An Important Note
ABCDE, or other CBT-related exercises, are unlikely to be effective if you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety. It’s important to treat the underlying issue first. Once that’s under control, then these techniques might help manage minor fluctuations. In short, then, exercises like ABCDE can be effective in situations where you are in control — for example, your writing habits.
If you’re experiencing mental health problems and don’t feel in control, please speak to someone at your university (preferably a counsellor) or contact The Help Hub for free confidential support
Now let’s investigate that voice inside your head. The one that says, “who do you think you are to do a PhD?” “You’ll never be able to finish it” It might be uncomfortable, but we need to dwell on that voice for a moment. Really think about it. And what about this critic’s appearance? Are they a wizened version of you? A critical teacher? An unforgiving parent? The more precise you are, the better. You need to really get acquainted with this tyrant. If you prefer, write a description or draw a picture.
Once you’ve visualised them, you can square up and confront them. What could you say to this person?
I’m not putting up with this nonsense any more. As you well know, I’m a successful academic researcher and more than capable of completing my thesis. I realise you’re not going anywhere, but I’m ignoring you. I’ve got stuff to do here.
The Inner Critic never goes away, but you can get better at dismissing them. By confronting rather than resisting this voice, you render it less powerful.
If you’re still struggling, you might need a more systematic approach.
ABCDE is a tool developed by Professor Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement, who based it on Albert Ellis’ ABC model.
Here’s how you might use ABCDE to overcome a thesis block:
A is for ADVERSITY – Consider the situation you’re in right now and describe it in as much detail as possible. But here’s the thing: you have to do so using only facts. So, it’s OK to say, “I didn’t get any writing done today,” or “I missed my deadline,” but not “I’m too useless to do a PhD.”
B is for BELIEFS – What did the situation say to you? Did it confirm any long-held beliefs, such as “I’m not really a writer,” “I simply don’t have time”? Look out for any absolutes, e.g. “I never get anything done,” or “This always happens”.
C is for CONSEQUENCES – How did that make you feel? And what were the consequences? Did you abandon all hope of getting anything done and eat a tube of Pringles instead? Note, these are the consequences of your beliefs and not of the situation. If you’re familiar with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), you’ll probably know that our thoughts cause feelings that then determine our actions. Once we’re aware of what’s going on up there, we can intervene.
D is for DISPUTE – We’re not going to sit back and take this nonsense – it’s time to deploy some data. I don’t know you, but I’m willing to bet you’ve achieved a great deal in your life. This is unlikely to be the first time you’ve attempted a piece of writing. What’s your track record? Did you successfully complete a Masters’ dissertation or submit a journal article? If not, there will be other comparable achievements that seemed impossible at the time, yet you conquered them. It shouldn’t take you long to establish that those Beliefs above just aren’t true.
E is for ENERGISE – Next, reflect on how you’re feeling now. What’s happened to your mood? Can you see any solutions that were invisible in that pit of despair? Are you ready to get going again in the knowledge that this thesis challenge is entirely within your capabilities? The Inner Critic won’t necessarily go away, but you’ll be able to vanquish it in moments by reminding yourself of previous achievements.
It’s all about deploying your Inner Mentor, not your Inner Critic.
Although it can take a matter of moments for our mood to slump, it can just as quickly move in the opposite direction. In short, trust the evidence, not your emotions.