Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, A Brief Primer Part 2: The ABC’s of Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviors

Albert Ellis is the father of what is known as Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy or REBT. Today, a lot of techniques used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) come from REBT and that includes much of the theory that our thoughts control our feelings and behaviors.

Most people believe that an event or person “makes” them feel a certain way, when in actuality, it’s their thoughts (perceptions) and what they are telling themselves (self-talk) that actually make them feel and thus react in a certain way.

However, REBT and CBT teaches that by controlling your thoughts, you can control the way you feel which will in-turn affect the way you feel.

Let’s take for example that you are dating someone and then they suddenly break up with you. Most people will internalize everything by telling themselves things such as “what did I do wrong”, “maybe he/she found someone better”, “I just lost a good thing” or “I’m such a loser”.

Those thoughts will then lead to the person feeling down, depressed, like a “loser” and possibly even anxious and desperate.

They are then more likely to do things depressed people do such as over eat, over sleep (or under eat and under sleep), cry, isolate themselves, turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain of rejection, etc.

Now let’s take that same person and the same situation, but this time after the break up they tell themselves “he/she just lost a good thing”, “Oh well, on to the next one”, “he/she must have other issues”, “now I’m free to find someone worth my time”, or “it’s better to find out things wouldn’t work out now then later”.

That person is more likely to not feel so rejected, to possibly even feel somewhat relieved or even optimistic about the future.

Because of this, that person is likely to go on with their life with little interruption, returning to life as normal, without all the negative behaviors that came along with the first example. The event didn’t change, but the thinking and perception did.

Your thoughts are so powerful! No one can make you mad, sad, anxious or whatever, only your thoughts can do that.

If I am going to speak in front of a million people and all I’m telling myself is that “I’m going to mess up. I’m not qualified to give this talk”, then I am going to lose sleep, be extremely anxious and probably stumble as a self-fulfilling prophecy during the speech.

However, if I convince myself that “I’m going to rock this. I am more than qualified to do this”, then I am likely to be much less anxious and thus more likely to actually give a great speech.

The event didn’t change (having to give a speech), the only thing that changed is my thinking!

In short, Albert Ellis broke it down into four simple rules to help evaluate your thoughts and see if they are rational or irrational.

A. Activating Event: What exactly is going on?

B. Beliefs (perceptions): What thoughts are you having about the event? What are you telling yourself?

C. Consequences (behaviors): What do you do or how do you act in response to the beliefs and thoughts you have about the event.

As a last example, let’s take something almost everyone can relate to, the terrorist attacks that happened in America on September 11, 2001, that would be our activating event.

People in the United States were angry, scared, and shocked about the terrorist attacks, while the terrorist were elated. In America we prepared for war, started avoiding certain places and even slid into a recession, that was our consequences/behaviors, while the terrorist celebrated as seen on CNN and Al- Jazerra video.

How could the same exact event have starkly contrasting reactions? The answer is the difference in the way the two groups perceived the events.

And then there is the last part of the ABC’s of thinking and that is “D” for disputing our thinking.

It is imperative that when we have thoughts that upset us that we challenge or dispute them to see if they are irrational. What evidence do we have that we are going to fail, be alone forever, not get the job we applied for, etc.

Without disputing or challenging our irrational thoughts, we’ll always believe they are true, even when they aren’t. In the next part of this series we will explore negative thoughts a little more in-depth.

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