The ABC’s of REBT

The “ABC’s” are an exercise from REBT, a form of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) that is simple enough and effective enough to be used by anybody and — it works!

The REBT (Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy) “ABC’s” help us to stop being victimized by our own thinking. It can be used to help with depression, stop anxiety, deal with stress and anger management.

Here is an example how someone could use the REBT ABCs for anger.

A common example is the issue of someone else’s behavior “making us angry.”  Anger is a common emotion, but very damaging in how it makes you feel (and its impact on how others feel.)

This is a very common way of expressing something and we hear it often, but in fact it distorts the situation it attempts to describe. A more accurate description of “someone making me angry” is to say that I feel angry about their behavior. They are not making me anything- they are simply behaving in a way that I am getting angry about. I notice their behavior and then I become angry. The responsibility for the anger is mine, not theirs.

This can sound strange at first, but dealing with problematic anger and frustration this way works. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy says that it is generally irrational and self-defeating to get all worked up about someone else’s behavior.

Think about anger for a moment. Why do we get angry? Someone does something you do not like.  You have a “right” not to like it.  You have a “right” to share your dislike with them.  But where does it follow that since you do not like it, they therefore SHOULD not do it?  Do you own them, control them, are they your possession?

You have a very rational preference that they change their behavior and then you take this preference and escalate it to a DEMAND, as if you were granted supreme power by someone to rule how people should and should not behave.

In addition, their behavior is governed by how they think and feel at that time and is consistent with their thoughts.  In fact, their behavior at that moment can not be anything different that it is (this is reality based thinking.)  You don’t like it, and you wish it were different, but it is consistent with their thinking. 

You may still be left with a practical problem, “how do I get them to change their behavior?”  But then you become problem solving instead of problem focused. 

The result is that you may still feel annoyed or irritated about their behavior, but not angry or enraged.  You simply have changed your very irrational DEMAND to a very rational Preference. 

The less intense emotion will allow you to become much more creative in trying to convey your feelings to the other person with an attempt to get them to change.  Once you downgrade the DEMAND to a simple PREFERENCE, the heat is turned down and you can function again. After all, it’s now only a preference!

REBT has a simple exercise to help us make this adjustment, what are called “the ABCs”.   It is used to analyze the situation and change our thinking about it so that without trying to change external reality, we can feel better about it.

This doesn’t mean that we should never try to change external reality- sometimes it is appropriate- it’s when it isn’t an appropriate or effective response that we can choose to have a different response instead in order to feel better. While the ABCs are for use to help with any emotional upset, anger is the example we’ll use here.

To use this ABC exercise for yourself, just pick any situation where you were angry about someone’s behavior and take a look and see what it is you are thinking about it that is DEMAND-ing and irrational, and change it into something more rational- a PREFERENCE.

It is irrational to demand that people behave in the way we want them to! Here is an example using drunk people making a lot of noise late at night as they pass by outside where I live.

• A. (Activating event) Drunk people outside, making some noise.
• B. (irrational Belief (iB) I have about A) They MUST NOT make any noise.
• C. (Consequences of having those beliefs about A) When noisy drunk people pass in the street outside late at night and wake me up. I Feel angry. It feels bad. I lie awake feeling angry and upset and don’t get back to sleep for a long time.
• D. (Dispute the irrational Beliefs (iB’s) in B by turning them into questions and answers) WHY shouldn’t they make any noise- where is that commandment written in stone? Where is the evidence?  Again, who made you Supreme Ruler of the Universe dictating how people Should or Must act? 
• E. (Effective new thinking- substitute something rational instead of B) Drunk people are often noisy, but it’s no BIG deal. I don’t like it, but I can damn deal with what I don’t like.  Maybe I will touch base with them in the morning (when they are sober).

I will CHOOSE to not upset myself about this, and I may even stop even noticing it because I am no longer demanding it be different than it obviously is (Reality Based).

When this happens I will say “Ah, the drunk people who pass in the night” and maybe go back to sleep.

You can make an ABC exercise really short;

A. (Activating situation) Drunks walking past outside, making some noise.
B. (irrational Belief (or IB)I have about A) They SHOULDN’T make any noise
C. (Consequences of having those beliefs about A) I feel angry, etc.
D. (Dispute the irrational Belief/s in B) WHY shouldn’t they make any noise?
E. (Effective new thinking) Drunk people do make noise, it’s what they’re good at- it’s like a natural talent for them. I will CHOOSE to not upset myself about this.

And you can do this on many situations that bother you and reclaim your peace of mind, just look for the DEMAND and turn it into a PREFERENCE.

Here’s another one… A. (Activating situation) I tried to do something and failed B. (irrational Belief I have about A) I must always be successful C. (Consequences of believing B) I feel bad, depressed, etc. D. (Dispute the Irrational Belief in B) Where is it written in stone that I must I always be successful? E. (Effective new thinking to replace B) I would prefer always to be successful but let’s be realistic– that isn’t very likely, is it- I am human and humans are fallible, therefore do not succeed in everything they attempt.  If success is important, then I will work harder recognizing that failure may occur again. 

That’s it- that is how to do ABC’sTry this technique with something that is bothering you. Try to keep it as simple as you can while you get used to the ideas involved.

Also, see this list of Rational Beliefs happiness-inducing statements.

Now, be aware of “should-ing” and “musturbation” (these simply mean the occurrence of problem-causing “should” and “must” DEMANDS in your thinking).

Here are some things you might think or believe, in which case these could be your “iB”s (Irrational Beliefs):

• I MUST NOT feel overwhelmed with responsibilities I CAN’T STAND IT when I feel (bored, sad, lonely, whatever)

• People MUST not take me for granted 

•  Other people SHOULD behave in the way I want

• I SHOULD be able to have a drink I NEED a drink (“NEED” is often interpreted as MUST HAVE- be aware of such invisible MUSTS)

• They MUST see it my way

• I MUST NEVER display weakness

• The sun MUST shine tomorrow

• People who do bad things MUST ALWAYS be punished etc.

Try to find some Activating situations, iB’s and Consequences of your own and do this exercise with them. Often is is easier to start with the C- the Consequences of the A and B and work back to see what they were.

Whenever you feel upset it can be  a useful exercise to see if an ABC can be done on the situation and your thinking about it. You never know, you might just feel better. Get into the habit of doing this regularly and you might feel a lot better overall.

And do please note; this is a tool not just a theory. Success with this (and other) cognitive techniques is dependent on your writing out your own examples and making it part of the way you think.

 (Go HERE to see (and print) an ABC Worksheet >>)

 More on the ABC’s and REBT from