Learned Optimism: How to Overcome Life’s Challenges

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by Brenton Russell on

Embarking on the journey to the lifestyle of your design takes courage.  It also demands a significant level of mental resilience to survive and thrive through the challenging times.  One method that I have found useful to maintain a positive and constructive outlook is Martin Seligman’s ABCDE mental model detailed in his book ‘Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life’.

The ABCDE Method

The ABCDE method is a simple mental model designed to disrupt your negative and destructive thoughts when they occur.  When you find yourself in an adverse situation or experiencing negative thoughts quickly run through the following mental steps:

  • A = Adversity. Describe the adverse or challenging situation that you have encountered.
  • B = Beliefs. Become aware of your instinctive negative and destructive beliefs and thoughts that relate to the situation.
  • C = Consequences. Identify your emotions and behaviours resulting from your negative beliefs.
  • D = Disputation. Identify Evidence of why your negative beliefs are incorrect and/or generate a positive and more useful Alternative Belief and/or Put into Perspective the situation.
  • E = Energise.  With your negative beliefs now disputed, feel the energy of your new empowering emotions and transform this into positive and constructive behaviour.

The first three steps (ABC) are about knowing yourself and becoming mindful of the situation, your beliefs surrounding the situation and your subsequent emotions and behaviours occurring as a result of your beliefs.  The last two steps (DE) are about breaking the loop of negative thinking, re-framing the situation and increasing your resilience to the adverse situation at hand.

ABCDE in Action

Here’s an example:

  • Adversity.  I didn’t get the pay rise today that I thought I should of.
  • Beliefs.  Obviously I’m not good enough to deserve extra pay.  Everyone else here will no doubt get a pay rise which must mean that they are much better than me. No one thinks that I am good enough for a raise let alone a promotion.
  • Consequences.  I’m not even going to bother to try any more.  I’m so nervous about giving that presentation to my work team tomorrow  now that I realise how much smarter everyone else is.  I’m going to stop offering up suggestions to my boss as he obviously thinks that I am stupid.
  • Disputation.  Evidence I’ve got a pay rise every year for the last three years and my boss has been giving me a heap of positive feedback over the last couple of months so obviously I have been doing things right around here.  Alternative BeliefEveryone else who gets paid more than me around here has better education credentials than me.  Put into PerspectiveAt the end of the day this is isn’t the only company that can use my skills.  If in the future I still don’t get the pay rises that I deserve than this might be a good opportunity to apply for jobs at different companies that will not only recognise my worth but also give me greater exposure to the industry
  • Energise.  I really want to become better at my job and get the pay rises that I think that I deserve.  I have a really strong track record with the company and I have had plenty of positive feedback recently.  I guess the next step for me is to enrol in some classes to increase my education to really enhance the quality of my work and my value to the company.  If that doesn’t work than I will look for a new job with another related company that can also broaden my experience.

Increasing mental resilience is as simple as remembering ABCDE. By training our mind’s awareness to apply ABCDE during adverse or challenging situations we can effectively break the loop of negative thinking and energise ourselves towards positive outcomes.

Future Posts

The aim of this post was to provide a simple yet powerful method of re-framing adverse situations to transform negative emotions and behaviour into positive energy and constructive action.  I believe that my ability to overcome challenges and retain a constructive outlook is the most important component in implementing my chosen lifestyle design. Our perception of the world and its affects on our actions is a fascinating topic and one that deserves further exploration.  Stay tuned for future posts about this.

Write a comment and let me know any specific areas within this topic that you would like me to explore and post more on.

Personal Note
This method was recommended to me a number of years ago by a military officer who had just returned from a combat tour of Iraq where his unit suffered a number of psychological casualties.  Many of these casualties could have been prevented if the soldiers had learnt coping mechanisms like the ABCDE method.
I have subsequently and consistently used this method for overcoming adversity and negative thinking both in my following combat tours of Iraq and Afghanistan and throughout my personal life.  It is not necessarily the situation that causes us problems, it is our perception of the situation. Learning better coping mechanisms and increasing mental resilience can have a profound impact on our wellbeing and lifestyle regardless of what our personal adversities may be.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ryan Renfrew @lifestyle design December 8, 2010 at 10:10 am

Hey Brenton,

Love the acronym. I would like to hear more about beliefs, especially where do they come from, how we can change them and the effects of changing them.

Thanks Brenton



Brenton Russell December 8, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Hi Ryan,

The beauty of the ABCDE method is definitely its simplicity. Thanks for your suggestions. I will definitely be writing more on beliefs, how they can affect us and what we can do to ensure that our beliefs help rather than hinder.


Bek Russell December 8, 2010 at 3:20 pm

I just borrowed Martin Selligman’s ‘Learned Optimism’ from the library this week….its still sitting on my coffee table but you have inspired me to pick it up and begin reading! Selligman has some really interesting information about being ‘lucky’ and his website is really entertaining.

Cheers Bek


Brenton Russell December 8, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Glad the post has inspired you to get stuck into Martin Seligman’s book. I haven’t checked out his website but I’ll certainly do so now. I am thinking that the concept of ‘luck’ is another great topic for a post that is definitely related to your beliefs. Thanks for the idea!


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