A complete system for using principles of cognitive behavioral therapy to overcome your own problematic emotions and behaviors

Richard Ragnarson, M.D.
Jan 25 · 33 min read
Photo by StockSnap via Pixabay.

Working on myself and with my patients, I see firsthand that it’s not easy to practice self-reflection while staying objective. You often end up staying at the same level of thought of the problems you are analyzing. You enter a debate with your mind, and you keep buying into your own stories.

To get around this problem, I developed a new journaling style based on core ideas from cognitive psychology. The result is a repeatable process that you can use to increase your self-awareness, challenge your assumptions, and experiment with new types of thinking.

Where do my ideas come from?

I am a licensed medical doctor from Europe, and I am close to finishing my residency in psychiatry. I am currently working in a center for depression and anxiety. My daily routine consists of prescribing medication and helping patients unravel their thinking.

I also have been undergoing personal cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for the past three years, with tangible benefits for my thinking skills, average mood, and general life satisfaction. CBT is a result-driven form of psychological treatment, with a rich scientific literature supporting its value in treating depression, anxiety, and most psychological problems.

I’ve been self-experimenting for most of my life, and I’ve always enjoyed cross-applying knowledge across disparate fields.



What’s the Point of Cognitive Journaling?

Journaling is so popular that most of us take for granted the reasons why we do it. While these reasons will vary from person to person, there are two qualities of journaling that are particularly important to the practice described in this article.

  1. You open up to a broader perspective. When you sit down and write about your experiences and feelings, you choose to dedicate a special time window to reflecting on your own life. By putting your emotions and thoughts on paper, you gain some momentum in the process of working through them. They stop being absolute, and you feel less overwhelmed. You imply that they do not reflect the whole of reality, as it may often feel when you’re deep into them. You become, in a sense, an observer of your own thinking.
  2. You can change your views. You get more perspective on your thinking because you force yourself to slow it down. By acting as an observer of yourself, you have a chance to reorganize your thinking, spot patterns in it, and choose to change your mind with the fresh information you discover.

What other systems of journaling lack

Common approaches to journaling are often spontaneous and not very systematic. They do nothing to help you overcome your thinking biases, leaving your blind spots firmly in place.

I’ve noticed this in myself and in my work with patients. When you focus on a problem, you can end up brainstorming even more convincing evidence for your current assumptions.

Why do we do that? There are two reasons.

The first reason is that your mind has a preference for maintaining internal coherence. This is a survival mechanism that you use to make sense of the world and to predict future events based on your past experiences and what you know. While useful, this tendency is one of the main reasons why personal change is so difficult. When you try adopting new ways of thinking or new behaviors, it can be painful; you are literally fighting against yourself.

Some consequences might be:

  • When you dissect a problem to solve it, you multiply the factors involved or give them more weight than they deserve, making you feel more overwhelmed.
  • You can make associations with and inferences from events that are not rooted in reality.
  • You can fall prey to confirmation bias

The second reason is that most people do not possess an operative knowledge of how the mind works and instead use popularized models of the psyche.

Based on this, you can end up committing two common mistakes:

  1. You try to influence your mind by force, treating it like you would an external reality. This rarely works because the mind is subjective. It influences itself when it inquires into itself. That’s also why trying to suppress a thought or emotion makes it stronger. By doing that, you are actually focusing on it. Moreover, when you tell yourself, “I want to feel better,” you are already implying that you are feeling bad.
  2. You draw conclusions on mental events based on arbitrary evidence and theories. That’s where the rise of pop psychology can do more harm than good. If you try to psychoanalyze yourself, you can end up confirming your feelings with the use of out-of-context theoretical concepts. Enter “I feel this way since my parents did not treat me well” type of thinking.

I am not saying that other forms of journaling are bad—indeed, they can be an important means of self-reflection. At the same time, if you’ve ever journaled at all, you may realize that it helps you transcend your mental blind spots. Why not try a method that makes that practice even more effective? To be honest, it baffles me that journaling has not been approached in a more systematic way before.

A new framework for journaling

I decided to introduce the insights that I was gaining from my work and from my personal therapy journey into my journaling practice.

I call the framework I came up with cognitive journaling, since the main ideas behind it derive from cognitive psychology.

The aim of cognitive journaling is to:

  • Describe mental and external events as they appear in your consciousness, using an objective, experiential, falsifiable method
  • Observe and highlight the empiric links between circumstances, thoughts/beliefs, and emotions
  • Challenge your own thinking and open it up to more functional thoughts, thus feeling and behaving better

Even in CBT, the ideal is to educate each patient to become his or her own therapist. Cognitive journaling is a way to get closer to doing that. However, you must keep in mind that no self-administered psychological method will ever be as effective as working with a therapist.

That’s not just an important disclaimer; it’s something I learned for myself. As I progressed in my therapy I realized that much of my interest in personal development had lead me to work on bigger issues without the deeper attention they required—like putting a band-aid on an abscess—so the problems kept coming back. Work with a licensed therapist made me more effective in applying the remaining self-help material that I still found useful. I advise those who are into self-improvement to consider personal therapy too.


A Basic Model of How the Mind Works Based on Cognitivism

To journal with this method, you will need a basic knowledge of psychology. Don’t worry—the model I will teach you is one of the most basic and simple models that exist to describe the mind. Thanks to its simplicity, it’s also one of the most useful.

The mind

The mind is one of the most fascinating aspects of reality for two reasons:

  1. It’s unique in that it possesses both an external (the brain — “hardware”) and an internal side (psyche — “software”). You can describe how a cell works and be sure of having a satisfying explanation of the entire system. In contrast, scientists have not been able to come up with a full explanation of the mind’s functioning by only describing its hardware. This is because the mind is by nature subjective, different from other purely objective phenomena.
  2. It follows that the psyche (the “software”) possesses internal rules that are not derivable from the study of the brain. That’s what keeps psychiatry and psychology separate from neurology and neuroscience, respectively. Because the mind possesses intrinsic rules, it can influence itself in the process of looking at itself. This means that the mind is subject to feedback mechanisms that make it difficult to work with.

The ABC model of cognition

The ABC model of cognition is based on the view that any life experience is constituted of a series of activating events, beliefs, and consequences (ABCs):

Activating event → Beliefs → Consequences

A: The activating event. Any kind of stimulus that you perceive that activates a chain of thoughts and emotions. It can be an external event or an internal one (such as a thought or emotion). In this article we will only consider external events and circumstances as activating events, for the sake of practicality.

B: Belief. This is whatever we think about the activating event or situation. These thoughts can be explicit or so subtle that we fail to notice them. They can also be mental images.

C: The consequences. These can be the emotions we feel and/or the behaviors we perform as a consequence of the initial chain A → B.

This means that something happens (A), you then think something about it (B), and then you feel an emotion about the situation or take action on it (C).

In this model, every cognitive event happens in a consequential ABC order. Emotions and behaviors are always consequences of a previous A → B cycle.
For example:

  • I hear a dog barking (A) → I think back to my own childhood pup (B) → I feel fuzzy and joyful (C)
  • I hear a dog barking (A) → I think I need silence to work (B) → I feel annoyed (C) and shut the window (C)

The same activating event (a dog barking) leads to different emotional and/or behavioral consequences. What makes this possible is the existence of two different beliefs that filter the initial event.

The main thing to understand is that there always is a thought or interpretation (B) between an event (A) and the following emotion or behavior (C). You might think this is obvious, but when it comes to everyday experience, it isn’t. We usually tend to imply an A → C direct relationship in our day-to-day thinking and overlook the mediating belief.

For example:

  • “She made me feel C.”
  • “This situation sucks.”

You should more correctly say:

  • She did A, so I thought B about A, and I then felt C.
  • This situation is A, and I believe that only incompetent people get into situations like A (B), and thus I feel bad (C).

By overlooking the mechanics of the ABC sequence, you feel as though you are the victim of events, often attributing to external circumstances direct power over emotions and behaviors.

A further complication is that emotions and behaviors (C) can in turn become an activating event (A), creating backward loops and secondary ABCs. This happens when you start to judge your own emotions and thoughts.

  • She did A, so I thought B about A, and I then felt angry. I felt angry (A), so I thought about how my meditation practice is supposed to make me more serene (B), and then I felt hopeless about meditation doing anything good for me (C).

You then spiral into a new stream of ideas and, simply put, start thinking.


How to Relate to Emotions, Events, and Thoughts More Skillfully

Most of us often don’t know intuitively how to properly relate to our emotions, thoughts, and the events we encounter. We tend to believe that emotions and thoughts can be dealt with like external objects, by changing them with force directly or pushing them away.

Using the ABC model, however, we can see how to more properly relate to activating events, beliefs, and consequences.

External events

We relate to external situations through our beliefs about them. When our beliefs are functional, we can take effective action and act on events directly. However, sometimes a belief can make it difficult to move forward. For example, the belief “I can’t do anything” causes paralysis and inaction.

Emotions

Emotions are part of the end product of the ABC sequence and cannot be influenced directly. Because of this, the right attitude is to let them be and feel them as they appear. If they are pleasant, there’s usually no trouble doing just that. If they are unpleasant, you can question the belief that is causing them and ask yourself if there might be a better alternative that opens you up to a better action in the situation.

People usually try to deal with emotions in two ways:

They try to change the activating event (the external situation) directly in an attempt to change their emotional state. This can work, because if you change an external situation, usually the shift will be so big that you will at first experience a new belief and then a new consequence (emotional state). But if you go straight to focusing on the activating event while overlooking the beliefs you hold about the situation, you will probably revert back to the old emotions you felt previously. The real problem was your belief, which you left intact and which will keep dictating how you filter your experiences.

Example: You are miserable about going to work (C), so you change your job (A).

This point is where most people struggle to digest the existence of an ABC. It really seems like the external circumstance is the problem. Why would you not want to change your job if you don’t like it? The answer to this objection is: Yes, of course, do change your job (A) if it’s a problem for you. But make sure that a bad belief (B) does not keep you changing jobs repeatedly forever. If your belief is “I deserve something better than having to go to a job every day,” you may be in for an endless cycle of unhappy job changing.

The second way people try to feel better is by attacking the emotion (part of C) directly. Enter pop wisdom: “Just choose to feel good.” This method does not work, because emotions are a consequence of a thought. If you still think your situation (A) sucks (B), no amount of force applied to your emotions will change that. (Furthermore, trying to change an emotion implies the secondary belief that “this emotion is undesirable”—another ABC you’ll need to tackle.)

Behaviors

Behaviors, like events, are part of consequences (C) and can seemingly be directly influenced. But again, you need to have first changed your beliefs.

For example, eating well is as easy as buying and eating new healthy foods, but you will find it difficult if you have a belief that “this unhealthy food is going to make me feel better than the healthy food.”

Changing behaviors can sometimes result in changing thoughts and emotions, but if you don’t also upgrade your belief, you’ll risk reverting back to the old behavior. This is why willpower alone often fails. It changes the consequences without taking the beliefs into account.

Thoughts

We can, on the other hand, work with thoughts directly—although, contrary to what some self-improvement methods teach, you cannot think your way into a new belief by force or simply remove an old one.

What you can do is question the validity of the old belief, become open to the possibility of a new, better-fitting one, try it out for size, and slowly learn to see if it works in the world.

If you are wondering where your beliefs usually derive from, the answer is that they come from your experiences of life. This doesn’t influence the way you’ll use the ABC to do cognitive journaling, however. The origins of your beliefs is a topic for a different discussion.


Practical Instructions for Cognitive Journaling

We’ll now dive into the practical ways of applying this understanding of the ABC model to journaling. To do that, you’ll need some tools for digging into your beliefs and questioning them, as well as creating new ones. Let’s look at those tools first, and then I’ll explain how to use them in your new cognitive journaling practices.

Three Principles of Description

There are three ideas that you need to keep in mind as you journal this way. They will form the mindset of curiosity you’ll be using during the entire process. These are the same principles that form the core of psychiatrists’ observation skills.

The three principles are:

  • Falsifiability
  • Nonjudgment
  • Detail

Let’s look at each of these principles.

Falsifiability

You’ll focus on describing facts (whether external or internal), not opinions. For an experience to be a fact, you must be able to falsify it by answering yes/no to the question of it happening. Either it happened or not, either you felt it or not, either you thought it or not. This is true for events, thoughts, and emotions.

For example, consider the statements “I only have two hours per day to work on my project” versus “I have no time to work on my project.” The first is falsifiable: either it’s true or not. The second statement is not: you need to decide the specific time you need and other details before you can accept or reject the statement.

Now look at an example involving a thought: “I think it was a success” versus “It was a success.” The first one is a fact: you can be sure that you entertained this thought, whether the content of the thought was right or wrong per se. The second one is not a fact but an opinion, as you cannot absolutely determine its truth.

Finally, consider this example involving emotions: “I felt happy at the party” versus “The party was awesome.” You can falsify emotions (either you felt happy or you didn’t), but you cannot falsify opinions.

Nonjudgment

As you describe the events that happen, the thoughts you think, and the emotions you feel, set aside any judgments about them and any deductions or inferences you might make regarding their possible cause.

Consider the statements “I feel demotivated” versus “Feeling demotivated is bad.” The first one is simply a description of what is happening inside you. The second one involves a judgment and robs you of the possibility of seeing objectively. The same holds true for our thoughts and behaviors.

Now examine the statements “Vanessa has her own business” versus “Vanessa is an achiever; she’s got it figured out.” The first one is just a fact. The second could be broadly correct, but it also evaluates the whole of Vanessa’s life based on a single fact. Who knows what other struggles she’s going through? How do you know the personal price she paid to build her own enterprise up? By judging, even positively, you can lose sight of subtleties.

Finally, look at the statements “I didn’t write an article today” versus “I’m a terrible writer because I didn’t write an article today.” The first one is simply a picture of a behavior. The second involves a deduction and a judgment. It not only arouses feelings of frustration but also is not founded in reality. Who determines what a writer does? Can you confidently come to such a conclusion just from a single event? Could a different conclusion be possible?

Detail

When you journal, describe contexts, events, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in detail, as if you were painting a picture.

When you describe your inner and outer life in detail, objectively, and without making inferences, natural links and patterns will spontaneously emerge.

For example, look at the following sample of cognitive journaling:

I went to the supermarket. I met my boss Chris by chance. We spoke and he brought up my work. I thought, “Why can’t he leave me alone even when I am not at work?” I felt annoyed. I thought, “I don’t like feeling like this.” I felt angry. I thought, “I can’t stand getting annoyed anymore,” and then I thought, “I need to change jobs.”

This is very different from writing: “I was out and met Chris; he’s such a jerk. I can’t stand dealing with him. I need to quit this job.” In contrast, in the cognitive journal entry, you are already able to see that:

  • The context you were in matters for setting your train of thought in motion (you got annoyed when your boss talked about work during your free time).
  • There was a separation between the topic Chris brought up (your work) and your reaction (annoyance). Your thoughts mediated the situation (“I want to be left alone when I am not on the job”).
  • You can describe emotions and thoughts as falsifiable facts (you either felt angry or you didn’t).
  • Your usual deductive reasoning is so quick that you can come to biased conclusions.
  • When you describe facts objectively, in detail, and without judgment, you gather a clearer understanding of the situation and of your feelings about it. Your annoyance with Chris isn’t because the job is a problem.

What is the problem, then? If you continue to journal and look at your beliefs, they might include, “Chris doesn’t respect me because he asked me about work in a social situation.” Or “Chris doesn’t appreciate the work I’m doing.” Or even “I should have stayed at work longer; now Chris thinks I’m a slacker.” You can then begin to question those beliefs. “Is that true? What else might be true?”

On the other hand, in the second journal entry (“I was out and met Chris; he’s such a jerk ...”), you describe experiences more superficially, focusing on the outcomes and feelings. You end up deducing that Chris is a bad person and that your jobs sucks as a whole. This leads to distressing emotions and impulsiveness.


The Complete Step-by-Step ABC Process

I’m going to give you the complete process for cognitive journaling. But don’t worry if it seems complicated: once you get used to doing it, the steps will flow naturally, one from another. To help you learn those steps in greater detail, however, I’ll also be giving you a detailed plan for focusing on each step over a period of weeks. So read on for the general overview, and stick around for the action plan.

In each step, I will give you the practical instructions and then highlight points to pay attention to, as well as offer some examples. Try doing a full round of this along with me now.

Start by taking an actual diary or a digital file of your preference. Recall an episode or an idea you’d like to journal about. Remember, this practice is good for coping with strong negative emotions, so choose a situation that elicited a strong response that you’d like to investigate further.

When doing so, you should use the order: C → A → B. Look at the consequences first, then the activating event, and finally the belief that connects the two.

1. Start with consequences: emotions and behaviors

Write down the emotion or behavior that you want to reflect upon. Apply the three principles of description: falsifiability, nonjudgment, and detail.

Points to pay attention to:

  • Drop judgments and make sure that what you’re writing is not an opinion.
  • Make sure that you can falsify it (either you felt it or not).
  • A useful form to rely on is “I felt [enter specific emotion].” Avoid saying “I was angry/happy/etc.” because that deprives you of some perspective on the relative, transient nature of emotions. Say instead: “I felt [the emotion of] anger,” or “I felt joy,” or “I felt tiredness.” For behaviors, use a form like “I [action verb],” like “I screamed at the other driver” or “I ran away from the party without saying goodbye.”
  • Avoid confusing thoughts with emotions. This happens when you say things like “I felt inferior” or “I felt like a winner.” These are not emotions, but thoughts. In this step focus on emotions and actions and leave out opinions. Say in the first case “I felt weak” and in the second “I felt confident and strong.” Later on we will dig into the beliefs that cause such emotions.

The juice of our lives is to be found in the emotions and behaviors that are the consequences of the ABC sequence. When you want to change, your ultimate purpose is to change the consequences. So that’s where we start from.

2. Describe the A (activating event)

Describe the situation you were in when you experienced the consequence from before. Here again, you should avoid judgments and opinions, and use detail. You should be able to say yes or no to the experience.

Examples of describing the activating event:

  • “My mother-in-law is snobbish” versus “I thought that my mother-in-law was being snobbish.” You can falsify the latter: you either thought it or not. You can’t falsify the former.
  • “He’s being evasive” versus “He didn’t answer my texts for over two hours.” The former is a judgment. The latter is a fact.
  • “She wasn’t kind to me” versus “She threw the bag at me and slammed the door in my face without saying anything.” The second offers much more detail.

3. Find out the B (belief)

With your consequence and activating event at hand, try to remember the thought that you entertained in your reaction. Sometimes it will be overt, like “This always happens to me,” while other times it will be so subtle or so embedded in your worldview that you won’t be able to figure it out easily. Those are what psychologists call automatic thoughts.

This task isn’t easy to accomplish at the beginning, but through practice you can usually figure out the beliefs you were entertaining.

Express the beliefs you uncover in the form of “I thought that [insert belief]” and apply the three principles.

Some questions can ease this process. Given an activating event:

  • What did this event mean for me at the moment?
  • Why did I feel this emotion or behave that way?
  • What did I think following the event that could have caused that feeling/behavior?
  • What was my thought at the moment of the event?
  • Reverse check: With the belief I’ve found, would I expect to feel that specific consequence?

When you spot some unlikable thought, you will often react with a negative emotion and then start judging the thought itself. These are secondary ABCs, opinions or judgments that you form based on your own experiences. They constitute stories about your emotions and thoughts, which are neither good nor bad per se. They also constitute most of our thinking.

As you journal, if you are not careful, you’ll keep engaging in the same mental dialogue that you have in everyday life. Try to be mindful of this and go back to your initial ABC and question.

For example: Given the emotion C =anger and the activating event A = speaking to my father, consider the following beliefs:

  • Well-formed belief = “I thought, ‘He never listens to me.’” This is a statement, not a judgment (it’s a fact I experienced), and it is falsifiable (I either thought it or not).
  • Badly-formed belief = “I felt angry because my father always treats me badly” (external explanatory thought). A better belief is “I felt angry because I thought, ‘My father always treats me badly.’”
  • Badly-formed belief = “I shouldn’t have felt angry.” This belief belongs to a secondary ABC in which you judge your anger. In this ABC, you feel guilt (C, which can become a tertiary A), leading to the belief (B) “I am a bad person” and then sadness (C)—and on and on.

As you can see, the incorrect beliefs violate the three principles. “I shouldn’t feel angry” is a judgment, is not falsifiable (how do I know that I shouldn’t feel angry?), and lacks detail (why shouldn’t you feel angry in general?).

Why is finding the belief important?

Finding the belief is the most important part of this process, because the belief is the only element you can exert influence upon.

While emotions are the juice of life, thoughts are the scaffold upon which you form meanings and which determine who you are and what you do. Life is lived and experienced in the consequence, but all your satisfactions, happiness, and pain find their cause in your beliefs. Helpful beliefs can make the worst activating event bearable (as when you practice gratitude, for example), and unhelpful ones can make a decent activating event hellish.

4. Challenge the Bs (beliefs)

You challenge a belief by evaluating its validity, doubting it, and finding a better alternative.

With your belief identified, evaluate it by asking yourself the following questions and journaling on them:

  • Is this belief flexible enough to accommodate all events, or is it rigid and all or nothing?
  • Is this belief logical or based on faulty logic?
  • Is this belief congruent with facts and experience, or is it incongruent and not based on reality?
  • Is this belief useful in the pursuit of my objectives? Does it help me to feel good about myself and my life?

It might not always be easy to answer these questions, in part because you may have already invested your emotions in them. It can be helpful to imagine that the thoughts you are examining were someone else’s, so that you can gain more distance from them. For example, you could ask yourself what you would say to a beloved child who expressed that belief.

Often, our distorted thoughts depend on what we wish were true (“Relationships are easy”), and it can be hard to let go of that.

When you find thoughts that don’t seem valid, it’s time to weaken them. You can do that by doubting them, using another set of questions:

Which concrete proofs do I have of the truth of this belief? How can I prove this?

Example: B = “People don’t find me funny.” Has anyone ever told me that? Do I know at least one person who laughs at my jokes? How do I measure being funny? Can it be measured at all? Can I quantify it? Have I ever asked someone if they find me funny?

Does this belief help me feel good and achieve my objectives?

Example: B = “I am not meant to be an entrepreneur.” Does this belief put me in a productive, positive emotional state? Does it make it more easy for me to embrace challenges and experiment with new things? If my goal is to start a business, does thinking this belief help me make attempts in that direction, or does it foster procrastination?

In the case of a belief that causes anxiety, ask: Is my belief about the event I fear founded? Is the event I fear really so terrible? What’s the worst thing that could actually happen? How likely is my belief to come true?

Why should things not be like this? Is it possible to always have the world go according to my wishes?

Example: B = “My Medium article only got three claps, so I must suck.” Are my expectations of success founded? Can I really predict how a single article will do? Does this event really determine my entire success as an author? Can I accept it and see it as a stepping stone in my learning path?

5. Write down good alternative beliefs

Ask yourself: Which alternative thought can I think? Which alternative thought is logical, reality-based, flexible, and useful in pursuing my goals and feeling good?

Example: “I didn’t write an article today, so I must not be a true writer.” A better alternative could be “I didn’t write an article today, but that doesn’t imply that I cannot become a productive writer by practice. Even professional writers can miss some days. I can use this as feedback to learn about what things get in my way.”

You might have to work through many alternatives, but you’ll eventually find one or more that fit. So repeat this last step as many times as needed when you journal cognitively.

This might seem hard at first, but you will in time build the skill of questioning your thoughts. Eventually you will be able to do it automatically, even as you go about your daily life.

How to form good alternative beliefs
Beliefs are not good or bad per se, but they can be more or less useful. Their relative pleasantness or unpleasantness stems from the emotions they can cause. Beliefs can be grouped by the following characteristics:

Illustration by the author.

As you form your new beliefs, you should check them against the “Useful Belief” column above to help ensure that they have the qualities that make them useful.

Putting it all together

In summary, your journaling should flow in this sequence:

  • Step 1: Write down the consequence—emotion or behavior—in the form of “I felt [insert emotion]” or “I did/behaved [insert behavior].”
  • Step 2: Write down the activating event in the form of “This [insert event] happened” or “The situation was [insert situation or place].
  • Step 3: Draw out the belief by asking and answering questions in your journal about what the activating event meant to you, and expressing the belief in the form of “At that moment, I thought that [insert belief].”
  • Step 4: Challenge the belief. Ask yourself what proof you have of it. Ask if the belief is useful or not useful.
  • Step 5: Form a replacement belief. You can write out multiple replacement beliefs to “try on.” Check them for qualities of useful beliefs: Are they flexible, congruent with reality, logically sound, and supportive of your wellbeing?

You can use this process to learn to observe how events, thoughts, and emotions link to each other. In a sense, you are learning to reverse-engineer your emotions into the ideas that caused them.

You will also be less likely to fall prey to your chain of thoughts and emotions, as you’ll be able to spot them when they happen. Sometimes people end up with emotions that they don’t know the origin of, such as “I simply felt that way.” The truth is that you can always find out what belief preceded an emotion, and you can often also walk your way back to its origin.


The Practice Program

Here is a simple action plan to build the skill of cognitive journaling and apply its results to your own life by focusing on specific elements over time.

If you find it complex to do the full journal cycle at the beginning, this plan can help you by deliberately focusing on each step until you gain the confidence to master it.

Keep in mind that mental habits are harder to change than more tangible actions, since they are less visible, more pervasive, and integrated in a complex net of beliefs. While the ultimate goal is to change your thinking, your journaling practice will give that thinking process a tangible form and help you become a better observer of your thoughts. You may need to add your practice to your calendar or to-do list, or find an accountability partner to help stay on track.

I’ve suggested a timeline for completing the exercises here, giving each step one week’s worth of daily practice, but you can adjust it if you feel you need more or less time to focus on any particular area.

Week 1: Getting in the habit of journaling

Start small. The initial habit is to write the basic ABC for one single event. The purpose is at first to simply interiorize the basic ABC structure of experience. Don’t focus on trying to do anything more than describing what happened using this format.

Take your notepad (real or digital) and pick an event that feels of interest to you. Describe the event with this format, using the three principles of description (falsifiability, nonjudgment, detail):

C = I felt the emotion of [insert emotion] /I did [insert behavior]
A = The situation was [insert detailed situation]
B = I thought that [insert thought or belief]

Get in the habit of writing at least one single sentence in the form C–A–B at least once per day, either as a standalone practice or as a supplement to your normal journal.

Since all life events possess an ABC structure, you can experiment with writing down many different experiences using the ABC model. This first week focuses on simply noticing and documenting the ABC, free from any worries about making a change.

Week 2: Focusing on identifying beliefs

Continue to do your practice from Week 1, but dedicate extra attention (usually 2–5 minutes is enough) to reflecting more deeply on the underlying belief. Brainstorm possible beliefs and then look closely at which ones really hit home. For each one, ask yourself: Is this belief really one that would cause in me the emotion or behavior I’ve described? Can I come up with another thought that fits the C–A trajectory better?

Also scan your memory to consider if that belief is one that comes up in other situations. Record the beliefs you discover in each day’s journaling.

Week 3: Challenging the belief

Continue to build on your C–A–B journaling and your process of digging out and refining the beliefs from Weeks 1 and 2. Now add in a careful consideration of ways you can challenge that belief:

  1. Is it based on sound logic?
  2. Is it falsifiable (i.e., have you either thought it or not)?
  3. Is it useful?
  4. Does it make me more flexible, or is it rigid and extreme?

If your belief is good, you should answer each of those questions with a yes. However, since we are typically working with beliefs that cause negative consequences, you’ll be answering no in many cases. When you do, that’s what we call a “bad belief” (“bad” in the sense that it’s holding you back because it is untrue, unhelpful, or both).

If you answer even one no, you can further weaken the belief’s hold on you by asking yourself:

  • How can I demonstrate this?
  • Does this belief help me feel good and achieve my objectives?
  • Is this fear really that terrible? What’s the worst thing that could happen?
  • How likely is my projection?
  • Why should things not be like this?
  • Is it really possible to always have the world go according to my wishes?

Record your thoughts and feelings about casting doubt on your beliefs in your journal.

Week 4: Building better beliefs

Once you’ve identified a “bad” belief, you can search for a replacement belief. That’s the focus of this week’s journaling.

With your unhelpful belief in mind, brainstorm one to three new beliefs for the current ABC that are flexible, logical, helpful, and falsifiable. Pick one and see if it can fit after the activating event and what emotion it causes in you.

Try to notice the activating event as a trigger and get in the habit of thinking about your new belief for the next time you’ll be in the same situation.

If instead in your day’s journaling you’ve found “good” beliefs that result in good consequences, then keep them in mind and journal about them.

Taking it into real life

After building the journaling practice described above, you might find yourself becoming more aware of your unhelpful thinking in the moment. You will naturally switch to better mental habits as you go through your day. You can begin looking for triggers and perhaps even pause to consider their underlying beliefs.

Nonetheless, you will want to use these journaling steps whenever you encounter a situation in which your feelings and/or behaviors are troublesome in some way. There is a difference between simply thinking through the process and writing through it. While a new mindset helps, writing affords us a distance and perspective that we usually can’t reach by thinking alone. This is more powerful than simply thinking, just as working with a therapist is more powerful than solo journaling.


Measuring Progress

It’s very useful to measure your progress to become aware of what’s working and keep your motivation high.

I don’t think we should make this complicated. Set a calendar reminder to spend a short moment every week or month to ask yourself the following questions:

Since I’ve started using the cognitive journal …

  • Have I been able to spot some unhelpful beliefs at least a few times?
  • Have I been able to find new, better beliefs at least sometimes?
  • Have I felt at least somehow better?
  • Have I acted differently?
  • Am I at least enjoying the practice a bit?

We are not looking for radical improvement, but for experiential feedbacks that tell us how we are doing. So make this a secondary habit to evaluate the fruits of your cognitive journaling.

If at any time this type of journaling makes you feel worse or complicates your life more than it helps, drop it. Self-improvement should help you where you are. Working on one’s own mind is no easy task, and if one is slightly neurotic, it can hurt to try and “fix” oneself by oneself.


FAQ and Troubleshooting

Why can’t I run the ABC effectively?

It’s natural to at first struggle when doing this. You’re literally swimming against the current of your most ingrained mental habits. We often have some secondary and tertiary ABCs in place that make the process more challenging. It is not always easy to do on our own. If you find it difficult to do, you might need a skilled CBT therapist to get clarity about your beliefs, their effect on you, and how to challenge them.

The ABC model strips life of its magic, and I don’t like it.

The ABC is just one model of the mind, but you can use others too. The ABC model has the advantage of being simple and effective at achieving tangible shifts in thinking. The goal is to make your mind more fluid and responsive to reality so that you can live your life more easily and productively.

Why does doing the ABC make me feel sad at times?

When you uncover some beliefs, you might start judging your own thinking and forming secondary ABCs. You might feel demoralized because your thoughts seem negative or not as correct as you wished. Also, by taking a look at an issue, we can feel a bit worse because we are focusing on it.

As long as these emotions are contextual and bearable, it’s ok. However, they should not drive you deep into a secondary stream of thoughts. Try to be mindful to keep that from happening.

If at times you feel worse, notice it and go on with the ABC. You can later work with the secondary ABC (for example: I feel bad It’s immoral for me to feel badguilt). Overall, journaling in the ABC framework should empower you. If it does not, you may be working with situations that require the help of a mental health professional.

Isn’t this approach more rigid than regular journaling?

At first it is, because you are practicing a new way to think. It will become more fluid and automatic as you learn. It will never be as smooth as free writing, since it requires you to resist automatic thinking.

A regular stream-of-conscious sort of journaling may be more appropriate if you are searching for creativity and spontaneity, or a means to unload stress.

On the other hand, if you want to work on your mindset and troublesome consequences in a systematic way, the cognitive journal helps you do just that.

I am not depressed or anxious, so why should I use this method?

It’s true that the theory behind the ABC comes from clinical settings. In any case, the model represent the general functioning of the human mind. Your experience is made up of activating events, beliefs, and consequences, even if you feel good. So learning about that is a tool to simply become more aware of how you function.

Moreover, it’s my experience that everyone thinks some distorted, unhelpful thoughts from time to time. Since you want to go the extra mile, it’s important that you learn to master the skill of thinking clearly. (I also believe that many failures to progress and a lot of the search for better mindsets and strategies depend on having imperfect beliefs in place.)

We often find that the greatest difficulties we face in going after what we want come from inside ourselves. Self-improvement can feel challenging because you’re emotionally involved in your own life, giving rise to secondary ABCs about self-improvement techniques as well. If it weren’t for this, every productivity tactic and self-help advice would either not exist at all or function immediately without second thought. It’s a no-brainer to also consider ways you can improve yourself by uncovering limiting beliefs.

Why would you want to change your beliefs, and when should you?

When you are not aware of the ABC nature of our mind, you behave as if your thoughts represent reality faithfully. When your beliefs are functional and conductive to good emotional health and achieving your objectives, it’s useful to take them for granted so that you can take effective action quickly.

But when you get stuck and can’t make progress, you may wonder if you have a blind spot or faulty view. That’s usually where you start to enter into the process of self-improvement.

According to cognitive psychology, most of human distress and suffering is caused by faulty views about the world, the self, and others. This is not to say that you should always feel good and expect to achieve everything you want. But the blockages you face in your attempt to live fully are often the result of cognitive distortions.

Can I use positive affirmations such as “I am awesome” as new beliefs?

Very often those beliefs that we’re encouraged to use as affirmations in self-improvement are instead fundamentally wrong.

You can try to substitute a blatantly unhelpful belief such as “I can’t do it” with “I will achieve every goal because I am awesome.” At first that can feel good, but it will fail in the long run.

Why? Because even the new belief is illogical, rigid, and incongruent with reality (“Which data do I possess to state that?”), and will not lead to a functional strategy to pursue your goals. In this case, some better beliefs would be “I might feel scared, but I can try,” “If I don’t make it, maybe I need to scale my goal down,” or “I am good at some things and less good at others.”

The problem with using extremely positive beliefs is that, being weak, they set you up for the same challenges that you face when you have “negative” beliefs. If you change your belief to “I am awesome,” you will probably get opposing feedback from the world on occasion and will feel frustrated each time you seem to fail. A belief simply doesn’t work if it is incongruent with reality. It will serve as a temporary Band-aid only.


What to Do With Your Newfound Knowledge

The core idea of the ABC model is that the only thing that we really have direct control over is our beliefs. Our behaviors and emotions follow our beliefs. The whole point of cognitive journaling is to empower you to become aware of your beliefs, deconstruct those that block you, and choose more useful ones.

Once you run through the ABC and find a better alternative, you need to experiment with it in real life. This literally means that the next time that you are in the same situation, you should try to view the situation through the lens of the new belief.

This is not always easy, and it will take practice, but it is made doable by knowing the ABC model and using it to journal. Since you will already have dissected your experience, you will be more likely to recognize the situations in which you entertain a distorted belief and its effects on your behavior and emotional state.


Wrap-up and Expectations

Getting more awareness of your ABCs can help you systematically improve your thinking, but it takes time and strategy to uproot old patterns.

The benefits of challenging and shifting one’s beliefs are immediately tangible since they influence the emotions you feel, but you’ll need to apply this method for some time to become more used to catching yourself thinking.

Even after experimenting with cognitive journaling, you may keep making many of the same thinking mistakes and revert back to old mindsets from time to time. This happens even with regular therapy. Our beliefs are kept in place by a network of other assumptions and experiences that create our whole worldview.

Don’t let that dispirit you. Hoping to improve your thinking once and for all—all-or-nothing thinking—is just another type of faulty belief with the consequences of frustration and demotivation. Remember: adopt an experimental and curious mindset, see what happens, and simply use this framework if it helps you feel and act better.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Thanks to Terrie Schweitzer

Richard Ragnarson, M.D.

Written by

Truth is under every stone: turn ’em all. Get more self-improvement tips that actually work : https://mailchi.mp/280008177cbc/richard-ragnarson

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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