10 MIN READ

The ABC Model

Overcoming Pessimistic Thinking

 

Do you often focus on what didn't go well in a project instead of what did? Are you resistant to trying new things and ways of working? Or do you let criticism ruin your day? If so, you're probably a pessimist.

Most of us will experience pessimism at various points in our lives, and it can help us to feel more prepared when things don't work out. But, left unchecked, pessimistic thinking can hinder your career, and damage your overall outlook on life. In extreme cases, it can lead to depression.

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In contrast, optimists have been proven to be happier, healthier, more productive and more successful than pessimists. [1] Another study suggests they even live longer than pessimists. [2]

The good news is that optimism is a skill that you can learn. 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 created by psychologist Dr Albert Ellis in the 1950s. 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." [3]

ABC stands for:

  • Adversity.
  • Beliefs.
  • Consequences.

Note:

Ellis updated his original model in 1991 to include "D" for Disputation, and "E" for Energization, though the latter is now commonly referred to as "Effects." We'll discuss these in more detail later in the article.

The model is often used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), as it involves restructuring beliefs through becoming aware of your thinking patterns.

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 they 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 example, 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 not cut out for this job." Optimists have higher self-esteem because they tend to externalize blame, thinking, "This is all John's fault," or "I haven't learned 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.

Take our quiz, Are You a Positive or Negative Thinker?, to better understand your outlook on life.

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.)

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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 Disputation and Energization

As you can see, the beliefs that 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 and overcome negative ABC patterns. Disputation and Energization will help you to do this.

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, and evidence that you were thinking negatively.

Then energize by taking time to think about the positive feelings, behaviors, and actions – the effects – that could or do follow from having a more optimistic outlook.

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.

Energization: I feel much calmer now. I know what I need to do to improve, so my next project idea will be successful! I will attend and contribute to tomorrow's meeting.

Warning:

Negative thinking can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While these techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing occasional negative thinking, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over related illnesses or if negative thoughts are causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.

Key Points

The ABC Model 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.

ABC 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 (10)
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi mimccarthy,
    Indeed, the stories we tell ourselves about situations can sometimes be true and other times untrue. So, by changing the story, we can change our reactions!

    Midgie
    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago mimccarthy wrote
    This cognitive approach to managing stress shows the importance of how the think and talk about stressful people and situations. It is like we have emotional reactions first and then come up with reasons why I feel as I do. We need better rationales.
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    Hi nikkence

    We're glad to hear that you found the article helpful. Those failure prophecies are terrible self-created obstacles - well done for recognising them.

    Please feel free to hop over to the forums where you'll get lots of input and support from other Club members and our in-house coaches. You'll find Career Cafe Central over here: http://www.mindtools.com/forums/viewforum.php?f=2

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Yolandé
    Mind Tools Team
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