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Is feeling better as easy as ABC?

written by Nicholas Hall June 6, 2007

Nicholas Hall, MAPP '06, is the manager of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business Behavioral Lab. He consults on worker satisfaction and engagement, and sits on the advisory board of Omnirisk Management Tools. His research work focuses on work satisfaction, character strengths, and positive psychology, and is published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

Articles by Nicholas are here.

A-B-C blocks I recently applied to a one-week summer scholarship program, one that sounded really great, and wouldn’t you know it, “we were overwhelmed by applicants, and although yours was excellent…” Sigh. Another rejection! Ugh. That’s life, I guess. Along with that parking ticket I got yesterday, and the lack of sleep over the last couple of weeks, I just don’t feel well. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do…

Hmmm… that sounds like helplessness talk to me. And we know where helplessness can lead… depression (Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1995)! Yikes! Well, I certainly don’t want to go down that road. What to do, what to do…? Ah! I remember a way to counteract those thoughts and feelings. It’s called the ABCDE method (Seligman, 1992, Reivich & Shatte, 2003).

OK, OK, how do I do it?

Below is an outline of the ABCDE method for disputing your thoughts. The idea is that your thoughts can generate your feelings. So, if you take active control of your thoughts, you are in turn taking active control of your emotions (Reivich & Shatte, 2003).

Having a pen and paper handy is helpful with this exercise.

1. Adversity: Describe a recent Adversity. Include the Who, What, When, and Where of the situation. Be specific and accurate in your description. Don’t let your beliefs about the adversity creep in! Be objective.

This should be easy… I got rejected today from an interesting program. That’s pretty objective.

2. Beliefs: Record what you were saying to yourself in the midst of the Adversity. What was running through your mind? Write it down verbatim. Don’t worry about being polite!

“Man, this always happens.” “I’m just not good enough.” “It’s all about who you know, and I don’t know anybody.” ”Maybe I’m not cut out for this sort of thing.”

3. Consequences: Record the Consequences of your Beliefs (what did you feel and what did you do?). Be specific. List all of the emotions you experienced and as many reactions as you can identify. Ask yourself: Do your Consequences make sense given your Beliefs? If you don’t have the Aha! experience, see if you can identify other Beliefs that you may have not been as aware of initially.

I felt worse and worse thinking this way. I began to not take any action on other projects that I wanted or needed to do today. I felt pretty low, and I began comparing myself negatively to others that I thought were better off than me.

Yes, these feelings and actions DO make sense given those beliefs!

4. Dispute: Generate one piece of Evidence to point out the inaccuracy in your Beliefs, or generate a more accurate/optimistic Alternative belief about the Adversity, or Put Into Perspective your Belief. You can use the tag lines below to craft your responses:
a. Evidence: That’s not completely true because…

That’s not completely true because I know a lot of great people, and some of them are in great positions. I have achieved great things like this in the past.

b. Alternative: A more accurate way of seeing this is….

It really is only for one week, it’s not like I got rejected from Yale.

c. Putting It In Perspective: The most likely outcome is… and I can… to handle it.

The most likely outcome of this is that I put my energy into another big project I’m currently working on, and I can work harder and be more focused on this project and that will help me handle the rejection from the scholarship.

5. Energy: Write a few sentences about how your Disputation changed your Energy. What happened to your mood? How did your behavior change? What solutions did you see that you didn’t see before?

My energy became more focused and clear. I felt much more competent in my abilities and in my future. My behavior changed by getting me back to working hard on the things that matter to me, because I want a positive future for myself. The solutions I saw were about what I could DO for myself, rather than let the world happen to me.

The preceding is a template for you to use when those thoughts hit critical mass and begin to tip your feelings into places you don’t want them to go. Practice makes perfect with this exercise, so use it often! Good luck!

Wait! Luck implies that the world happens TO you. Instead of luck… Have Optimism!




Peterson, C., Maier, S. & Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control. New York: Freeman.

Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.

The image was drawn by Kevin Gillespie for the version of this article appearing in the PPND book, Resilience: How to Navigage Life’s Curves.

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