The Science of Controlling Your Emotions: How The ABC Model Will Transform Your Life (FS311)

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Episode 311: The Science of Controlling Your Emotions: How The ABC Model Will Transform Your Life (FS311)

Control and certainty.

Almost as much as food and shelter, we desperately want to feel as though we can determine our future.

It makes sense. Historically, the better you could predict an outcome, the better your chance of survival.

In modern times, however, we’re typically lucky enough that survival isn’t an issue. But millions of years of evolution aren’t ready to allow your ancient brain to let go of that used-to-be-helpful anxiety.

Nope. Now, instead of concerning yourself with how you’re going to find food or avoid being mauled by a wild animal, that once-adaptive worry gets shuttled into every available nook and cranny of an otherwise comfortable life.

“What if my sales funnel totally fails? Or if my clients cancel their contracts and I go broke? My life would be over.”

In an almost certain survival situation, sabertooth stress is replaced by self-actualized anxiety.

Instead of worrying about living another day, we’re just as worried about living our best day.

It’s a bittersweet trade off, to say the least.

So, where does seeking control present a worthwhile opportunity nowadays?

Not in the carefully observed outer world, but in our unexamined inner world. And entrepreneurship is the perfect tool to see what’s beneath the surface.

**Spoiler Alert** Being an entrepreneur means you’re going to face adversity.

You’re going to fail, be told “no”, try things that flop, and work your tail off without the result you wanted. You’re basically signing up for mental toughness bootcamp, and your drill sergeant is failure…he lives in your head…and he never sleeps.

Nobody likes falling down and getting banged up, but it’s part of the journey. For some people, these bruises hurt more than others. For some, sacrifice turns into suffering. Failure, while inevitable, doesn’t have to turn into emotional misery.

We’ve all said it or heard someone say it, “I wish I could control my emotions.” or “I wish I could feel better.” We don’t like feeling negative emotions, so we want to change it.

So, how do we change our emotions?

An easy, brute force way to do it is through drugs and alcohol. We can forcibly yank our emotional state out of a rut chemically… for a little while. But when the drugs wear off, we still feel the same. Why? Because we didn’t fix the root of the problem.

Emotions don’t appear out of thin air. They actually come from somewhere.

Every emotion stems from one place: YOUR THOUGHTS

The problem is that we are never not thinking. Your mind races a million miles per hour and you can burn through a thousand thoughts without even recognizing it. That plane took off on the day of your birth and has probably been cruising mostly on autopilot without touching ground since.

Emotions, though, stand out. You feel different. It rips your attention into your body and you become aware of the emotional state you’re in after the thought that caused it passed.

Reread the last half of that sentence again. I bet you skimmed over the most important part:

“…after the thought that caused it.”

When anyone says they want to control their emotions, they’re already a step behind. You’ll always be chasing the wrong culprit.

Trying to change your emotions directly is like painting a red line on a thermometer and expecting the temperature to adjust. The thermometer isn’t the input, it’s the output. It doesn’t control what happens, it shows you what happens.

Emotions are the same.

Emotions are the fantastically diverse fleeting feelings that flow from an often unnoticed cognitive process.

You think, therefore you feel.

The tricky part is that thoughts also come from somewhere. To be more accurate, your patterns of thought come from somewhere. They come from familiar ways we’ve repeated and ingrained over the years and from how we respond to events that happen around us. Notice I said, around us and not to us. This seemingly minor distinction actually has a profound impact in our interpretation of our autonomy – our sense of effectiveness we have in the world – and it’s certainly a necessary step in the road to gaining control over your thoughts and emotions.

Let me explain…

When you believe that things happen to you, you’re letting the reins of autonomy and self-direction dangle limply in your hands. At best, you’re knowingly or unknowingly assuming the role of the passive victim, floating through the river of life. At worst, you’re making yourself the martyr and actively allowing the outside world to dictate your experience and effectiveness.

If you want to truly change this, the first step is to recognize, appreciate, and fully accept the reality that things simply happen. They happen often without reason, intention, obligation to fairness or justice, or any sense of discernable order.

Said another way: “Shit happens.”

Luckily, the inevitable and relentless indifference of the universe is not an imposing boulder rolling mercilessly onward to crush you. Instead, think of it as more of a blank canvas; neither good nor bad, but waiting to see what you paint on it.

By the time you’re reading this, though, you’re far from the tabula rasa – the blank canvas. Nope, you’ve almost certainly got all the scars, bruises, fears, pride, and constellation of accumulated experiences that permeate every pixel of your perception.

What does this perceptual filter turn into?


See, patterns of thought or bad thinking habits are what make changing or controlling our emotions so difficult. If your existence is the blank canvas, your patterns are the brushes you use to paint your world. They are the colors you’ve chosen for your palette. And the way you wield the brush and cast the oils across the canvas become your reality.

Some of us forget of the vast and colorful array of options available to us at any time. Instead, we grab the ol’ paint roller and sloppily slap red on everything, as we always do. Instead of channelling our inner Bob Ross and choosing each brush and vibrant color with the intentionality and significance it deserves, we just grab the nearest option.

While we love to think of ourselves as logical, rational beings, at our core we are unshakably, unmistakably emotional. It’s not your fault, it’s millions of years of evolution that made us all that way. But one thing evolution didn’t do terribly well was to make sure that those emotions are adaptive in our modern world. In fact, far from it…

We all have an emotional home that we tend to go, even if it isn’t a pleasant place. Some of us have an anxiety home. When things are uncertain, we immediately start thinking about all the ways it could go wrong, and subsequently, we start feeling the tension and nervousness of that rising cortisol; the chemical culprit to blame when you feel stress.

The Battle Cry of the Anxious:

“What if it all goes wrong?”

Others of us have an optimistic tendency, and when things are uncertain, we think of all the amazing possibilities and things that could come from the opportunity. From that, we feel inspired, energized, and joyful.

The Battle Cry of the Optimistic:

“What if it all goes right?”

This isn’t a qualitative judgment on any personality characteristic being better than another, by the way. Truthfully, we inherit much of our personality and traits, and every trait has its positive and negative applications. But we can all make the best use of our inheritance. And that is what pattern recognition is all about.

When we think of the variety of personalities we see in different people, much of it comes back to patterns of thought and how that shapes our constant perception of the world.

It is exactly because of this immense power that thought wields over our lives that we have to appreciate the importance of controlling and conditioning our mind, regardless of our dispositions.

If you’ve heard of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), this is the backbone.

Events don’t cause emotions, beliefs do.

Events are inherently neutral. Proof: The exact same event can cause completely different emotions in different people. For example, an economic collapse could be interpreted as catastrophically negative, or as marvelously opportunistic and positive depending on your beliefs around it.

One person may think, “The economy is going to hell. My business is going to fail!” while someone else might think, “More millionaires are made during a failing economy than any other time. This is my chance!” The event was the same, but the thoughts, and of course, the emotions generated from those thoughts, are entirely opposite.

The 3 components of the model are this:

  1. Activating Event. This is the thing that happens. No interpretation or emotion needed. This is just exactly what a video camera would show, nothing else. If you get in a car accident, the video would show a car hitting you. It wouldn’t show, “Some idiot who wasn’t paying attention and whipped into my lane like an a-hole.” Nope, it would show a car hitting you, that’s it.
  2. Belief or thought. This is what you think after the Activating Event happened. This is where the “idiot a-hole who wasn’t paying attention” comes in.
  3. Consequence. This is what happens after the thought. The consequence can be emotional and/or behavioral. In the car accident example, that may be that you felt rage (emotion) and jumped out of your car screaming (behavior).

The beauty and simplicity of this model is that we can see where things go wrong. Almost always, we would say that the Consequence is the result of the Activating Event. “Some a-hole ran into me! Of course I’m furious!” But that isn’t true. You thought that the guy was a careless a-hole. What if you happened to find out that he actually had a heart attack while driving and that is why he swerved and hit you? Would he still be a careless a-hole worthy of your street rage tongue lashing? No, of course not. Your thoughts and emotions would have changed, even though the Activating Event was the same.

This proves the simple and indisputable truth that our interpretation of the world is solely responsible for our experience of the world. And if this timeless tether between thought and emotion hasn’t shaken you to your core yet, try to appreciate the life changing significance embedded within the simplicity of this relationship…

We can choose HOW we feel by choosing WHAT we think.

Feel like you’re in a negative loop? That is because you’re cycling through the entire ABC model repeatedly without changing the Belief. The Consequence (emotion or behavior) becomes the Activating Event for another loop, which then spurs another thought.

For example, let’s say you have an important client meeting where you’re pitching your services. A lot is riding on it. Here’s the sequence:

  • You’re nervous that you’re going to screw it up and fumble your words.
  • You get into the meeting and you’re already thinking, “Don’t mess it up. I need this. I’m screwed if I blow this sale.”
  • Your focus goes immediately to the negative. This meeting now seems more like an opportunity to prove you’re a screw up rather than a chance to land an awesome sale.
  • You go into the presentation nervous and start talking. It’s going okay at first, but then the slideshow freezes. “Oh my god, here it goes. My nightmare. I look so stupid. I can’t believe this is happening. It’s over.”
  • You feel that sick feeling in your stomach as the anxiety starts to build and your throat tightens.
  • Your voice starts to get shaky as you fumble through your computer apologizing to the audience. In come the thoughts, “They can see how nervous I am. They think I’m an amateur. I don’t belong here. I should just walk out now.”
  • Your anxiety gets even worse. Now, you’re body is getting so tense and your focus is so scattered that you’re almost aimlessly clicking through the screen, hoping to god something just starts working.
  • Eventually, you decide you need to restart your computer and profusely apologize to the audience while you decide whether to jump out the window or puke on your shoes.

Was that series of events inevitable? Would every reasonable person get filled with anxiety and stumble through this same series of events? Not necessarily. Let’s try again:

You’re walking into the same scenario, but in this case, you’re excited:

  • You know you’ve got something incredible to show them.
  • You’ve worked so hard on it, you’re proud to show off the presentation because hey, if they don’t buy, they’re the one missing out, not you.
  • The presentation starts. It’s going well!
  • Your excitement is reflected on the faces of your audience members.
  • You’re about to transition into the first graph when…CRAP! The slides freeze.
  • You feel a little frustrated because you were picking up momentum and feeling good in the presentation, but you pull it together. “Sorry everybody. Computer problems. Too bad I’m not trying to sell you on tech support or I’d really be able to impress you right now!”
  • The audience chuckles.
  • Quickly, you shift your focus onto the computer and realize that it isn’t the computer, it is the battery in your presentation clicker. “Ah, dead battery. Not a problem.”
  • You whip out the spare battery in the clicker case and pop it in. “Alright, we’re powered up! And speaking of getting some extra juice…”
  • You take a theatrical swig of your coffee.
  • Another chuckle from the audience keeps the positive energy in the room.
  • “Now, as I was saying…”
  • You not only saved the presentation, you actually made it even better by showing how calm and collected, even funny that you’re able to be under pressure. And all because you went in with an entirely different train of thought.

Let me again clarify that this isn’t a “power of positive thinking” example. Not at all. Instead, it’s a representation of how a pattern of thinking impacts our responses in a cyclical manner. For better or for worse, if you aren’t exerting control over the one area you actually have control (thought) then you’ll cycle endlessly, and often mindlessly.

The good news is that you can also create a productive loop in the same way! While there are a million ways you could do this, I’ll give you one simple, fun, but deeply enlightening method for learning about your patterns and beginning to chart your own course through life.

Create an instruction manual on yourself.

1.) Map out your patterns of thought, emotional responses, and the events that typically “cause” them. Act as though scientists were going to build a robot that had to think and behave exactly as you do. Tell the scientists how that robot would respond in situations like a fight with a loved one or another emotionally charged event.

How do you feel? Sad? Betrayed? Angry? What do you think in those situations?

“I can’t believe they would treat me like this after all I’ve done for them!”

Get clear on exactly what it would take to replicate your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Just choose a couple major situations in your life that you want to start responding to differently.

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2.) Decide what emotional and behavioral response you want to have. Maybe instead of aggression, you want to respond with patience and compassion. You can’t force those directly, but you can control the thought that would lead to them.

Ask yourself, “When do I feel patient and compassionate? What am I thinking when I feel that way?” You’re essentially finding the ingredients to the emotion cake you’ll be baking next time you’re in that situation.

3.) Start practicing. When that tough situation comes up, instead of defaulting to your old patterns of thought, test out your new recipe. Maybe you think, “They care about me. They’re not here to hurt me, they just want me to understand what they’re feeling. This is a great opportunity to listen and learn more about my partner.”

The Activating Event, remember the A in our ABC model, hasn’t changed. But our Belief has, and so has our emotional Consequence and behavior.

From Business Psychology to Belief

Building a business is no different than building yourself. They’re intimately and inextricably linked. If you’re not yet recognizing that the success in your business (in whatever terms you define it) will be equally proportional to the depth of your own development, you’re missing out on perhaps the most rewarding nature of entrepreneurship.

You’ve set out to build something. Whether you believe deeply in a cause or just enjoy the work itself, you’ve chosen to spend your life doing it. And since how we spend our days is how we spend our years, you better damn well make sure they’re well spent.

So take advantage of the inner dialogue that streams by your subconscious all day, every day. In your peripheral, it’s laying down new strokes on the canvas each day. Make them intentional. Make them bright and colorful. And for god’s sake, paint some happy little trees every once in a while.

We also recorded a podcast episode about this!

In this episode, we get into the topic of navigating business psychology, your emotions as an entrepreneur, discussing the relevance of the “Just Ship It!” challenge, Ram Dass’s concept of neutrality, how others influence our responses and the importance of becoming aware of your blind spots.

On the show we are joined by Corbett Barr, Aiden Fishbein and our special guest, Joe Kerns, who is a business psychology, mental resilience expert and someone who has a ton of experience on the topic of our conversation today. He shares about the ABC model as a tool to analyze and better understand our reactions to circumstances, the role that our thoughts play in shaping our emotions and how it all ties into our interpretation of the past, present and future.

We also talk about why it is so hard for entrepreneurs to take that first step of getting something out the door and about the effect that thoughts and emotions have on business. Join us today for expert advice on growing the mental toughness that is required to succeed in business.

Key Points From This Business Psychology Episode:

  • The important relationship between being relaxed and performing well. [0:04:16.0]
  • Joe’s back story about business psychology and controlling emotions. [0:06:56.0]
  • Where our emotions come from. [0:08:03.0]
  • More about Fizzle’s “Just Ship It!” challenge. [0:09:16.0]
  • Why many entrepreneurs are afraid of putting themselves out there. [0:09:30.0]
  • How your emotions can derail all of your plans. [0:13:37.0]
  • Why learning is a necessary result of building a business. [0:16:49.0]
  • The premise of the ABC model. [0:22:43.0]
  • The umbrella analogy about controlling emotions. [0:27:37.0]
  • Why you need to create more space between the event and the thought. [0:28:24.0]
  • More about Ram Dass, his lectures and the concept of neutrality. [0:29:16.0]
  • The role of our history in how we respond to situations. [0:31:01.0]
  • The importance of pulling apart and analyzing our responses to things. [0:32:11.0]
  • How we are susceptible to the influence and ideas of others. [0:32:56.0]
  • The part of the brain that allows us to deceive ourselves. [0:40:59.0]
  • How entrepreneurs can practically apply business psychology and mental toughness. [0:43:34.0]
  • Applying the ABC model to Chase’s personal case study. [0:50:20.0]
  • A breakdown of the laws described in The Three Laws of Performance. [0:53:05.0]
  • The importance of deconstructing your thoughts. [0:56:43.0]
  • Why you need to consider all the evidence from both sides of your beliefs. [1:00:23.0]
  • And much more!

Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:

Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash

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