Optimism Is a Muscle: Start Flexing It With the 'ABC Technique'
November 26, 2018
We all know about the glass of water and the question of all questions: Is it half-full or is it half empty?
How you answer that question supposedly shows if you’re an optimist or a pessimist. But it’s not really that simple—even if your instinct is to say “half-empty,” you can still have an optimistic mindset when it matters most.
Optimism, or that half-full worldview, isn’t necessarily something you are or aren’t born with. It’s a trait you can cultivate, as psychologist Martin Seligman found in his work around what he’s coined “learned optimism.”
By challenging the negative stories and tidbits we tell ourselves, we can develop optimism in our life—and, based on Seligman’s findings, there are some serious benefits to that. Not only do general stress levels go down if we adapt optimistic frameworks, but so does performance and motivation. Believe it or not, it can even build up resistance to the common cold.
Robin Roberts, host of Good Morning America, explained it best in a recent interview with The Cut. “Optimism is a muscle that gets stronger with use,” she said. “Because I exercised it at an early age, it’s become a habit. I’m very proud of that—it helps me in stressful situations.”
But how exactly do we channel Roberts and strengthen optimism in our lives, especially when it seems like the whole world can be in your way?
How ABC Impacts Your Optimism
Psychologist Albert Ellis originally created a technique to recognize how we practice optimism back, which Seligman later expanded. It’s called the ABC Technique, and it stands for Adversity, Beliefs, and Consequences.
Those three steps are what we encounter every day—there’s an obstacle in our way (that’s the Adversity). The way we approach that obstacle and what we tell ourselves about it end up turning into our Beliefs, and those beliefs directly impact how we react (or, Consequences).
We all have a unique ABC pattern, and focusing on how you move between Adversity and Belief is the first step in shifting your mindset. Take my experience at the end of a friendship, for example. My moment of adversity was a relationship that I realized was toxic in my life, but didn’t know how to end or change in any way. As I tried to move forward, I noticed that the stories I was telling myself—or my beliefs—were negatively impacting my moods and my days.
Instead of understanding my problems were out of my control, I began internalizing the problems and finding unnecessary faults within myself—but when I switched up the moment between the A and the B, magic happened. As soon as I shed those internal thoughts, I felt comfortable enough to end the friendship and move forward.
In his book Learned Optimism, Seligman calls that particular space between the A and the B our “explanatory style.” When we process an adversity, we tend to think through three things: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. And noticing and resetting how we acknowledge those three Ps is where we can flex our optimism.
Here’s how to go through them:
Permanence: How long will this actually impact me?
First, the way we think about the permanence of a situation impacts our optimism. Acknowledging the temporary nature of certain events can help us be more compassionate towards ourselves.
Maybe you missed a friend’s big day and forgot to be there for them. Instead of branding yourself as a horrible friend for life, reminding yourself that it was just one day can help you move forward with optimism in mind.
Pervasiveness: How widespread is the problem?
Similarly, we tend to make blanket statements when not-so-great things happen to us. Ever thought “everything is ruined” when something small happens, like a spilled coffee?
Taking something small and magnifying it to all areas of your life (aka making it pervasive) is your pessimism peeking out.
Instead, acknowledging that one mistake does not mean everything is a failure can help you remember that the pervasiveness of a problem isn’t as widespread as you initially think.
Personalization: Who am I blaming?
It’s important to remember the last P: personalization. That’s the way we think about negative events.
Do you put the blame on yourself and internalize it all? Or, do you recognize that things may just be out of your control, and there are external factors that impact any given situation? The latter, recognizing external factors, is an important outlook to exercise.
Shift Your ABC
With the three P’s in mind, you can now start to shift the way you move from Adversity to Belief, which ultimately impacts the Consequences.
One way is through our language. It’s so easy for our brains to immediately jump to the negative when we’re talking to ourselves. Changing our self-talk is just one way to practice optimism. Don’t know how to start? Here are some examples from Mayo Clinic on how to reframe certain thoughts you may have during any given day.
●︎ I'm too lazy to get this done. > I wasn't able to fit it into my schedule, but I can re-examine some priorities.
●︎ It's too complicated. > I'll tackle it from a different angle.
●︎ I've never done it before. > It's an opportunity to learn something new.
Another way to combat pessimism and rack up those optimistic moments in your life: Celebrating the “done well” moments. We’ve talked about the benefits of acknowledging what you’re grateful for at the end of each day, but there are also benefits to savoring what you’ve done well IRL.
It can be as big as absolutely nailing that presentation at work—or as small as wearing matching socks. Whatever the size, taking a second to write down what you did well can impact your self-confidence, and ultimately, optimism. And, it can help you realize that spilled coffee isn’t really impacting your entire day—other things are still going smoothly!
Looking at our past and present ABC thought patterns can teach us a lot about our mindset—and help us move and grow towards more realistic optimism. Regardless of where you start, there’s always room for strengthening and flexing that muscle of positive thinking. Recognize that, and you’ll already be on your way.