formulate negative thoughts and beliefs as a result, snap the rubber band against your skin. This physical sting will remind you to step out of the cycle of negative thinking.

Once you've interrupted your negative thoughts, you need to shift your attention somewhere else. Concentrate intently on something else for a minute.

Disputation

Although distraction is useful for interrupting negative thinking, a more permanent solution is to dispute them. Think of Disputation as a "D" after ABC.

To dispute your negative thoughts and beliefs, you argue with yourself rationally. In particular, you look for the mistaken assumptions about your explanatory style that we talked about earlier.

We'll use the previous example to illustrate this technique, below.

Adversity: A colleague criticized my product idea in front of the team during our weekly meeting.

Belief: She's right; it was a dumb idea. I don't have much of an imagination, and now the entire team can see how uncreative I am. I should never have spoken up!

Consequences: I felt stupid and didn't speak up for the rest of the meeting. I don't want to attend any of the other team meetings this week, and have already made an excuse to avoid tomorrow's meeting.

Disputation: I'm blowing this out of proportion. My colleague had every right to criticize my idea; it was nothing personal, and her critique was spot on. She even commended my creative thinking once the meeting was over. All I need to do is think my ideas through a bit better next time.

Tip 1:

Disputing negative thoughts is also a good way to build self-confidence  .

Tip 2:

You can also add an "E" for "Energization" to the letters A, B, C and D. This is where you take time to think about the positive feelings, behaviors, and actions that could or do follow from having a more optimistic outlook.

Key Points

The ABC Technique is an approach developed by Albert Ellis and adapted by Martin Seligman to help us think more optimistically.

The technique is based on our explanatory style. That is, how we explain difficult or stressful situations to ourselves, across dimensions of permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. These thoughts directly impact what we believe about the event, ourselves, and the world at large.

The Technique pushes you to analyze three aspects of a situation:

  1. Adversity.
  2. Beliefs.
  3. Consequences.

Whenever you encounter adversity you develop thoughts and beliefs about the situation. This, in turn, leads to consequences.

To be optimistic, you must change what you believe about yourself, and the situation, when you encounter adversity. Positive beliefs will, in turn, lead to more positive consequences, and a more positive outlook.

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Comments (5)
  • Rachel wrote Over a month ago
    Hi All

    Optimists have been proven to be happier, healthier, more productive and more successful than pessimists.

    So how can you become more optimistic?

    One way is with the ABC Technique - find out how to use it in this week's Featured Favorite article.

    Best wishes

    Rachel
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Mike - have you taken our self quiz to find out whether you are a positive or negative thinker? Here is the link: http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/newTCS_89.php

    Your answers might help you gain some additional awareness as you work through this issue. I think it's so important that we beocme aware of our thoughts and learn to consciously turn the naegative into positives. I really like challenging my negative thinking pattens with rational arguments - this technique and others are outlined in Thought Awareness, Rational Thinking and Positive Thinking http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/newTCS_06.php

    Because negative thinking can creep up on us quite insidiously, the best defense is having a lot of offensive options. And like Charles said, it's learning to become of aware of them that is the real challenge. If we don't take stock of the negative thoughts then they will simply take over and then we risk letting them do irreparable damage. Please do let us know how it works as well as any other tips you pick up from Seligman.

    Dianna
  • pallen wrote Over a month ago
    Hi folks,

    Wow, this is very timely and reinforces some outcomes from a recent trianing course i attended.

    I was desperately looking for tips and techniques to enable me to bounce back from adversity and deal with change. The course I took focused heavily on Seligman's ideas and I have found them to very useful indeed.

    For me the take-out has been that the individual controls the response to any given situation or outcome. It is how we choose to respond to not only the negative situations - the adversity as per the story line in the article, but also to successes. The important issue being the use of our internal language or thinking to describe the response to success is going to be different to that used for adversity. We need to celebrate the successes and use them to offset the negativity or setbacks we encounter.

    I think I need to read more about Seligman's work.

    Cheers
    Mike
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Charles

    You are quite right...being able to change your train of thought after the adversity, does require awareness. Once you constantly become aware of your thoughts, it's quite an eye-opener to see how many negative thoughts can take place in the space of a few minutes.

    I'm curious to know how you create awareness within yourself?

    Cheers
    Yolandé
  • charles1972 wrote Over a month ago
    I enjoyed learning about this tool.The trick though comes on recognizing or being aware of your thoughts when the adversity happens.Its tricky because thoughts can move very fast.So i think thought awareness is crucial.
    Charles Matope

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