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The Trap of Emotional Reasoning (And How To Overcome It)

Something doesn’t feel right.”

If I had a dollar for every time I had this feeling, and it turned out to be correct, I could fund an epic vacation. 

And that’s a good thing! We have an intuition for a reason. 

But what happens when you can’t distinguish between fact, intuition, and emotions? What if we’re driven entirely by what we feel instead of what’s right in front of us?

When that happens, you might be struggling with emotional reasoning. 

What Is Emotional Reasoning: A Deep Dive

Emotional reasoning is a type of cognitive distortion where your reality is based on what emotions you feel. 

Not only do you define your current situation by your feelings at the time, but it also influences the conclusions you draw about things and your assumptions about the future. 

First, let’s talk about what cognitive distortions are. That’ll help you understand emotional reasoning a little better.  

Cognitive distortions are erroneous thinking patterns – biases that color our view of our reality – and leave us with an inaccurate picture of ourselves and our lives.

Emotional reasoning is no different. 

It distorts our reality leaving us incapable of seeing a clear picture. When we use emotional reasoning, our feelings create a reality that is different from what is actually the truth. 

In fact, whether something is true or not doesn’t matter. If we feel it’s true, it must be… right? 

It’s easy to get trapped in this cycle of conflating feelings with facts, but it’s also really bad for us. Let’s talk about why. 

an outline of a face filled in with branches
what is emotional reasoning?

How Emotional Reasoning Works

When our emotions override logical thought, we assume it reflects our current situation. 

This can happen in two ways: 

First, your emotions can directly inform your reality. 

For example, you feel scared, so therefore you must physically be in danger. Even if there’s nothing around you to warrant fear, it’s what you feel so you believe it’s true. You believe you’re sensing a real threat.

Secondly, you base judgments and conclusions on emotions, like saying you will win a competition because you feel particularly lucky today.

While the latter sounds decidedly innocuous, it can become problematic it leads to reckless behavior or taking unnecessary risks. 

If you’re feeling incredibly confident at a particular time, you may overestimate your ability to do something safely, for example (drive really fast, make that insane double-backflip on the trampoline, or take the gap in traffic that you really shouldn’t…)

On the flip side, if you feel afraid around a person who’s given you zero reason to feel that way, you may judge them as dangerous, which will impact how you treat them. And we’ve seen plenty of camera footage of what happens when someone reacts to another person based on a perceived fear, sometimes with deadly consequences. 

The foundational problem with emotional reasoning is that it confuses feelings with facts. 

Since we feel emotions regardless of facts (such as feeling fat even if you’re not), it’s easy to see how using emotions to determine reality can become hazardous because feelings aren’t always correct. It’s the latter point that people either can’t or won’t confront. 

Examples of Emotional Reasoning in Everyday Life

Example 1: You wake up feeling optimistic and excited, thinking you can take on the world. Since you’re feeling lucky, you place a massive bet on an upcoming game with the potential to lose all of your savings. But since you feel lucky, you’re sure you’ll win! (We know how this is probably going to go, right?)

Example 2: You feel lonely. You’re convinced no one cares about you and you’re not worthy of love and friendship. Even if the truth is you hung out with friends a few days ago, you feel like you don’t have close bonds, so that becomes the predominant narrative in your mind.

Example 3: Your anxiety is higher than usual, and you feel particularly stressed. You’re sure something terrible will happen to you, so stay home to be safe.

Example 4: You’re angry with your boyfriend or girlfriend, even though you’re not 100% sure why. It’s just a vibe you have, so you assume they must have done something wrong to justify your anger. You snub them as a result.

Example 5: Your boss gives you feedback that makes you immediately defensive. You feel like you’re about to lose your job and start to convince yourself of that fact, even though, in reality, boss’s give feedback to employees all the time. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re failing. 

Example 6: After months of hard work getting in shape, you are disappointed that, despite your weight loss, you don’t fit into a size four dress. You feel like a failure, firstly, and secondly, call yourself obese and undesirable. 

A man struggling with emotional reasoning leans against a window appearing stressed
Coping with Emotional Reasoning

The Psychology Behind Emotional Reasoning

When we base our decisions and assumptions on our emotions, we discount or dismiss any evidence to the contrary. 

One of the problems with emotional reasoning is that it becomes easy to fall into a trap and build an endless loop of negative thoughts, which only leads to negative behaviors that perpetuate the negative thoughts. 

An example of how unhealthy patterns of thoughts become habitual is when you’re feeling overwhelmed by something, and we assume being overwhelmed is proof that we can’t cope with a specific situation.  

So, we avoid it altogether, thereby cementing the thought in our mind that when we feel a particular emotion, it’s a warning – or even a protective measure – against potential failure.

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy at that point.  

You become a person who doesn’t take risks or try. You may even become the type of person who doesn’t communicate when there’s a perceived issue. Instead, you cut people off or ghost them because you’ve already decided that you know their state of mind and want to get out ahead of it. 

The Impact of Emotional Reasoning on Your Quality of Life

It’s true that emotions play an important role in our thinking, so it’s not just a matter of saying we should make decisions and act without any emotion at all. 

We’re human beings, after all. Our emotions serve a purpose and we’re not meant to disregard them entirely.

But when we can’t distinguish reality for what it is because our emotions overwhelm us, it can hinder our ability to function. Plus, we ruin a lot of relationships that way.

For example, if you’re prone to jealousy and let those feelings run amuck, you might start accusing your significant other of cheating. 

Based on what, exactly? Mostly vibes. You feel like it’s happening, so you judge and scrutinize every action through that lens.  

In the absence of being able to take a step back and look at the situation objectively or (gasp) having a direct and honest conversation with your partner, you may end up doing something you regret. 

It can get much worse.

If left unchecked, emotional reasoning becomes woefully cyclical. This is especially true with negative emotions like anxiety or fear. 

If you’re afraid of driving in the rain, for example, you may be so distracted by your fear that you land up in an accident, confirming your initial worries. This may result in your refusing to drive when the weather is bad.

These kinds of emotionally-driven actions can be self-sabotaging, too. If every negative situation becomes an amplifier from deep-seated feelings run amuck, you’re going to resort to escape tactics that ultimately harm you. 

If a friend flakes on you and that triggers an entire storyline about your inherent worth that can snowball and take an ugly turn. You end up dwelling on these horrible feelings and then doing things like downing a bottle of wine on the couch to get away from it. 

This is the worrying – and dark – side of emotional reasoning. (More on that in a minute.)

A woman is stressed and leans against her hand. She wrestles with emotional reasoning
Emotional Reasoning

The Connection Between Emotional Reasoning and Mental Health

Emotional reasoning, as a cognitive bias, is very common in mental health conditions and certain types of disorders. 

Very often, those who suffer from depression, anxiety, panic disorders, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders deal with dysfunctional beliefs about themselves, which are perpetuated by their emotional reasoning. 

You can see how the thought pattern can go from a broken zipper to feeling fat, adding to existing self-worth issues and resulting in an eating disorder. 

Similarly, people who feel hopeless and despairing about their lives are often caught in a cycle of negativity so deep that they don’t go out, socialize, or engage in hobbies. This only reaffirms the thought that their lives are meaningless since there’s nothing that brings them fulfillment.

Emotion Reasoning and Alcohol Abuse

In a similar way, emotional reasoning can lead to substance abuse issues and vice versa. 

Statistics show the ever-increasing percentage of people dealing with alcohol and substance dependence, with many citing the desire to ‘take the edge off’ or ‘not think about things’ as the reason they drink. 

This is just as true for those who struggle with emotional reasoning. For some, this may look like, “Everyone thinks I’m boring. I need to take a few drinks to loosen up.” For others, it can be a matter of “I’ve already had a terrible day, I may as well get drunk.”

I used to be in this boat. 

If somebody I liked rejected me, I would internalize that as evidence that I was unlovable and doomed to be alone forever and that thought hurt. So I would drink. 

Received negative or even partially critical feedback at work? It must mean I can’t do anything right. So I would drink. 

And this is how a horrible cycle begins.

Because the more you drink, the more you’re likely to feel worse about yourself. You feel bad about the drinking, and also alcohol is reshaping your brain in ways that make you more susceptible to things like anxiety, depression, and mood swings

So now you have to cope with refuting these negative thought patterns while dealing with a brain that is stuck in an awful cycle of dopamine spikes and deficits.  

It’s horrible. 

The sooner you can identify and get a grasp on what’s happening, the better. 

How to Identify Emotional Reasoning in Yourself and Others

Let’s be honest – identifying emotional reasoning can be hard. You may have become so accustomed to acting on your feelings that it doesn’t seem out of place anymore. 

Then there are our ‘gut feelings.’ Intuition is important. We can’t exactly ignore those either.

So what are you to do?

To identify emotional reasoning, you’ll need to get into the habit of practicing self-awareness and introspection. It requires a willingness to challenge one’s immediate feelings and beliefs. 

That can feel exhausting at first, but the payoff is huge. 

Start by asking yourself whether you’re making decisions or acting on a feeling and whether there are facts to support that feeling. 

If you find that your reactions are purely because of how you feel and reality is a little different, you’re probably using emotional reasoning. Here are some phrases or thought processes you may experience that could signal that you’re using emotional reasoning:

  • “I’m going to… because I feel…”
  • “I feel… so it must be true that…” 
  • “My gut is telling me this, so I will…”

One way of learning to spot emotional reasoning is to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?”. If the answer starts with “Because I feel like…” or “It feels like…” then it’s possible you are acting on a feeling, not a fact. 

Investigate that further.

The next step is to ask yourself whether there are facts that back up how you feel. 

For example, are you feeling scared because you’re in a potentially dangerous environment, or are you just overwhelmed and anxious? If your feelings can be supported by facts or the reality of the scenario you find yourself in, you have a valid reason for reacting. 

If your feelings seem unfounded, it doesn’t mean they aren’t valid feelings – but it could mean they are misplaced or as a result of internal processes rather than a correct representation of reality.

Additional Questions to Ask Yourself

Here’s another framework you can use to determine if you’re engaging in emotional reasoning. 

1. Acknowledge Your Feelings:

Start by recognizing and naming the emotion you’re feeling. For instance, “I’m feeling anxious,” or “I’m feeling inadequate.”

2. Question the Validity of the Emotion:

  • “Is this emotion based on facts or just my interpretation of the situation?”
  • “Have I felt this way before in similar situations, and were those feelings accurate?”

3. Seek Evidence:

  • “What evidence do I have that supports this feeling?”
  • “Is there evidence that contradicts this feeling?”

4. Consider Alternative Explanations:

  • “Are there other ways to interpret this situation?”
  • “Could there be factors I haven’t considered that might explain what’s happening?”

5. Reflect on Past Experiences:

  • “Have I often felt this way and later realized it wasn’t based on reality?”
  • “Are there patterns in my life where I tend to feel this way, regardless of the situation?”

6. Evaluate the Consequences:

  • “If I act on this feeling, what are the potential outcomes?”
  • “What might happen if I choose not to act on this feeling?”

7. Challenge Catastrophic Thinking:

  • “Am I assuming the worst-case scenario?”
  • “How likely is it that the worst will happen?”

Strategies to Overcome Emotional Reasoning

Once you can identify emotional reasoning, the next step is to refute it. Being able to tell the difference between your emotions and what is true is essential if you want to stop using emotional reasoning.

Here are some exercises and methods you can use if you want to overcome emotional reasoning:

Reality testing: 

This can help you see situations for what they really are and not what you feel, hope, or fear they might be. Reality testing requires viewing your situation from other angles, considering alternatives, and getting the bigger picture based on facts. 

For example, if someone didn’t respond to your greeting, instead of assuming they dislike you, consider that they may have been on a phone call or distracted by something else. Ask yourself whether there is something you missed or an angle you didn’t consider before.

External perspectives: 

Asking a trusted friend or family member whether they experienced something the same way as you did is an excellent way to confirm whether or not you’re thinking emotionally. They can also help you to see the truth.

An example would be asking a colleague whether they experienced the way your boss interacted with you as a personal criticism or whether you are being overly sensitive. Our feelings and psycho-emotional state can easily color our interpretation of events. 

Mindfulness, meditation, and journaling: 

Taking stock of your emotions and learning what triggers them can be beneficial in identifying what causes specific reactions. 

As an example, journaling about your feelings of anxiety whenever you’re left alone can help you to identify whether your feelings are a pattern that crops up when you’re on your own and help you to realize that it doesn’t define who you are or mean something bad will happen.

Getting External Help

It’s not always as simple as just identifying a thought, stopping it, and replacing it with a more appropriate one. Wish it were! 

A lot of us struggle to introspect to this level. Plus, tackling these problems requires us to change habits that have become deeply ingrained in us. This is why therapy can be helpful.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is particularly helpful when dealing with emotional reasoning because it is based on the belief that unhelpful ways of thinking and behavior are learned and, thus, can be unlearned.

 And this is what we want with emotional reasoning. 

CBT teaches you strategies for identifying cognitive distortions that create problems and how to re-evaluate them in a more appropriate way. 

Conclusion

Realizing that emotions can color our mental well-being negatively shouldn’t prompt us to try to eliminate emotions or suppress them. The goal when dealing with cognitive distortions is to recognize and understand them and be able to channel our thoughts in a better way that sees us not making decisions and acting solely on the basis of what we feel. 

FAQs

What is cognitive vs. emotional reasoning?

While cognitive reasoning is the ability to analyze information from different perspectives rationally, emotional reasoning is the interpretation of information based on the emotions you’re currently experiencing. 

Cognitive reasoning realizes that your boss is having a stressful day and acting on the pressure they are experiencing. In contrast, emotional reasoning assumes your boss is angry with you because they’re acting a certain way. 

What is the difference between logic and emotional reasoning?

Like cognitive reasoning, logic is defined as using reasoning to deduce reality. Whereas emotional reasoning utilizes only what you feel to conclude your reality, logic requires you to view what you feel, what you see, what others see, and what potential reasons there can be for what you see to define a more holistic picture of your circumstance.

Where does emotional reasoning come from?

Although emotional reasoning crops up in many mental health disorders where individuals struggle to regulate their emotions, emotional reasoning can come from past traumas that have reinforced the emotion-as-reality process. For example, someone who felt nervous around another person and was assaulted by that person will believe their feelings about others are always true reflections of that person’s intentions.

Why is emotional reasoning a problem?

We cannot get an accurate picture of reality if we use emotional reasoning, which means we make decisions or assumptions about our lives based on a fallacy. The result is that our actions are often inappropriate, incorrect, or out of proportion, which can damage relationships, leave us with a negative self-image, or push us to make wrong decisions.

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