Ellis ABC model: what is it and how does it describe thoughts?

Everyone has some opinion of themselves or the world around them that, in one way or another, is nothing but an exaggeration.

Sometimes, the drama goes to us and we tend to overestimate the weight of certain threats that, well thought out, are nothing more than small inconveniences that we ourselves have contributed to make them look like something really scary.

These irrational beliefs are a fundamental component when it comes to understanding Ellis’ ABC model , which tries to explain how people, in the same event, can interpret it so variedly based on our own cognitions.

While beliefs of this type are not necessarily pathological, it is true that, taken to the extreme, they can involve disorders. To learn more about what we mean, let’s see this model, its components and therapeutic application.

  • Related article: ” The 10 main psychological theories

Ellis ABC model: what is it?

The ABC model is a theory proposed by the cognitive psychotherapist Albert Ellis (1913-2007), which tries to explain why people, despite living the same event, can develop different responses based on their own beliefs. These beliefs are a fundamental pillar when it comes to understanding how the person sees the world and how he decides to face the demands of daily life.

The idea behind the model is inspired by a quote from the Greek philosopher Epícteto, “people are not altered by the facts, but by what they think about the facts.” That is, it is not the fact itself that positively or negatively affects a person, but the individual’s way of seeing and treating him .

Components of this model

Ellis’ ABC model proposes three components when explaining and understanding the way an individual behaves and their degree of psychosocial adjustment.

1. Activating event

Within the model, activating event is understood (in English, ‘activating event’) that phenomenon that occurs to an individual or that he himself has caused to occur that causes a series of problematic thoughts and behaviors to be activated .

This can be a situation external to the individual, such as an accident, a family member’s illness, an argument with another person, or something internal to the person, such as a person’s own thought, fantasy, behavior or emotion.

It must be understood that within the model the idea is contemplated that the same event can be perceived very differently by two people , and that the degree to which it involves some type of dysfunctional behavior is very variable from individual to individual.

2. Belief system

The belief system is understood as the entire series of cognitions that make up the way of being and seeing the world of the person.

Actually, this component includes thoughts, memories, assumptions, inferences, images, norms, values, attitudes, schemes and other aspects that shape the way of perceiving threats and opportunities. These thoughts are usually automatic , crossing the mind as if it were a lightning bolt and without conscious control over them.

Beliefs can be either rational or, conversely, irrational. The former, regardless of whether they are positive or negative, contribute to feeling satisfied with oneself.

On the other hand, in the case of irrational beliefs, these are usually based on little logical things or exaggerations that the individual makes of an aspect of his personality or his abilities. They are usually false thoughts, which come from too demanding inferences, which are formulated in terms of ‘should’ or ‘should’.

They usually imply very negative visions of oneself, or too unrealistic self-demands, which can contribute to the person perceiving himself or herself as useless or worthless.

This has, as a result, the feeling of deep negative emotions associated with depression and anxiety , as well as favoring the conduct of harmful behaviors such as addictions, aggressions and suicide.

3. Consequences

As the last link in the ABC chain we have the C of consequences, both emotional and behavioral (‘Consequences’). These are the individual’s response to a particular triggering event and modulated by their own belief system .

As each person has their own cognitions, the consequences of a particular trigger event vary from individual to individual, being positive for some and negative for others.

How are disorders formed according to this model?

Based on the components explained above, this model considers that psychological disorders would be formed from an inappropriate and dysfunctional thinking style when faced with facts that, objectively, are not threatening.

Having irrational thoughts is something relatively normal and common. We all have a somewhat negative view of some aspect of us. The problem comes when this significantly defines our way of being and deprives us of well-being .

In most cases, irrational beliefs taken to the extreme contribute to the appearance of mood disorders, such as depression, and anxiety problems. In turn, these disorders are maintained because of the person’s own way of thinking.

Within the theoretical framework of emotional rational theory, which is inspired by Ellis’ ABC model and the psychotherapist himself contributed in his theoretical definition, it is argued that there are certain types of ideas or insights behind the maintenance of pathological irrational thoughts .

In turn, these disorders are maintained because of the person’s own way of thinking. The person usually thinks that it is an event that causes them to suffer, when it really is their way of thinking and perceiving the event itself. In addition, since their irrational beliefs are rigid and extreme, they are very little susceptible to change.

To make matters worse, those who have a cloudy mind with this type of cognition tend to become obsessed with the past, instead of working on the present and the future , which is what guarantees recovery.

Relationship and application with Emotional Rational Therapy

The ABC model of Ellis is widely applied within the rational emotional therapy that, although it has been reformulated over the decades, remains strongly grounded in the thinking of Albert Ellis.

With the model, it is possible to understand why a person behaves dysfunctionally before an event and, thus, once their way of thinking is understood, work on it to modify it in such a way that a better adaptation is achieved.

This is where the debate is used in therapeutic terms. The objective of this is to overcome the problems that the person manifests because of his irrational beliefs when interpreting one or more activating events, which has led him to a situation in which self-destructive behaviors and dysfunctional emotions are manifested.

What the therapist must achieve, before discussing the patient’s dysfunctional cognitions, is to make him see and be aware of what they are. Once identified, something that is not at all simple, it will be possible to see them holistically and to discuss which aspects are real and which are not .

One way to do this is that, before an event that has caused the patient discomfort, make him try to go back to the exact moment in which the triggering event appeared. Thus, he is shown what feelings considered inappropriate began to manifest, based on what and if the way he sees the world further explains his way of seeing the event or is totally and absolutely the fault of the triggering event.

Once the irrational beliefs have been detected, a series of questions can be posed in the therapeutic context . Examples:

  • Where is the evidence that this is really threatening?
  • Is there a law or rule that says that should look as you see it?
  • Why do you think that should always be done in the same way?
  • How does this fact affect your way of thinking?

With these questions it is favored to question the veracity of irrational beliefs . Once debated, it is easier to throw them on the ground and make the patient start taking a more adjusted style of thinking.

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