Mind Your Thoughts

Updated: May 7, 2021

We desire the best for ourselves, but sometimes we fall short of the desired outcome. When we fall short of the desired result, our interpretation of the situation may become irrational. Psychologist Albert Ellis points out our unrealistic and unreasonable ideas create disruptive feelings and dysfunctional behaviors.

I had a recent encounter with a student. He demanded a failing grade be removed from his academic record.

I informed him of the grade dispute policy. I scheduled an appointment to meet with the department chairperson in the department he failed the class. The department chairperson was gracious to meet with us on short notice. I accompanied him to the meeting for moral support.

The chairperson logged into the learning management system to inquire about the student's class participation. The progress report showed he missed several assignments. At midterm, the professor notified him of his status in the course. It was suggested he withdraw from the class before the withdrawal deadline. He completed some of the assignments but not enough to pass.

After the meeting, I met with him in my office to strategize for the next semester.

The student's narrative had several absolutistic notions. "I must be successful at all times." He was unaware his absolutistic ideas were impeding his academic pursuits. His low frustration tolerance was also a hindrance to dealing with failure; he shouldn't have to deal with anything unpleasant. Just change the failing grade, and I'll be fine.

So with his permission, I introduced him to Albert Ellis' A-B-C Model, a concept from Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). One REBT premise is that blame is at the core of emotional disturbances. In this context, the emotional upset is the student's inability to hold himself accountable for failing his class.

A-B-C Model

A = Activating Event – something happens (being unsuccessful in his class)

B = Belief System – interpretation of the activating event (absolutistic notions: his academic career is ruined, the failing grade will follow him around for the rest of his life, the professor "gave" him a failing grade, he's a failure for failing a class)

C = Consequences – the belief has emotional and behavioral consequences (he became a failure because he thought of himself as a failure, he awfulized failing)

D = Disputing – challenge the belief to create new outcomes and learn to detect irrational beliefs (retake the class in the next semester, earning a letter grade of A, B, or C, and he passes the course, the professor did not "give" him a grade, his final grade was a product of his effort)

The student's irrational thoughts were triggered by his beliefs, evaluations, and interpretations of the situation. In response, he developed a narrative grounded by his self-defeating thinking, awfulizing and catastrophizing. He made demands and commands that his grade be changed in the system. It is not always easy to regulate our emotions and recognize how our emotions influence our behaviors. Still, the A-B-C Model may be an effective tool to explore irrational beliefs. The student learns he can change how he thinks about adversity and develop new ideas.

Stay Naturally Curious


Corey, G. (1996). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy (5th ed). Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Sharf, S. R. (2004). Theories of psychotherapy and Counseling: Concept and cases (3rd ed).Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

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