Our mentors and page authors are not necessarily psychologists or therapists. Even when they are, this page is not medical or psychological advice and they are not creating a doctor/therapist-client relationship. You should consult a professional if possible and they can tell you whether this advice applies to your situation. If this is an emergency, you should call your national emergency number, like 911, or a mental health hotline, like 1-800-950-6264.
This is the first major tool in your CBT toolkit. Once you pick a goal to work on, this is a way to start diving down into what the problem is and work to fix it.
Let’s say your goal is to stop feeling devastated when someone mentions a family member’s poor health. It cripples your attention and hurts you. It makes you less effective. It’s specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. You’re going to measure it, let’s say, but writing down how sad you are from 1-100 after every time someone talks about it. (Don’t worry about writing this graph out while the event is happening, of course. You can create this graph later while reflecting.)
Now, you can work towards this goal using this simple technique to improve your feelings by fixing your thoughts.
First, draw out this graph in your journal. It’s such a quick graph to draw that we recommend you draw it out for each one or two events you want to record and notice.
The top two, activating events and consequences, happen above ground. You can observe them, as can others. They’re easier to notice. But there’s a core missing step: the beliefs that cause you to act the way you do when responding to certain events.
So when you’re reflecting on the thoughts/feelings you want to change, fill out this graph for specific scenarios:
- Activating event: The activating event is what triggered you to react the way you did. In our example, let’s say someone mentioned that your uncle has cancer. It could be someone cutting you off in a lane of traffic, a rude sales call, or anything else that caused the emotions and the consequences you’re grappling with.
- Consequences: Then fill out the consequences. Maybe you broke down in tears and couldn’t work for two hours after you talked about your uncle. Maybe you raged at the person who called or screamed or cut yourself. Whatever the consequences were, write them down.
- Beliefs: Now try to work to figure out what beliefs made you react the way you did. What was going on in your mind at the time? As you start doing more of these records, this process should get easier. You can even start writing down your beliefs before you write consequences. Maybe, here, your belief is that your uncle is going to die soon and you’ll never see him again. Maybe it’s that you’ll be left alone and you can’t deal with the coming sadness. Dig as deep as you can. Maybe your anger is actually because you’re busy and afraid you don’t have enough time to finish work. Then maybe you’re worried about not finishing work because your boss won’t approve of you and you’ll feel worthless.
- Dispute: Finally, write down a dispute for that belief. This is the thought that you are going to use in the future to correct yourself. You are going to create a chant to say in your mind in response to the next time a situation like this arises, one that is rational, calm, and shows you that things are not as dire or broken as they seem in the moment. your thoughts entirely accurate? Was there a silver lining? Are things as terrible as they seem? For example, here, you can say to yourself, “My uncle isn’t dead yet and we can work on getting him better. It will be sad when he passes, but I will be there for him, cherish our time together, and he will always be in my heart.” Or in another situation: “Just because I’m alone now doesn’t mean I’ll always be. I have time to find someone.” Or “I’m not unsuccessful or going to fail just because my boss doesn’t like me. I am worthy and I can always find another job, even if it’s hard.” Make sure your disputes are believable. “I’m not a failure because I know I’m going to be a famous singer next year” isn’t going to make you feel as much better as “I’m not a failure because I’m working hard and how famous I am is not a measure of my success or worth.”
Over time, you’ll correct your thinking when it’s wrong and learn how to react less in the moment. You’ll be able to understand your mind and not just let it run the way it wants to. You’ll be able to notice which disputes work and how they make you feel better.
The ABCD method and the 7-Column thought record will help you learn more and more about yourself over time. Specifically, see if you can dive deep into three areas of your psyche:
- Core Beliefs: Do you think deep down that you’re not loveable? Successful? Do you think you have more control than you do? Do you fundamentally believe your self-worth is tied to respect from your parents?
- Origins: Do you have a back story, a religious belief or the way you were raised, that creates problematic thought processes you’re still coping with? Did you grow up surrounded by anger? Do you have assumptions on how your marriage will turn out because of what happened with your parents?
- Narrative: Do you believe the world works a certain way? That stories should have certain types of endings? Do you believe you need fame? Must everything be fair and are you obsessed with justice? Do you think people need to have more willpower? What story do you want from your life?
Learning more about yourself and being honest with ugly feelings of anger, resentment, jealousy, and sadness will help you improve those feelings and become a better person over time.