The great news is that there is a free, simple and effective technique you can use to shift your perspective to one that is much more helpful. It is a tool to help anyone learn more optimistic thinking. It was developed by Dr Martin Seligman, who built on the original work by psychologist Albert Ellis. It’s called the ABCDE technique, and I have found it to be very useful for shifting unhelpful and often unrealistic perceptions about bad events.
Here’s how it works:
A = Adversity
This is an adverse event that has happened to you – big or small. Let’s use an example: say you were walking along the street and someone from your child’s school walks past you. You see them and smile and they ignore you completely and keep walking. That’s your adversity - you’ve just been snubbed.
B = Belief
This is the very first thought and belief that immediately pops into your head after the adversity has occurred. Continuing with the example above: after being ignored by this person your very first thought might be wondering why they don’t like you and why you’re not good enough for them to even acknowledge you. You’ve tried hard to be friendly yet they obviously don’t like you anyway (that’s the automatic belief kicking in…… I’m not good enough).
C = Consequences
This is the physical and emotional consequences that automatically follow the belief/thought that you just had about the adversity. In our example this could be that you then feel a bit sad, unworthy and flat. Your blood pressure may have gone up a little and you may want to withdraw from other interactions for fear of being ignored again.
D = Disputation
Here is where the real power lies to create a much more helpful perspective. To explain how to use the ‘D’, we need to go back to A and B. Obviously there is nothing that we can do to control the adversity, bad things will happen to us. We also don’t control the very first belief/thought that pops into our head. Here’s the golden moment – immediately following the very first thought, we then have a choice as to the next thought and action we take. The moment that it’s come into the conscious realm is the moment we become empowered to choose the next thing that happens. We do that using disputation; we dispute with ourselves the first belief that we had – Is it absolutely true what I thought? Could there be any other reason for the adversity, other than my first interpretation of it? Let’s go back to the example to demonstrate ‘disputation’ - the person ignores our smile, we believe they don’t like us and we’re not good enough to acknowledge – before we allow that thought to continue its dark pathway, we immediately dispute the thought. We could say to ourselves, why else might they have ignored me? Perhaps they genuinely didn’t see me. How do I know that they didn’t just receive some bad news and were anxious and focussed on that? These are the types of questions we could ask ourselves. Do you get the idea here?
You help yourself to see that it was your own interpretation of what you saw and everything is an assumption on your part. Your assumption might be right but it might not. Rigidly believing the worst case serves you no good purpose, other than to feel bad. By challenging your negative interpretation with something more realistic it can immediately reduce the flow-on consequences of your beliefs. Rather than being left feeling sad and wounded because you felt ignored, you are more likely to get on with the day feeling okay.
E = Energisation
This last piece is about celebrating (acknowledging) that you used the disputation intervention and now you still feel emotionally intact. When we pause and acknowledge our successes we are more likely to repeat them. The more often that you repeat this process, the more you will automatically do it, sparing yourself a downwards mood shift.
You can use this tool over and over, every day for all your negative assumptions, big or small. Every time you catch yourself assuming the worst in any situation, immediately step in to dispute the assumption and come up with other reasons it may have happened.
One last example, when a car pulled out in front of me this morning, my very first thought was that the driver was arrogant and pushy and I started to feel angry and frustrated at them. As soon as I noticed this judgement and response on my part, I looked for reasons as to why else they may have pulled out. I wondered if they had a sick child lying in the back of the car that they were rushing to hospital……not very likely, I thought, but it still threw that little shadow of doubt over my first assumption. Maybe they simply didn’t see me, I know I’ve accidently pulled out in front of someone and I felt terrible for doing it. Maybe they feel terrible now too? My thoughts went on.......even if they are arrogant, so what?! At the end of the day, I’m about 5 metres further back than I was and I didn’t hit them, what does it really matter anyway?? As I did this disputing in my head I felt my anger subside and even my compassion build for this person. So it worked, my mood was still the same and I didn’t waste unnecessary negative energy on something that wasn’t in my control.
I encourage you to try this technique a few times. Like anything new, it takes a bit of practice. I can tell you from my own personal experience, and from what my clients report back to me, that this can be a very empowering and liberating tool to have in your armoury! Good luck.