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Changing your way of thinking: It’s as simple as A-B-C-D

Have you ever felt like a negative or unpleasant thought has taken up residence in your head and just won’t leave? Ever had a nagging doubt about yourself? Or, maybe just a feeling that you’re not good enough? Trouble letting go of that decision or mistake from the past? Worried about what might happen in the future? It happens. It can happen at one time or another to any of us. There are very few exceptions.

Worries can be a normal part of life. They can be a reaction to trouble or arguments within the family. Pressures and deadlines at work or school can lead to fears and worries. Worries can also include the fear of not knowing what to talk about on that first date, or being embarrassed in public. “Worries are unpleasant thoughts that you can’t get out of your head. They’re like annoying bugs that keep buzzing around and won’t leave you alone.” (Therapist Aid, 2020)

In the mid-1950’s, a psychologist named Albert Ellis became disillusioned with the slow progress that his clients were experiencing with the traditional psychoanalytic approach then in use for helping clients. Ellis developed an approach he called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), after observing that clients improved more quickly if they could change the context, or the way they thought about their problems. The foundation of REBT theory is that people contribute to their own problems by their self-destructive, unhealthy beliefs.

In REBT the clients learn to identify and dispute irrational, unhealthy beliefs, and then to replace these with healthier rational thoughts. In this method of thought, we are born with the potential for:

Rational thinking or Irrational “crooked” thinking

Self-Preservation or Self-Destruction

Growth or Endless mistake repetition

Albert Ellis was influenced in his approach by the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, who stated, “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.” (Corey, 2009) Our unhealthy thinking is the problem. And unhealthy thinking takes the form of “cognitive distortions.” Here are some examples of cognitive distortions:

- Catastrophizing: Seeing only the worst possible outcomes of situations.

- Jumping to conclusions: Interpeting the meaning of a situation with little or no evidence.

- “Should” statements: The belief that things should be a certain way. “I should always be friendly.”

- All-or-Nothing Thinking: Thinking in absolutes such as “always”, “never”, or “every”. “I never do a good job on anything.”

- Personalizing: The belief that one is responsible for events outside of their own control. “My mom is always upset. She would be fine if I did more to help her.”

- Disqualifying the positive: Recognizing only the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive. One might receive many compliments on an evaluation, but focus on the single piece of negative feedback. (Therapist Aid, 2020)

Albert Ellis simplified the concept of helping to improve our lives by more quickly identifying and disputing our errant thoughts, and made it as easy as A-B-C-D.

For example, one client found himself utilizing the A-B-C-D model on more than one occasion, the most recent being within the last few years. Happily, this does not happen that often, but, on occasion, he was awakened in the middle of the night, perhaps by a bad dream, overcome by a fear that he was unable to breathe and unable to swallow. Upon returning to bed and trying to get back to sleep, the fear would not leave, and he would be unable to get back to sleep. He found himself using the REBT model by actually deciding to run some basic “tests.”

Remembering that his fear was based on his belief that he was unable to swallow or breathe, he decided to slow down and ask himself, “Can I breathe?” He then took two or three, full, lung-filling breaths, calmly inhaling and exhaling.

Then he asked, “Can I swallow?” He proceeded to swallow two or three times. Then he got a small glass of water and took two or three swallows of that. By slowing his mind down and running these tests he managed to dispute his mistaken notion, thereby allowing himself to calm down and get back to sleep.

Another client described her feelings of depression and anxiety that stemmed from constant correction and criticism by her mother. The client, over a long period of time, took on the belief that her mother thought she was incompetent in managing her life. This, despite the fact that she was a partner in a successful firm.

The client began to examine her thought process after she was told by friends and relatives how her mother always described her in glowing terms, of her pride in her daughter’s accomplishments. Once faced with these facts, she was able to take on a new, healthier view of herself. She disputed her unhealthy beliefs.

Depression, self-esteem issues, and anxiety are often the result of unhealthy, negative thought processes. Learn to recognize them. Learning to challenge or dispute unhealthy thoughts can help us replace them with positive, healthy thoughts.


Learn more about the author of this post: Dennis Klacko, MA, LCPC, NCC

Works Cited

(2020, December 15). Retrieved from Therapist Aid:

Corey, G. (2009). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.


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