Imagine you’re at work, facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge, and your coworker walks up to you and says, “Hey, come on! You can do this. See it as an opportunity!” While well-meaning, that advice is pretty much useless. Because, how do you even start thinking of challenges as opportunities?

By repeatedly chanting, “This is an opportunity!” to yourself? Yea… That’s probably NOT gonna work.  

And yet, ‘see challenges as opportunities to grow’ is often the only message motivational speakers, coaches, and websites espouse, without any elaboration on HOW you’d go about doing it. 

Let’s change that, right here. In this article, you’re going to learn an ACTIONABLE exercise which you can use to reframe your thoughts any time you feel like you’re not capable of meeting a new challenge or solving a tough problem.

First things first, what are frames?

You can think of frames as your own lens of how you perceive life experiences and how you react to them (e.g. what’s good or bad, what to focus on in a particular situation, and what actions to take in a situation). 

Because your frame is anchored in your core beliefs, values, past life experiences, expectations, and various unique factors, no two people experience or react to the same event in entirely the same way. 

For a real-life example of how personal experience affects an individual’s world-view, you just have to take a glance at the numerous historical studies highlighting how people who experienced severe economic conditions in their youth are more risk-averse in adulthood. Research also shows that these individuals tend to believe that success in life depends more on luck than on effort.

The magic of cognitive reframing

As you can tell, holding a counterproductive frame (e.g. that you can’t overcome challenges) – at any one time of your life –  can hold you back from achieving happiness and success in life. 

This is where cognitive reframing comes in. 

Cognitive reframing is a technique commonly used by cognitive behavior therapists to help clients look at situations from a slightly different perspective – which can then positively change the way they think, feel, and behave concerning (and in) a particular situation. 

While it can be helpful for a professional to guide you through the process of cognitive reframing, the truth is that you can easily do it on your own as well.

And you can do so by remembering the letters ‘ABCDE.’

A little bit of background: this ‘ABCDE’ model is based on the ‘ABC model’ constructed by Albert Ellis, one of the “fathers” of cognitive behavior therapy. As you’ll see in a bit, the ‘ABCDE’ is a more actionable reframing method and results in more favorable long-term outcomes. 

It helps individuals see the connection between an event (i.e. situation) that may serve as a trigger and how irrational evaluations (i.e. frame) may cause emotional and/or behavioral consequences that often lead to increased distress or conflict.

The ABCDE model

Confused? Don’t worry. The ‘ABCDE’ model is pretty much self-explanatory:

  • A – Activating event – refers to the triggering event that leads to automatic, dysfunctional thinking
  • B – Belief – the resulting irrational belief of the situation/event
  • C – Consequence – the consequence of the irrational belief, which is typically unfavorable
  • D – Disputation – the process of actively challenging the irrational thoughts and beliefs to find a better frame to view the triggering event
  • E – (New) Effect – the resulting, more accurate view of the event/situation with a more helpful narrative, disarmed negative thoughts and feelings, and an action plan for performing better in the given situation

Real-life application of the ABCDE model

For this example’s sake, let’s assume that you’re tasked to come up with a proposal on how to improve work efficiency in the office. That’s the activating event.

Becoming aware of your irrational beliefs: A, B, and C

Now, let’s move through the ABCDE model in a step-by-step manner, so you know how to do cognitive reframing in the future – no matter what situation you find yourself in. Here’s an additional tip: write down your thoughts as you go through the processes, so you don’t accidentally lose your train of thought (and spiral back into a counterproductive frame!)

  • Activating event – Describe what happened as accurately as possible.
  • “I was tasked to come up with a proposal on how to improve work efficiency in the office.”
  • Belief – Describe your immediate beliefs and thoughts about the situation as accurately as possible. 
  • “I don’t have any useful suggestions.”
  • “I’m going to get fired because all I have are useless suggestions.”
  • “Who’s going to trust my recommendations?”
  • Consequence – Describe what happened as a result of your beliefs
  • “I want to ask my boss to assign the task to someone else.”
  • “I’m not going to work on it at all.”
  • “I’m now very fearful about the possibility of losing my job.”

Reframe with D & E

  • Dispute – Ask yourself the following questions so you can neutralize any irrational, adverse emotions and find a better frame in response to the task:
  • How would you have responded if the task was assigned to a loved one?
  • “I would have been happy as it would be an opportunity to make a positive impact on the company and potentially impress their boss.”
  • What are all the counterarguments to your underlying beliefs?
  • “I DO have useful suggestions, for example, there was that one time where I improved (____) for the company.”
  • “It’s unlikely that my boss will fire me over this. It’s just a side project.”
  • “There’s a reason why my boss has tasked me with this; he/she believes that I have useful suggestions.”
  • What’s the worst thing that could realistically happen, and how bad could that be?
  • “The worst thing that could happen is my boss doesn’t like my suggestions – and doesn’t implement them. It’s improbable for them to fire me over this.”
  • What is the most optimistic interpretation of the event you can think of?
  • “The reason why my boss has assigned this task to me is because he/she respects my opinions and values – and believes that I can make a positive contribution to the company’s growth.”
  • Effect – The cumulative efforts of all your thoughts; this is where you write down a more accurate view of the situation and an action plan for how you’re going to perform better.
  • “I do have useful suggestions.”
  • “The worst thing I thought could happen isn’t likely to happen.”
  • “My ideas and opinions are valued. Plus, there’s the possibility that my boss will love my ideas – and implement them in the company, which can help with my career progression.”
  • “I’m going to gather everyone’s feedback and work hard on this task.”

You have the power to change your beliefs – any time

Here’s something to keep in mind: all life situations have no inherent meaning in and of themselves. You are the one who assigns meaning to them by viewing them through a particular frame.

The most important takeaway from this all? In many situations, you may not be able to change the activating events (i.e. external factors) that happen to you. But that doesn’t mean you’re helpless. Always keep in mind the principles of the ABCDE model. You always have the power to change your own beliefs, which shape your everyday experiences. 

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