The ABC Model – how our beliefs impact on our emotions

15 Jul

This article is part of the series “31 blogs in 31 days” during July 2017 on

During my psychotherapy training, I encountered many different therapy schools and methods. Some stayed with me more and others and I continuously keep adding new ones to my therapy and coaching tool kit. It’s an ingoing learning process that keeps being fascinating.

One method that particularly resonated with me was the ABC Model by Albert Ellis, one of the fathers of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is based on the idea that how we think (cognition), how we feel (emotion) and how we act (behaviour) all interact together. Our thoughts determine our feelings and our behaviour. When psychological distress occurs, CBT looks at negative thoughts. These thoughts are often related to deeply embedded irrational beliefs and assumptions that distort the way we interpret the world around us which then causes us to feel and act in an unwanted way.

Common irrational beliefs are:

  • I have to be thoroughly competent at everything.
  • It is catastrophic when things are not the way I want them to be.
  • People have no control over their happiness.
  • My past history greatly influences my present life.
  • There is a perfect solution to human problems, and it’s a disaster if I don’t find it.

In order to change unwanted emotions and behaviour, CBT aims to unveil, analyse and understand the underlying thinking, beliefs and assumptions to then change them into something more constructive.

The ABC Model (Ellis) is a very useful method to do that.

A – Activating Event / Objective Situation

B – Beliefs / Assessment / Negative Thoughts

C – Consequence / Emotions / Behaviour

Ellis believes that is is not the Activating Event (A) itself that causes emotional distress and unwanted behaviour (C), but rather that a person interprets these events unrealistically and therefore has an irrational belief system (B) that, as a consequence, causes negative feelings and actions (C).

A three-column table (A / B / C) helps to dissect a situation and to analyse, without judgement, how negative thoughts and beliefs, triggered by an event can cause certain consequences.

Once negative thoughts and beliefs have been identified, these can be critically evaluated, tested and challenged. For example the thought “I have to be good at everything” or “I have to earn somebody’s affection”. From experience, is there any evidence for this belief? Is this universally true? Do I also expect this from others?

If a belief has been identified as being irrational, a next step is Reframing – to re-interpret it in a more realistic light. This process modifies the belief in a way that makes it more rational and hence more helpful. The reframed belief then allows for a more open, fair and rational assessment of a future event, which in turn then has a positive effect on emotions and behaviour.

This process can take time and can be difficult as it asks us to question beliefs we may have held for a very long time. Beliefs that can actually work against our own happiness. Most of us aren’t aware of our underlying belief system – discovering its components can be a truly fascinating journey.

Picture: geralt via Pixabay / CCO


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