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What Are the ABCs of Emotional and Behavioral Management?

By: Bridgette W. Gottwald, LPC, NCC

It’s all fun and games until someone finds out the function of your behavior! Have you ever wondered why you do certain things or why you react or behave in specific ways? Perhaps learning about the ABCs of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) will help you break this down. 

We create our emotions throughout our interpretations of events that take place in the world. The events themselves do not directly cause emotions, although it might feel that way at the moment. We cause ourselves disturbances through unhealthy negative emotions when we turn our healthy preferences into rigid demands, or turn our wants into dire needs. 

When this happens, we typically engage in awfulizing (imaging something to be as bad as it can be), catastrophizing (believing something is far worse than it is), and our frustration tolerance lessens. The goal of REBT is not to turn off the negative emotions, it is to move from experiencing negative emotions unhealthily and process our way through them more adaptively and healthily. 

Healthy Negative Emotions vs. Unhealthy Negative Emotions

Unhealthy negative emotions are viewed as irrational emotional responses to an inferred or adverse event. Healthy negative emotions are natural responses to difficult and complex events that happen throughout life. Unhealthy emotions typically interfere with constructive actions and result in destructive behavior, whereas healthy emotions can evoke change or encourage us to engage in self-helping actions. Healthy emotions are beliefs that are consistent with reality, flexible, and logical. Unhealthy emotions and beliefs sabotage an individual’s ability to move forward to productively achieve goals. Below are some examples of the differences that exist between both healthy and unhealthy negative emotions. 

Healthy emotions that can be regulated Unhealthy emotions that cause damage
Annoyance Anger
Frustration Rage
Irritation Hostility
Disappointment Resentment
Concern Anxiety
Regret or remorse Guilt
Sadness Depression
Embarrassment Shame


What Is the ABC Model?  

The basic idea behind the ABC model is that external events (A) do not cause emotions or behaviors (C), but instead they cause beliefs (B) and, in particular, irrational beliefs. So, our emotions and behaviors are not directly determined by life events or activating events, but rather by the way these events are cognitively processed and evaluated by a person. Fortunately, we have the power to change our beliefs to decrease suffering. The goal of using the ABC model amidst treatment is to help the client accept the rational beliefs and dispute the irrational ones. The activating event does not directly cause or maintain your consequences (C) but it contributes to it and is correlated.  

A = Activating event

  • Something that happens to or around someone
  • Other people treat you unfairly, reject you, or disrespect you 
  • Harsh conditions

B = Belief system

  • Self-talk that is either rational or irrational 
  • Directly causes and maintains your consequences (C)
  • Interpretation or appraisal of the event

C = Consequences 

  • Emotions 
  • Behaviors 
  • Response

What Now? 

After you have built an understanding of the ABCs of REBT, there are three steps you can take to put it to practice and guide yourself to a healthier reaction. 

1) Identify the ABC

  •       Be aware of the activating event (A), belief system (B), and consequence (C) of the scenario. 

2) Disputation

  •       Look at the irrational beliefs and dispute them to change an unhealthy emotion into a healthy and productive one. 

3) Come up with an effective coping statement, a new belief, and an adjusted way of thinking 

Hopefully, this concept gives you some perspective on what is happening in your brain when triggered or confronted with an unhealthy emotion. Take some time to check your inner thoughts and belief systems, and how they may be negatively serving you.  


College of Behavioral Therapies, (2021). Negative emotions are ok – just make sure they’re healthy. Retrieved from:

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