A Spoonful of Sugar

The ABC's They Didn't Teach You In School

A drawing of a young woman or an old woman depending on your perspective

“I’m angry because my friend stood me up.”

“I’m embarrassed because those two are whispering to each other and looking at me.”

“I’m sad because my boyfriend dumped me.”

If you’re like most people, all of these statements probably sound perfectly reasonable to you. Clearly, in these situations something has happened which has triggered an emotion (and then a reaction), right?

Well, not exactly…

There’s a little more to it than that. Interestingly, the stoics knew this centuries ago. To quote Epictetus:

What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them.

This ancient concept was later codified by cognitive behavioral therapists, who termed it the ABC‘s:

Activating event

Beliefs (words, phrases, images and other thought processes)

Consequences (emotions, behaviors)

The idea is that events (A‘s) get filtered through your (often fleeting) thought processes (B‘s) and that’s what leads to your emotions (C‘s), not the events themselves.

Not convinced? Let’s try a quick game to illustrate.

Those first three phrases gave A‘s and C‘s but left out the B‘s. Let’s figure out what the B‘s could have been:

My friend didn’t show up when and where we planned to meet ? I’m angry
Two people are whispering to each other and looking at me. ? I’m embarrassed
My boyfriend dumped me. ? I’m sad

Some example answers:

  1. This is incredibly disrespectful. What a crummy way to treat a so-called friend.
  2. They are making fun of this new sweater.
  3. I’m not good enough for him.

Now let’s change the C‘s and try again:

My friend didn’t show up when and where we planned to meet ? I’m afraid
Two people are whispering to each other and looking at me. ? I’m proud
My boyfriend dumped me. ? I’m glad

Again, some example answers:

  1. I bet he’s been in another accident.
  2. They must be admiring my new haircut.
  3. I’d hate to be in a relationship where both people weren’t feeling fulfilled.

Your answers were probably different the whole way through and that’s okay. In fact, it brings up an important point: we could go on like this, changing the B‘s and C‘s ad infinitum because there’s no One Universal Response to these events. The bottom line? You don’t have to feel any particular way about the things that happen in your daily life.

Change your B‘s and you change your C‘s.

headshot of Chris Roberts, Naturopathic Doctor

Chris Roberts is a Naturopathic Doctor with an anxiety-focussed practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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