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Spock vs. McCoy: Handling Emotions Before They Dominate You

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

“You’re so stupid. You can’t do anything right. Things work for everyone else, but not you. You may as well give up. You’ll never succeed. You’ll never amount to anything.”

Such insults! If you heard someone getting chewed out like this, you’d probably become incensed. What is wrong with that angry person? No one deserves to be treated that way.

But what if those were your words pointed at yourself?

Many people mentally berate themselves when something bad happens. They think it’s normal to listen to their own internal diatribe over and over and over. They don’t realize that much of what they tell themselves isn’t even true.

The way to get off this mental merry-go-round is to Dispute your unrealistic beliefs about the bad event. Then consider the Energization, i.e. how you feel after challenging your beliefs. These are the next steps in the ABC Model.

To dispute your beliefs, ask yourself whether there’s any evidence to prove that they’re true. This forces you to shift from an emotional knee-jerk response to a logical observation of your beliefs. It’s like poking a hole in a balloon to let the air escape. Disputing your thoughts loosens the emotional stronghold that those thoughts can generate.

For all you Star Trek fans, my husband calls it the difference between Leonard McCoy, the ship’s emotion-prone doctor, and Spock, the calm, logical Vulcan. When our kids get stuck, he often tells them, “Be Spock, not McCoy.”


Spock: “A most illogical reaction. When we demonstrated our superior weapons, they should have fled.”

McCoy: “You mean they should have respected us?”

Spock: “Of course.”

McCoy: “Mr. Spock, respect is a rational process. Did it ever occur to you they might react emotionally? With anger?”

Spock: “Doctor, I’m not responsible for their unpredictability.”

McCoy: “They were perfectly predictable (starts smiling) … to anyone with feelings.”


When a disputation works, it lessens the intensity of your fear, anger, discouragement, etc. Disputations that don’t work often fail “for the same reason most pep talks fail—they are empty positive thinking, a form of sheer boosterism,” psychologist Martin Seligman warns in The Optimistic Child. “Hollow slogans are not going to change your mood, not for longer than a short period. Effective disputation requires substance.”

To dispute your initial beliefs,

· Gather evidence. Where’s the truth in your belief?

· List alternative ways of looking at the situation.

· Decatastrophize. Evaluate the validity of your what ifs.

· Create an action plan for the most likely scenario.

To teach a child how to address adversity, Seligman suggests having your youngster ask himself three things:

1. “What is the worst that could happen?”

2. “What is the best that could happen?”

3. “What is the most likely thing that will happen?”

Next, make an action plan. Seligman said, “Ask [your child] to tell you

· one thing he can do to lessen the chances that the worst will happen,

· one thing he can do to increase the chances that the best will happen, and

· all the things he can [do to] handle the most likely consequences.”

For example, Ashley and Sophia were painting ceramic angels in art class. Sophia left class early and left her angel on the table she’d been sharing with Ashley.

· Adversity: When Ashley reached for the gold paint, her elbow bumped Sophia’s statue, knocking it to the floor and breaking it.

· Belief: Ashley thought, “Sophia’s going to kill me! She’ll never talk to me again. I am such a klutz; I should drop out of art. But it’s Sophia’s fault; she shouldn’t have left her angel near the edge of the table.”

· Consequence: Ashley felt terrible. She was afraid of how Sophia would react.

· Disputation: Ashley admitted she should have been more careful; it was her fault that she had knocked over the angel, not Sophia’s. Ashley liked the class and realized one mishap wasn’t reason enough to quit.

Ashley reviewed the three questions: “The worst that could happen is Sophia won’t want to be my friend anymore. The best that could happen is she won’t be angry at me for long. The most likely thing that will happen is she’ll be angry for a while, and we’ll still be friends.”

· Action plan: Ashley decided to apologize to Sophia instead of avoiding her. She offered to glue Sophia’s angel back together or buy a new one for her friend. Worst case, Ashley would spend time with other friends. Best case, she and Sophia would still hang out. Most likely case, Sophia would accept her apology and Ashley would be more careful with their art projects.

· Energization = Ashley’s fear subsided. She felt badly about breaking Sophia’s statue, but no longer struggled with a sense of impending doom.

Accuracy is paramount for a change of heart. “The disputations must be based on fact,” Seligman explained. “They must carry the weight of proof. If your child’s disputations are vague or just cheery positive thinking, they will not dent his pessimism.” Likewise, “repeating cheery thoughts over and over again is not going to enable you to live up to, or surpass, your potential.”

Remember, this takes a lot of focus. Seligman strongly recommends taking the time to work on your own thoughts and responses before introducing the process to your child. After all, you are her role model. If see often sees you reacting like McCoy, you can’t expect her to effortlessly respond like Spock. With practice, though, you’ll both gain more self-awareness and a crucial skill for navigating life’s adversities.

Photo by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay


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