You are startled and wake up one night to a noise in the kitchen. You begin to wonder what it could be and after some quick thinking you begin to fear the worst. Your instincts are ignited, your mind starts racing for possible explanations and you are likely already planning for a potential threat. You begin planning out how to approach the situation: will you confront it directly? What kind of protection will you bring with you? How do you plan to respond if it’s an intruder? What else could it be?
Now suppose I preface this situation by telling you that you own a cat who is known to wander about and often roams through the kitchen at all hours of the night. Does it change how you respond to the noise?
This is the power of the human mind to take the exact same event (a noise in the night) and turn it into a state of panic (planning to confront an intruder) or a state of relief (cat is home for the night, safe and sound), depending on how we perceive it.
Psychologists have summed this dynamic up in several ways, most of which focus on a three tier approach: 1) Activating event/Adversity (noise in the night), 2) Belief (must be an intruder OR cat is home safe and sound), and 3) Consequence (panic OR relief).
To sum this up, I will borrow from Albert Ellis’ work on the A-B-C model of events:
A- Activating Event: Activating events happen constantly, for the purpose of this exercise we will focus on distressing events: being cut-off in traffic, getting caught in a storm, annoyed by your partner, frustrated with a co-worker, forgot something at home, ignored by a friend, disrespected by your teenager, etc.
B- Belief about that event: Beliefs largely determine what impact the activating event will have. For example, if you’re cut-off in traffic, beliefs can range from “what an arrogant prick, they clearly think they’re more important than everyone else!” to “well we all have places to go, no point in getting worked up over it, besides, they could be in a rush for good reason.”
C-Consequence: The belief of the activating event inevitably shapes the consequences. If the belief about getting cut-off is that you have been personally affronted and must do something to show them your displeasure, you are likely going to feel even greater and ongoing agitation. If the belief is that some peoples driving styles are more risky and aggressive than yours, but reacting to it only causes you to feel greater distress and accomplishes very little, you are more likely to turn your focus to more important and positive things in your life.
The A-B-C model is a wonderful example of how it is not just events that cause distress, but our conceptualization of the events. This is summed up in the wise proverb: pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
It helps us understand the human contribution to suffering. It’s especially important to note that we are rarely aware of our “beliefs,” we often react instinctually.
1) Denial: Denial is a common automatic response to a distressing event, especially if we feel overwhelmed or incapable of managing it. The first step to moving forward from our “denial” responses is to understand that distressing events are inevitable and living in ignorance often only further enslaves us to them.
2) Anger: Anger is often an automatic response to distressing events, especially when we feel treated unfairly, agitated, helpless, powerless, or overwhelmed. The first step to moving forward from “anger” responses is often to acknowledge what we CAN do in any given situation rather than focusing on the negatives and what we cannot do.
3) Sadness: Sadness is a common automatic response to situations where we feel a sense of loss, tragedy, or failure. The first step to moving forward from “sadness” responses is often to acknowledge that we are not alone in our suffering and there is still much to have gratitude for in spite of life’s tragedies.
There is nothing inherently wrong with instinctual responses, except that we can get stuck in them and therefore become stuck in maladaptive patterns of behaviour. We can move forward from our instinctual responses by becoming aware of them, understanding why we hold them, and introducing more intentional responses that give us a more desirable result.
1) Acceptance: Acceptance is the moment that we are able to be kind enough to ourselves and others after a distressing event and admit that we’re all still learning, it could’ve happened to anyone, worse things have happened to good people, we enjoyed it while it lasted, not everything in life is intentional or about us, and we were doing the best we could at the time. It is a realistic and depersonalized response that doesn’t only see the problem, but sees how to turn the problem into the best possible outcome.
2) Embrace: Embrace goes one step further than acceptance to actively take pride in our responses to distressing events and use them as tools for interpersonal growth. It sees distressing events not as “barriers” to satisfaction and fulfillment, but as opportunities to promote good character, integrity, and compassion in the world.