Imagine you are walking down the street when an acquaintance passes by without greeting you.

You think, “he just ignored me.” You walk on feeling angry and upset. The next time you see this acquaintance you ignore him. The relationship ends.

Let’s watch the scene again.

An acquaintance passes you in the street without greeting you.

You think, “he’s deep in thought.” You call out to him. He looks up, apologizes he didn’t see you and tells you he was thinking about an article he is writing. The two of you get into a conversation. The relationship grows.

In both cases, the event is the same. Only your reaction and the consequences differ.

Our feelings are not caused directly by events that happen in the world, but by how we think about those events.
The long-term consequences of an event (good or bad) are determined largely by our reaction to the event. This is good news. While we can’t control whether we experience bad events, we can learn to control our reaction to the events.

Self-talk can be self-destructive

When we are challenged, our heads immediately fill with self-talk about the situation.

Someone brushes off my comment at a meeting and I think, “No one ever listens to me.”

You fail at a new task and you tell yourself, “I’ll never learn this.

A co-worker gets passed over for a promotion and tells you, “My talents are completely wasted here.

This kind of self-talk leads to feelings of anger, frustration and resignation.

Not only is this self-talk unsupportive, it’s just plain wrong! Extreme statements such as no one ever listens to me, I’ll never learn this, or my talents are completely wasted are rarely accurate.

Negative emotions are triggered by our automatic thoughts about adversity. We can learn to change these thoughts!

Is there an alternative explanation?

When you find yourself trapped in a spiral of negative thoughts, the most important question to ask yourself is:

Is there an alternative explanation for what has occurred?

This is also a great question to ask others to help them get unstuck.

The technique of ABCDE from Martin Seligman can help. ABCDE stands for:

ctivating Event

Let’s look at an example.

Suppose your boss complains about a project delay. This is the activating event.

Your automatic thoughts about the event might be:

“My boss is angry with me. I never meet my deadlines. I will probably get fired.”

These are your beliefs.

The consequences are that you feel bad and consider leaving the project.

Now comes the hard part. Dispute your automatic thoughts!

Your inner dialogue might look something like:

“Is it true that I never deliver on time?”

“No, I usually meet my deadlines.”

“Well, what was different this time?”

“The project plan was best case; we didn’t even consider what could go wrong.”

“How do I know that my boss is angry?”

“She’s concerned about the project, but she didn’t lose her temper. I don’t really have any evidence she was angry.”

“Is it likely I will get fired because of this?”

“Hardly. I’ve been here a long time and have led many projects successfully.”

After disputing your automatic thoughts, your feelings change, and the consequences are different. Instead of throwing in the towel, you decide to conduct a thorough risk planning for the remaining project tasks.

You’ve gained new energy in the process.

Fooling ourselves

We are not trying to trick ourselves into thinking everything is peaches and cream. Bad things do happen. When they do, the most helpful response is to replace unsupportive self-talk with an accurate assessment of the situation.

The next time you feel rejected, ignored or insulted by someone, ask yourself “is there an alternative explanation for the other person’s behavior?” Chances are, this one question will help you keep your blood pressure down and salvage a few relationships along the way.

See also: The Satisfaction Equation (You can’t always get what you want so don’t expect to).


Andersen, E. “Learning to Learn,” Harvard Business Review, March 2016, 98-101.

Burns, D. D. (1980/1999). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. New York: Avon, Revised and Updated Edition.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.

Image: Charlie Chaplin, The Rink, Public Domain