How To Use Cognitive Psychology To Change Negative Beliefs

If you believe you can or you believe you can’t, you’re right.

Brian Pennie
Dec 23, 2020 · 4 min read

When our minds hold onto negative beliefs, “I can’t cope, I’m a failure,” it looks for ways to sustain these beliefs. Thankfully, when we hold onto positive beliefs, “I can do anything I put my mind to,” the same rules apply.

In his exceptional book, The Magic of Thinking Big, David Schwartz wrote about this phenomena. He describes disbelief as negative power: “When the mind disbelieves or doubts, the mind attracts reasons to support the disbelief.” Whereas, belief, he suggests, strong belief, “triggers the mind to figure out ways and means how to.”

Many great thinkers share the same view. In one of my favourites quotes, Eleanor Roosevelt tells us that: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” Best selling author Napolean Hill, who believed that deep expectations are essential to improving one’s life, also agrees: “For whatever the mind can conceive or believe, the mind can achieve.”

I love these reflections for two reasons. On a personal note, by changing my beliefs from, “I cannot cope with life” to “adversity doesn't stop me, it fuels my ability to thrive,” I completely transformed my life. This switch helped me to go from 15 years of chronic heroin addiction to PhD scholarship, neuroscience lecturer, and author, all in the space of 7 years.

Secondly, even though it doesn’t always feel like it, we have control over our beliefs. This means two things: (1) Our destiny is in our own hands, and (2) if we dare to believe in the magnificence of our dreams, anything is possible.

Many people, however, are trapped in negative belief systems. They blame external events for how they think, act, and feel, and as a result, limit their growth and progress in life. If this is you, and you want to change your beliefs, you need to identify, dispute, and reframe your beliefs. Here’s how:

Beliefs and Consequences

The ABC model, created by psychologist Dr Albert Ellis, is an excellent technique for identifying negative beliefs about yourself. The ABC simply refers to each of its components.

  • A is for Adversity (something bad happens).
  • B is for your Beliefs about the event. It involves both obvious and underlying thoughts about the event (either rational or irrational).
  • C represents the Consequences — that is, your behavioural or emotional response to your beliefs about the event.

The basic idea behind the ABC model is that “(A) adversity does not cause difficult emotions (i.e., (C) consequences) — our (B) beliefs do, particularly when they’re irrational beliefs.

Take this example. You get passed over for a promotion at work. This is the (A) adverse event, which triggers negative (B) beliefs such as “I’m a failure. I’m stupid. I’m never going to amount to anything.” What do you think the (C) consequences of such beliefs might be? You’ll feel sad, dejected, and depressed. And you might not even apply for the next promotion.

Now let’s say your colleague also applied for the job. They get passed over too, but their beliefs around the event are entirely different: “Maybe I wasn’t the right fit for the role. Maybe someone else did a better interview. I should have researched the role better.” What do you think the consequences of such beliefs might be? They’ll get on with their day and prepare better next time.

The idea behind the ABC model is to explore the connections between your beliefs, and the consequences of those beliefs. Once you identify these beliefs, especially if they’re irrational, you’ll be able to dispute these beliefs to better suit your needs. Over time, you’ll learn how to recognize other potential beliefs (B) about adverse events (A). This allows the opportunity for healthier consequences (C) which can help you to move forward.

Disputing Negative Beliefs

Disputation is an extension of the ABC Model. Often referred to as the ABCDE Model, it means disputing existing beliefs based on logic and reality, rather than assuming that they are correct.

In this extended model, D stands for Disputation, and E refers to the New Effect.

  • (D) Disputation: When irrational beliefs are the cause of unhealthy consequences, you must dispute those beliefs and turn them into rational beliefs.
  • (E) New Effect: When disputation turns the irrational belief into a rational belief, healthier consequences ensue.

Consider how this might work from the example above. Having been passed over for a promotion at work, you believe you’re a stupid failure who’ll never amount to anything. Instead of accepting these beliefs, however, you dispute them using logic. In other words, you challenge your assumptions.

Questioning your existing beliefs is the best way to do this. Am I a failure? “Well, no, I’ve succeeded in many areas of life. Maybe I wasn’t the right fit for the role.” Am I stupid? “No. I’m quite average in terms of intelligence. Maybe my preparation wasn’t great.” Will I never amount to anything? “Well, not with this attitude, so I better change it.”

The consequences of your original beliefs were sadness and dejection. But by disputing these irrational beliefs, you now have a New Effect — (E). Just like your colleague who also got passed over for the job, instead of avoiding future promotion opportunities, you can use it as a lesson try better next time.

Takeaway message

The beliefs you have today will determine the life you have tomorrow. So if you’re struggling with negative beliefs, you need to identify, dispute, and reframe them immediately.

We have control over our beliefs. Our destiny is in our own hands. And if we dare to believe, the world can be our playground.

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