The ABC Theory of Change

The ABC Theory of ChangeA client came in the other day and slumped on my couch. “I’ve been diagnosed with a heart issue,” he said.

“What kind of issue?” I asked.

“It’s a valve thing. I’ll probably have to have surgery. My heart is just getting weaker.”

“What can you do about that?” I wondered.

He shrugged. “Probably nothing. My dad died of heart failure when he was just a few years older than I am now. I doubt there’s much I can do differently.”

Wow. What kind of different attitude could help my client? He seemed sure that his lot in life was to follow in his father’s footsteps and die of heart failure at an early age. He believed this so deeply that he didn’t see that he could make any changes in his life that could alter this trajectory.

One of the models I use to work with clients (and often myself!) is the ABC theory of change. Developed by Martin Seligman, a psychologist and writer, the ABC’s look at three aspects of a problem:

When we believe that we deserve our misfortunes, or that we are victims, the usual consequences are that we don’t take a problem-solving attitude. Or we imagine that we don’t have the power or resources to move forward.

A stands for the Adverse event. In this case, a bad diagnosis. It could be a loss of a job, or ongoing pain, or a divorce. Anything you consider a difficult circumstance.

B stands for your Belief about the event. This man’s belief was that the diagnosis meant he was headed for an early death — and he also didn’t believe he could change that. Other people I have worked with have beliefs that they “deserve” their problem, or that what happened to them is someone else’s fault. Your beliefs shape the next step.

C stands for Consequences.  Whatever we believe about a situation or about ourselves has consequences. The consequence of what my patient believed was that he didn’t take any actions. He didn’t get a second opinion, or ask about nutrition or exercise. He gave up — before he had any reason to.

When we believe that we deserve our misfortunes, or that we are victims, the usual consequences are that we don’t take a problem-solving attitude. Or we imagine that we don’t have the power or resources to move forward. Sometimes we even feel like we aren’t allowed to be different.

Think about an event in your life that has caused you pain. It can be major pain — like job loss or your diagnosis. It can be minor pain like not winning an award or being chosen to be part of a team.

Take a few minutes and think about what you believe about yourself and the situation. It can take a while to let your beliefs surface — they are often hiding out under the radar. But they are there. If you can’t figure it out, think about your usual response — what do you say at times of adversity?

“This always happens to me.”

“Things never turn out — I’m better off if I don’t try.”

“Well it was bad luck this time — but next time will be different.”

Or, “This is a rough patch, but I can figure it out.”

What are the consequences that come from those sets of beliefs?

You can have fun with this — looking at where you want to challenge some beliefs that do not serve you.

When you begin to unearth and change what you believe, you will feel better!

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