This skill aims to help you examine biased thoughts and shift your perspective so that it is more realistic. In challenging your unhelpful thoughts, you are able to change the way you feel. Examining the evidence for and against your thoughts is one strategy for this.
The process is similar to a court trial. You (the Judge) put your thoughts on trial. You examine the evidence for both sides of the situation and then make a ruling. You also need some detective skills here, as you will have to gather the facts yourself. The aim is not to turn a ‘negative’ thought into a ‘positive’ one, but rather to challenge any biases and come up with a more realistic view.
To begin with, you need to break the situation down into the ABC model:
A. What is the situation? (Activating event)
What happened, where and when did it happen, who was there?
E.g., John makes a minor mistake in an email to his boss
B. What were your unhelpful automatic thoughts? (Beliefs)
What images and thoughts went through your mind? How did you view the situation? What were you telling yourself?
E.g., “I always make mistakes”, “I’m incompetent”, “My entire reputation is ruined”
C. What was your reaction? (Consequences)
What emotions did you feel? What sensations did you feel in your body? How did you respond? What did you do?
E.g., Feels anxious, nauseous and tense. Worries about the mistake continuously and feels unable to concentrate on other tasks. Attempts to avoid further mistakes by excessively checking and planning.
The next step is to identify the thought that you would like to challenge. This thought should be what we call a hot thought. In other words, if you have several thoughts in response to the activating event, the hot thought is the one that is strongest and influences your reaction the most. For example, John has many thoughts in the situation above. The thought “My entire reputation is ruined” caused the most anxiety for John, so this was his hot thought.
Your hot thought is the one that goes on trial. Once you have your hot thought, you can start to gather the evidence that supports or rejects it. This step is called disputation and it forms the ‘D’ in the ABCD model. It is important to stick to objective facts when examining the evidence. Objective evidence can be observed/proven and is not influenced by personal feelings or opinions (e.g., I received a complaint). Subjective evidence, on the other hand, is biased by personal perspectives and should be avoided (e.g., I think the customer was unhappy).
Put your hot thought on trial with detective work and disputation:
D. Examine the evidence for and against your hot thought and come up with an alternative/balanced thought based on the evidence (Disputation). The alternative thought should be an unbiased and realistic perspective based on the facts.Identify any unhelpful thinking styles, find the evidence that supports the thought, find the evidence that goes against the thought, and consider alternative explanations.
After gathering the facts and considering some alternative views, your job is to set aside your feelings, weigh up the evidence and come up with a more balanced thought. You should write your new interpretation down and revise it regularly. Below is an example of John’s detective work and disputation. John has crossed out the subjective evidence and based his new thought on objective evidence only:
|Hot thought: “My entire reputation is ruined”|
|Unhelpful thinking styles: Negative bias, overgeneralizing, catastrophic thinking|
|Evidence for thought||Evidence against thought|
|Alternative/balanced thought: “Making one minor error is unlikely to significantly affect my reputation. This doesn’t make me incompetent, it makes me human. It’s likely that my boss will not worry about the error, especially given that the rest of the email was well written and he’s happy with my work performance overall”.|
When examining the evidence and disputing the thought, it can help to ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I falling into an unhelpful thinking style?
- What is the evidence that supports or proves my thought or prediction?
- What is the evidence that disproves my thought or prediction?
- Am I relying on subjective evidence to support my thought?
- What are some other ways of thinking about this?
- What would a friend or family member say?
- What would I tell a friend or family member if they had this thought?
- Am I confusing a thought with a fact?
- Is my thought based on the way I feel instead of facts?
- How likely is it that my prediction will come true?
- What are the consequences of thinking this way? Is it helpful or harmful?
In sum, examining the evidence helps us to overcome biases in our thinking. It opens up our eyes to information that we would otherwise have ignored. Instead of simply accepting your thoughts as truth, this skill helps you form more realistic views and improve how you feel. After forming an alternative thought, you might like to go back to the emotions you felt originally and see if their intensity has decreased.