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Resilience - Chapter 4

Charlottesville, Virginia

May 5, 2020


Know Thyself Skill #1 of 3 - Learning Your ABCs


Know Thyself, Then Change

We have grouped the seven skills of resilience into two categories: (1) know thyself skills and (2) change skills.

The three know-thyself skills are designed to guide you toward a better understanding of how your mind works. They help build your self-awareness. The know-thyself skills -- Learning Your ABCs, Avoiding Thinking Traps, and Detecting Icebergs -- give you a map of your beliefs, feelings, and behaviors and how they are interconnected. After you’ve mastered these three skills, you will have greater insight into how you see yourself and the world and why you react to events as you do.

Insight is the first step of change, but it is not sufficient.

Change remains elusive because insight alone is not enough. That’s why after you have learned the know thyself skills, we will teach you the four change skills. You’ll learn to identify the true causes of a problem and accurately assess where you have control to fix or recover from it. You’ll learn how to keep the implications of problems in perspective and how to fight back against your non-resilient beliefs in real time.

You Are What You Think

The foundation of the seven skills of resilience is the simple realization that our emotions and behaviors are triggered not by events themselves but by how we interpret those events.

Learning Your ABCs guides you to a greater understanding of the recurrent situations in which you are least resilient. ABC equips you with the skill to detect your thoughts when you are in the midst of an adversity and to understand the emotional impact of those beliefs.

Example: You come home after a long day at work to discover that, once again, even though your spouse is home before you, dinner hasn’t been started? How do you respond? Do you get angry? Do you feel let down? And if someone were to ask you that very minute what was making you feel that way, you’d probably point to the empty dining room table and state the obvious: “That’s why I’m upset. No dinner. Again.” But even though the reason for your anger seems obvious, this obvious answer is not correct. You’re not angry because your spouse failed to make dinner, you’re angry because you interpreted this failure to make dinner as a violation of your rights. Your interpretation of his actions, not his actions themselves, caused your anger.

We all experience adversity, the “A” in the ABC model. Adversities are events that precipitate a reaction from us. They can be big -- like losing a job, ending a relationship, or the death of a loved one. Or they can be relatively small -- like missing a deadline, arguing with a friend, being late for a meeting. Most of us believe that adversities lead directly to emotional and behavioral consequences (the “C” in the model) -- what we feel and do in response to the event. It seems accurate to say that the world operates A–C. When something good happens, we experience a positive emotion. Promotions, dates accepted, sunny days should make all of us feel happy, proud, or joyous. When something bad happens, we experience a negative emotion. Flat tires, clingy preschoolers should make all of us feel annoyed, cranky, or dejected.

But as logical as this seems, it’s simply not accurate. In fact, it is not the events (adversities) that happen to us that cause our feelings and behaviors (consequences) -- it is our thoughts or, as we’ll call them, Beliefs (“Bs”) about the events that drive how we feel and what we do. The world does not operate A–C, but A–B–C.

A. Adversity - What Pushes Your Buttons?

Certain events rob us of grace. These events are our button-push adversities. The first step in the ABC skill is to identify the adversities that challenge your resilience. Adversities vary in the degree of negative emotions and behavior that followed. They vary in how much they rob us of resilience.

Here are examples of adversities:

- Maintaining balance between work and family

- Juggling several tasks at once

- Recovering from a bad breakup

- Dealing with other people’s anger

- Negotiating household responsibilities with your partner

- Losing your job

- Hosting dinner parties

- Being diagnosed with a serious illness

When we’re confronted with our button-push adversities, we are more likely to derail because our thinking tends to muddy and our problem solving becomes lackluster. We may feel the urge to close the door and huddle in an armchair. Everyone has adversities that push their buttons. Resilience fortifies us against them.

B. Your In-the-Moment Ticker-Tape Beliefs

Once we’ve identified our As (our adversities) we can start to concentrate on our Bs -- our beliefs.

If the world operated A–C, we would see uniformity in how people responded to the adversity.

Ticker-tape beliefs are the thoughts that run through your mind -- sometimes outside your awareness -- that determine how you feel and what you decide to do in the midst of an adversity, challenge, or new experience.

Your ticker-tape beliefs directly affect the emotions you feel and the actions you take in response to adversity (the emotions and actions are the Cs in ABC). They place you on an emotional and behavioral trajectory that will either facilitate your ability to handle the situation or cause you to stumble and falter.

To improve your ability to respond to adversity, you must listen to what you are saying to yourself when the adversity occurs. “What am I thinking right now?”

The more you become attuned to your beliefs, the easier it will be for you to master the other six skills of resilience.

Two Categories of Ticker-Tape Beliefs - Why Beliefs and What-Next Beliefs - Why Did This Happen?

Two categories of ticker-tape beliefs are particularly important to understand when building resilience: causal beliefs -- which we call “why beliefs” -- and implication beliefs—“what-next beliefs.”


We are evolutionarily prepared to search for the causes of the adversities that befall us: The accurate identification of causes is essential to locating workable solutions -- and acting on solutions provides an evolutionary edge. We spontaneously ask ourselves “why” questions when problems arise, particularly when an outcome is unexpected, such as failure when we expected to succeed or when a desire has not been fulfilled.

Every answer to the question “why” can be described along three dimensions:

personal (me versus not me),

permanent (always versus not always), and

pervasive (everything versus not everything)

People are very likely to answer the why question the same way over and over.

“What’s Going to Happen Next?”

Some people’s ticker tape is oriented toward the future and expresses what they believe will happen next given the situation at hand. If the future looks bleak, anxiety results. What-next beliefs also provide evolutionary advantage. Those human predecessors who failed to look for threats were dramatically unprepared when a genuine threat emerged. But many of us experience what-next beliefs that are catastrophic and highly improbable. Far from preparing us for real threat, the anxiety that these beliefs cause hampers our problem-solving efforts -- and undermines our resilience.

What Is Your Pattern?

Sometimes ticker tapes are neither why beliefs nor what-next beliefs. Sometimes they are simply a narration of the events; other times they are evaluations.

Some people’s ticker tapes are a hodgepodge of beliefs: some evaluation, some narration, a few ideas about why, a couple of predictions. But for the most part, people have a dominant style. Their ticker tape focuses almost exclusively on the causes of problems, or on the implications of the event, or is mainly a play-by-play account of what has transpired. If your ticker-tape beliefs are mostly a play-by-play account or simply evaluate how you feel about the situation, you need to train yourself to think about the causes and implications of adversity because resilience requires a balance between thinking about the past and planning for the future.

C. Consequences Are Feelings and Behaviors

Beliefs matter because they shape the quality and intensity of your feelings and influence your behaviors -- your Consequences (Cs) -- the way you feel and what you do in the moment of an adversity or challenge. We care about feelings and behaviors for a very simple reason: Your success at work and in relationships, your mental health, and even to a large extent your physical health is nothing more than a composite of your mood and behaviors.

Resilient people are able to regulate their emotions and control their reactions so that they respond appropriately in any given situation. The goal is not to be in a good mood at all times or to never give up. Rather, the goal is to have your emotions and behaviors be productive, appropriate responses to the facts of the situation, not knee-jerk reactions to your ticker-tape beliefs.

Think about your in-the-moment emotions and reactions to setbacks, challenges, and new experiences. Do you seem to get stuck in an emotional rut: When you feel angry, guilty or embarrassed, is it hard to stop feeling that way? Is your emotional life narrow? If you tallied up the emotions you feel across a week, would you have a preponderance of one emotion -- anger, or sadness, or anxiety? Or maybe you don’t get stuck in one negative emotion, but, on reflection, you realize you don’t experience too many positive emotions. On the behavioral side, do you find yourself repeating mistakes over and over again, such as procrastinating, or coming on too strong, or giving in too easily, despite the fact that the strategies aren’t working? Alternatively, do you handle problems effectively but find yourself hesitating to step outside your comfort zone?

Resilient people are able to overcome life’s inevitable obstacles and still make time to learn new things and enjoy life.

Belief–Consequence Couplets

Everyone’s internal dialogue has its own meter and language, yet despite these differences, beliefs can be categorized. For each type of belief we label, we can predict which emotion and behavior will follow. We refer to these as B–C connections, and they always hold. These belief–consequence couplets are universal and make good sense from an evolutionary perspective.

You may have noticed that all five Cs in our B–C list are negative. Positive emotions (like happiness, pride, and serenity) are an important part of our lives. But they’re less important to our resilience than the negative ones. What matters in resilience is how we deal with adversity.


The anger family of emotions, including annoyance, irritability, acrimony, outrage, fury, and wrath to name just some, is brought on by the belief that someone has intentionally violated your rights, that someone has set out to harm you. Insults to our self-esteem cause us to feel harmed or that our rights have been violated. Anger comes when we believe we have been treated unfairly and thwarted in the pursuit of a goal. Usually we see another person as the agent of harm and we believe that that person’s control. We believe that (1) another person is to blame for the harm that comes to us and (2) that person could have done otherwise.

From an evolutionary perspective, the primitive form of the violation-of-rights belief is a belief that centers on the perception that an enemy is present. Our ancestors who were quick to perceive and react to enemies, and the potential harm they represented, had a greater chance of survival than those who failed to interpret danger when it was present.

Not all anger is beneficial. People who anger easily and have poor impulse control wreak havoc in their own lives and in the lives of those around them. To paraphrase Aristotle, becoming angry is easy. Becoming angry with the right person, at the right time, in the right way is hard.

Sadness and Depression

Perhaps you don’t get angry very often but instead find yourself feeling sad, down, dejected, or depressed more than you’d like. Sadness and depression result when you believe that you have lost something real -- like a relationship, job or loved one -- or intangible like self-worth.

The evolutionary function of sadness is to facilitate our adjustment to abandonment, such as the death of a loved one. The introspection and withdrawal provides us with the opportunity to search for meaning in the loss and think about plans for the future. Sadness is an uncomfortable emotion, and it goads us to change what’s wrong in our life and reduce the sadness in the process. The loss of energy may have kept the sad and cognitively impaired -- hence more vulnerable -- individual close to home where she was safe from dangers. Weeping and passivity may have elicited caretaking behaviors from other kin, which might have ultimately strengthened family connections. Thus, the evolutionary benefit of sadness, perhaps even depression, is to produce a supportive and protective reaction from other members of one’s group following a loss or abandonment.

The questions for you to answer now are: What is the nature of my ticker-tape beliefs? Am I someone whose emotions cluster around a sense of loss? Do I tend to blame myself for my problems, even when it probably isn’t wholly my fault? People who are “why” oriented and who focus on internal causes of problems are more likely to feel sadness and depression when things go wrong.

Nothing erodes resilience more quickly than depression. Nothing.


We asked college students to monitor their emotional lives for a day. Happiness, perhaps not surprisingly, was the most common positive emotion reported; guilt was the most common negative emotion. The average adult feels moderate guilt for almost 40 minutes per day. The guilt breaks down between (1) breaches in self regulation and (2) breaches in commitments.

If your emotional life is governed by guilt, you are wasting too much energy on that emotion. That’s not to say that all guilt is bad—some guilt is a good thing. Guilt may have evolved because it helps us to change our course of action and make amends. When our guilt stems from situations like overeating, procrastinating, or wasting money, it signals us that there has been a breakdown in self-control. Guilt acts as an internal brake of sorts, forcing us to notice what we are doing that makes us feel this way. It forces us to pause and provides us the opportunity to regain control of ourselves.

Guilt is a powerfully motivating emotion.

One useful function of guilt is to get us to stop doing whatever it is that we are doing that is generating the guilt. Another is to motivate us to make amends. When we feel guilty about having harmed others, we can apologize and try to repair the damaged relationship, which, for a species that is dependent on others for survival, is an evolutionarily sound strategy. Ideally, of course, we would experience guilt before we did or said something stupid so that we would not need to regain control of ourselves or repair broken relationships.

Merely considering a transgression is enough to trigger what psychologists refer to as anticipatory guilt. Often, but not always, the anticipatory guilt is sufficiently unpleasant that we stop ourselves before we misstep.

Anger and sadness are considered basic emotions; the development of guilt, however, takes time.

Unlike anger, which is sparked because of a perceived external cause (the “why”), guilt is brought on by internal beliefs about cause.

Guilt and sadness overlap on the internal dimension.

Guilt has a close cousin. When we’ve asked people to tell us their quintessential experience of guilt, we hear a lot about shame. The guilt and shame stories were both about things people wished they could undo: cheating on an exam, divulging the confidence of a friend, betraying a lover. Differences emerged, however, at the level of why beliefs. The ticker-tape beliefs that preceded guilt were focused on having done a bad thing, having behaved in a way that was wrong. Shame, in contrast, was related to beliefs about being a bad person; that is, the preceding beliefs focused on character rather than behavior.

Although some of us experience guilt and shame, many people appear to be prone to one more than the other. Shame-prone people believe that weaknesses in their character and flaws in the self are the cause of most of the transgressions they commit. Guilt-prone people tend not to look past the level of behavior; they believe, as it were, “I did a bad thing, but I am not a bad person.”

Are you more guilt-prone or shame-prone? It is important to know this about yourself because shame is toxic. Guilt functions to facilitate reparations. Indeed, guilt-proneness appears to be adaptive, particularly in the realm of relationships.

The shame-prone people have a much more difficult time being empathic; they are more angry and hostile and are not as effective at controlling their anger; and, in general, they are more likely to be depressed. The lethal nature of shame perhaps can best be understood by the powerlessness it engenders. We know how to change behaviors, but we feel helpless to change our character. The helplessness and powerlessness of shame propel us not toward better self-control and apologies but to flee and make ourselves disappear.

Anxiety and Fear

Anxiety can be crippling.

Anxiety and fear affect almost every system of our bodies. Our physiology changes. Anxiety leads to disturbances in our cardiovascular system -- we have heart palpitations, our blood pressure increases (or decreases), and our hearts race. Our respiratory system is affected. Our breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and we may feel as if we are choking. It is this latter symptom that is the root of the word “anxiety”—the Latin word angere means “to choke” or “to strangle.” Our gastrointestinal system shows the effects of anxiety. We lose our appetite. We have abdominal pain, and when we do eat, we get heartburn. There are changes to our neuromusculature: Our startle response is heightened, our eyelids twitch, our extremities wobble and shake, our muscles spasm, we pace. Even our urinary system is affected; we feel a pressure to urinate.

As if that weren’t bad enough, our behavior and thinking changes as well. Our speech lacks fluency, our coordination becomes impaired, our posture collapses. Our minds become hazy, the world seems unreal, we become increasingly self-conscious, our memory fails, we become distracted, our reasoning slips, our fears and worries increase.

Even though the body goes haywire, the central feature of anxiety is actually a person’s thoughts, specifically thoughts about threat and danger. Anxiety-prone people tend toward what-next beliefs. “Why” people look back and consider causes; “what-next” people look forward and, in the case of anxiety, see danger on the horizon. If you are a “what-next” person, pay close attention to your beliefs. Do you imagine the future as pleasant and safe or threatening and overwhelming?

If anxiety is often debilitating, what evolutionary advantage could it possibly confer? Anxiety and fear may have served as a check on overly careless behaviors.

If you’re stuck on future threat, if you habitually catastrophize -- seeing imminent danger when there is none -- you not only waste time and energy worrying about bad things that will never happen, but you experience levels of anxiety that can disrupt resilience and wreak

havoc on your performance and mental health.


Embarrassment is an acute loss of self-esteem, caused not by any behavior but by our knowledge that the behavior has been observed and negatively evaluated by others.

Embarrassment sometimes occurs when we have acted in a way that is inconsistent with our personal standards. The notion of personal standards helps explain why there is great variability in the situations that trigger embarrassment; what generates embarrassment in some people does not disturb the equanimity of others because we do not all have the same personal standards.

We feel the greatest embarrassment in the presence of others.

What matters most in the context of resilience is how you respond in moments of social interaction -- when your idea is nixed by your work team, when you are chastised in front of your friends, when your boss tells you that she is underwhelmed by your performance. When we listen to people’s ticker-tape beliefs in the moment of their embarrassment, they almost always include references to others. They center around the fear that they have lost standing in front of people whose opinions matter.

How to Use the B–C Connections

The knowledge of these B–C connections is the foundation of self-awareness. By listening to your ticker tape, you can make sense of and predict what emotions and behaviors will follow.

There are two important uses of the B–C connections. You can use them to disentangle the mixture of emotions you experience when faced with a button-push adversity; or to identify the beliefs that are causing you to get “stuck” in a particular emotion, gain understanding of why you reacted as you did, and learn to keep your bearings in even the most stressful of circumstances.


Our emotions are not always singular but seem, at times, to come in a dizzying jumble. A hodgepodge of emotions is particularly common in the wake of a major stress. The B–C connections can help tease apart a tangle of emotions.


Although the B–C connections have evolved to help humans make sense of their world and respond appropriately, sometimes people develop biases and gravitate to one or two types of beliefs. They apply these interpretations like cookie cutters, stamping every ambiguous situation into the same shape. Another way to think of the B–C connections is as a radar. Some people, perhaps because of their early experiences, scan their world for what could hurt them next. They have a future-threat radar and so feel anxious a lot of the time.

Perhaps you are not angry or overwhelmed by anxiety, or inappropriately proud, but you may have a bias in how you interpret the good and bad events in your life. If you do, you are undermining your resilience because your bias is preventing you from seeing the facts of the situation.

Biased thinking styles lead you to misinterpret the meaning of events much more often than they help you to get it right. Each person is less effective in what he or she does, and less happy, because of biased thinking styles.


Use your knowledge of the B–C connections to identify the pattern of beliefs that are limiting your emotional life. There is no rigid formula, but notice whether your emotions span the spectrum of feelings or if they tend to clump into one family. If they clump together, you may be biased in your thinking style and overly focused on one of the five varieties of beliefs, such as violation of rights or negative comparison to others.

How to Use ABC in Your Own Life

Use the ABC skill whenever you are confused by your reaction to an adversity or whenever your reactions are counterproductive. The goal of ABC is to parse your experience into A, B, and C. Until you separate your beliefs about the event from the facts of the event, and then separate these facts from your reactions to the event, you cannot do the work of changing your counterproductive beliefs. To scrutinize your beliefs, you first must isolate them.

The first step is to describe the adversity (A).

The second step is to identify your Cs. What did you feel and how did you react as the event unfolded? Try to identify both your emotions and your behaviors, and note the intensity of the emotion.

The reason we jump from A to C and skip the Bs for now is that this is how we most often experience the flow in the real world. An event happens; we notice our feelings and responses to the event next, before we notice what we have said to ourselves (our Bs). Our Bs usually are not as salient as our reactions.

The third step is a mental version of connect-the-dots. After you’ve noted the adversity and the consequences, the task is to figure out the beliefs that connect the A to the C. Ask yourself: What was I thinking that brought on these feelings and actions? The goal is to identify the beliefs as you actually thought them, not to convert them to what you may view as a more acceptable version. The content of your ticker tape, the very words that it is constructed from, is important because those words capture the meaning with which you imbue the event.

Use your knowledge of the B–C connections to make a mental check of your logic. We know that anger will follow a belief about violation of rights and anxiety will follow a belief about impending danger. If the beliefs you have generated do not fall into these categories, then you haven’t clearly identified your beliefs.

How will you know that you’ve used the skill effectively? You will have an aha! experience -- you will understand what you are feeling and why you are feeling that way. Once you’ve had the aha! experience, you are ready to more closely study the beliefs that are driving your reactions to make sure that you are not falling into thinking traps,

ABC Exceptions

In some cases, events are so severe that your reactions are driven by the event itself, not your beliefs about the event. There’s another instance in which the ABC model doesn’t hold true. Have you heard the phrase “amygdala hijack”?

The amygdala is an almond-shaped neural structure located above the brainstem, one half on each side of the brain. They are part of the limbic system, and their primary role is the service of emotions: generating emotions, storing emotional memories, providing emotional meaning to our lives. Without an amygdala, you would experience no joy, no sorrow, no fear or rage; life would be absent emotions and passion. The hippocampus (another structure in the limbic system) is responsible for storing the facts of the event.

In some situations, the signal received by the amygdala acts as an alarm and the rest of the brain is mobilized before the neocortex completes its processing. The bad news is that important, detailed information is lost when the neocortex is left out of the loop. In many situations when our emotions override our thinking, the richer information provided by the neocortex would have been to our advantage.

The amygdala can save us but it can also cost us dearly.

It is important to remember that these amygdala moments are the exception, not the rule.

Most of the emotions we experience follow more extensive processing from the neocortex, including our interpretations of the stimulus before us.

More common are the moments when we ruminate ourselves into a state of anxiety or anger or when we feel a growing sense of sadness as we engage in a detailed play-by-play of our last fight with a significant other, or when we get angry, or embarrassed, or feel guilty following a biased but belief-laden assessment of the current situation. When your emotions are coming on too fast and too strong, the most effective strategy is to calm your body.

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