Rationalization is a defense mechanism in which people justify difficult or unacceptable feelings with seemingly logical reasons and explanations.
For example, a student who is rejected from her dream college may explain that she’s happy to be attending a school that’s less competitive and more welcoming. Or after a divorce, a man may convince himself that his ex-wife wasn’t up to his standards or that the split is a blessing in disguise so he can travel more. These explanations guard against difficult emotions—feeling unworthy or unloved—that challenge one’s sense of self.
The concept of defense mechanisms originated from Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna Freud; defenses function to unconsciously protect the ego from discomfort or distress. Although many Freudian theories have been disproven over time, defense mechanisms like rationalization have endured.
Many instances of rationalization can be relatively harmless. Producing a rationale that makes yourself feel better, even if it’s not completely honest, is sometimes a helpful coping strategy.
But rationalization can harm mental health if it becomes a frequent pattern or prevents someone from moving forward in life, personally or professionally. In these instances, it can be valuable to make the unconscious conscious, often with the help of a therapist.
A therapist can help a patient acknowledge and accept difficult truths, overcome patterns that hold them back, take responsibility for past mistakes so they don’t happen again, and forge stronger relationships. Accepting the truth leads to the possibility of change and growth.
People strive to preserve a positive view of themselves. One component of this motivation is the desire to reduce cognitive dissonance, the discomfort of holding contradictory beliefs. Let’s say a young man isn't hired after a job interview. This leads to cognitive dissonance due to the opposing thoughts that 1) he is smart and experienced 2) he failed to land the job.
Rationalizing that contradiction with thoughts such as, “This company is just really close-minded,” or, “Taking time off will be a great opportunity” reduces that psychological discomfort.
Rationalization can take two forms: “Sour grapes” refers to an explanation that avoids difficult information and “sweet lemons” is an explanation that makes the situation seem more palatable.
The idea of sour grapes is said to derive from one of Aesop’s fables, The Fox and the Grapes, in which a fox repeatedly jumps toward a branch on a tree, trying to eat a bunch of grapes just out of reach. He eventually gives up and says, “I am sure the grapes are sour.” A “sweet lemons” rationalization in that situation would be something like, “There will be juicer grapes in the next orchard.”
A therapist may observe instances in which a person consistently offers seemingly confusing excuses or reasoning, and then ask questions to understand if the patient may be obscuring deeper emotions.
For example, if a patient refuses to send his kids to sleepovers, staunchly claiming that children should always be focused on schoolwork, the therapist might probe his response and later discover that he was abused during a sleepover as a child. The therapist can then help the patient process that experience and develop coping skills to move forward.
People may not recognize when they make excuses for their behavior or others’. One way to overcome this defense mechanism is to develop the ability to accept the truth without that harming your entire identity. Even if you failed to achieve a goal or faced bitter rejection, acknowledge the loss and recognize that everyone makes mistakes or faces obstacles at times.
In the world of defense mechanisms, rationalization is fairly common. People may not realize when they offer a small excuse or justification. Although this is natural, confronting reality, even when it’s difficult, can be an important step to changing harmful habits in realms such as relationships, finances, and more.
A few common patterns signal that rationalization may be at play, especially when people receive negative feedback. Common responses include blaming (“The problem is the people around me. I hire badly.”), minimizing (“It’s really not such a big deal”), deflecting (“That’s not the real issue”), and attacking (“I may have done X but you did Y”).
However, it’s important to note that not everyone who uses these phrases may be rationalizing. They may be valid or necessary points to discuss, so it’s best to go into a conversation assuming honesty.
It can be difficult for people to notice when they rationalize, because it feels better to believe their excuses than admit they caused a problem. Maybe an individual didn’t follow through on a commitment, so instead points out what he did do: “I didn’t get to the dishes, but I worked hard at the office.” Maybe he claims his behavior could have been worse: “I don’t babysit our daughter, but I am better than my dad, who was never around.”
Rationalization can weaken relationships, but sincerely apologizing and taking responsibility can strengthen them.
People rationalize an array of poor decisions, which may include financial ones. For example, someone may buy a luxury item they can’t afford and rationalize it by saying, “I know I can’t afford this, but I never buy myself anything nice and this is something I really want."
These habits can be hard to overcome, because emotion can disguise itself as intuition or logic. For example, “I bought this new tablet because my old one was going to die soon and this one was on sale.” This rationalization omits points of logical reasoning such as, “Although it was on sale, there were still cheaper, equally suitable options,” or, “Do I really need a tablet when I have a phone and laptop?” Acknowledging the power of emotions can help facilitate better reasoning and financial choices.