What’s “Emotional Reasoning”—And Why Is It Such a Problem?

When you think emotionally, your past may be sabotaging your present.

Posted Jun 21, 2017

Andrew Imanaka, Photographer/Flickr
Source: Andrew Imanaka, Photographer/Flickr

One of the most baffling psychological problems is to acutely feel the reality of something without its having any basis in fact. Here are some examples frequently cited by those who have written on what’s commonly known as emotional reasoning:

  • You can’t help feeling fat, though your doctor and those around you tell you that your weight lies comfortably within the normal range. You actually know this, and still...
  •  You feel guilty about something, so you conclude you must be guilty—even though there’s absolutely no evidence that you’ve done anything wrong and others have assured you of this.
  • In your relationship, you struggle mightily with feelings of jealousy. You can’t resist accusing your partner of infidelity, even though they’ve shown nothing but devotion to you and you have no plausible evidence that you've been betrayed.
  • Despite having in various ways demonstrated that you’re as worthwhile as anyone else, you remain convinced that you’re somehow worthless—for you can’t overcome core feelings of worthlessness.
  • You feel stupid, so you’re convinced you must be dumb, regardless of the fact that your grades in school were as good as (or better than!) others and, as an adult, you’ve achieved at least as much as those around you.
  • You feel enraged with someone, so you take for granted that they must have done something bad, though you really can’t put your finger on anything specific and nothing about their behavior seems to provoke anyone else.
  • You feel lonely so you’re compelled to deduce that no one cares about you, that your feeling unequivocally confirms your unlovability.

So what, exactly, is emotional reasoning? This term, meant to describe a particular type of cognitive distortion, was first employed in the ’70s by Aaron Beck, the founder of Cognitive Therapy (later expanded to Cognitive Behavior Therapy, or CBT). To Beck, whenever someone concludes that their emotional reaction to something thereby defines its reality, they’re engaged in emotional reasoning. Any observed evidence is disregarded or dismissed in favor of the assumed “truth” of their feelings. Additionally, Beck believed that such reasoning originated from negative thoughts, best appreciated as involuntary, uncontrollable, or automatic.

So, for example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by something, such a feeling “proves” that the present circumstance is too much for you to handle. And this explains one key aspect of procrastination—as in, if you feel you’ll fail at something, you’ll probably put it off, or not even attempt it.

Cognitive therapists have proposed many techniques for combating emotional reasoning. For instance, they recommend you ask yourself:

“What are the facts that support my emotionally-based determination?” For you might then realize that precious little, if any, empirical justification exists for your conclusion. You might also ask: “Have I (arbitrarily) discounted, or dismissed, more positive explanations for my, well, “emotional findings?” Or, “might my feelings be clouded by some bias that ought to be reevaluated?”

Further, you might wish to consider whether you’re negatively “mind-reading” another’s intentions because you have unresolved issues with them. Or whether (as your friends may already have suggested) you take things more personally than makes any logical sense. Or whether your emotions depict an act of “fortune-telling”—that is, they’re grounded in a prediction that the present event, because it resembles (however obliquely or coincidentally) some past event, is bound to turn out the same way. And so on, with even more logical fallacies tied to emotional reasoning.

In any case, this is what most CBT therapists would encourage you to do to avoid acting on the erroneous supposition that your feelings deserve to be appreciated as facts. You'd be instructed to, “scientifically,” put your unverified assumptions to the empirical test.

However, I’d argue here that all too often such rational techniques miss the mark. Why? Simply because your emotional reactions may relate to the child part of yourself and to a time when feelings, not reason, controlled your thought processes. So any therapy that focuses exclusively on your rational adult self—vs. your much more impulsive and emotional child self—may not reach that cognitively undeveloped youngster inside you: the one who (actually in an age-appropriate way!) reasoned primarily on the basis of strong feelings. And that child’s view of rationality may deviate considerably from your own, more “informed” perspective. (The reader might note here two earlier posts of mine: “Trust Your Feelings? . . . Maybe Not” and “Child Self? Adult Self?—Who’s Running the Show?”.)

In a nutshell, this is why your adult thoughts may not coalesce with your inner child’s feelings, why you might think one way and yet feel the opposite. In instances like these, conventional CBT remedies don’t (and can’t) go deep enough into your psyche to resolve such discrepancies. They act only as band-aids, fated over time to peel off and “re-expose” irrationally negative deductions about self and others (as in, “Regardless of all my successes, I still somehow feel defective—so how could I possibly be as competent, or worthwhile, as you keep telling me I am?”).

Consequently, in such cases, what’s to be done? For, finally, it’s not the adult you that needs to be convinced that your feelings might be far afield from reality, it’s the black-and-white thinking child buried deep within yourself—of whom you might have but scant awareness. As you grew up, you may have assumed you left that naive, unsophisticated child far behind you. So the only way that child can now get your attention is by over- (or under-) reacting to current-day circumstances. For, to that fixed-in-time child within, the present, ironically, remains the past. The two time periods are experienced not as separate but equatable (if not identical).

What gets stuck somewhere in the unconscious is ancient self-protective programming. And typically these once essential defenses were “birthed” by something felt to be extremely threatening. Isolated and more or less fixated, these fragments of self are highly resistant to change. Rather than growing up, or “maturing,” along with you, they stayed behind to caution you about anything that felt similar to what, back then, was experienced as traumatic. And the much earlier (but still resonant) circumstance or set of events related to their eternal vigilance might be linked to just about anything—say, a situation of serious neglect or abandonment, an incident of domestic violence experienced as utterly terrifying, a flagrantly drunken parent castigating them as a “burden” or “mistake,” and countless other scenarios.

What all such overwhelming instances have in common is that, whether physically or emotionally, at the time they felt like mortal threats to survival. And even if they got repressed, at an unconscious level they’re still quiveringly alive. So in the present, when your emotional reaction clearly doesn’t fit present-day circumstances—though, unquestionably, it feels like it does—what should you do?

Here’s an example of what might be portrayed as “inner child work.” And it can be quite powerful in helping you resolve such cognitive distortions, or internal adult-child conflicts.

Say, you have nagging feelings of jealousy not based on anything recognizable, but yet extremely difficult to reason away. As a child, was there actual evidence that left you reasonably doubtful about your parentsattachment to you? And even if reexamining the childhood evidence for your chronic feelings of insecurity justifies your past inability to feel comfortably bonded to them, can you begin to realize that you may have overgeneralized—or universalized—that experience toward anyone with whom you might now become attached? If you decided a long time ago that any bond to another was tenuous and couldn’t be trusted, current feelings of jealousy, however unwarranted, may continue to plague you. And another person’s constantly reassuring you of their commitment may not make that much of a difference. For old programs like this, and the automatic reactions they give rise to, can be highly resistant to change.

It’s your still unhealed child self—who suffered the immense hurt of not feeling wanted, valued, or accepted—that engendered your skepticism, so it must be you yourself (i.e., the adult you) that reaches out to that much younger, suspicious part.  Can you empathize with that child, validate its “reasonable” doubts, sympathize with its fears, and only then attempt to convince it—with evidence beyond its years—that its biases (though totally understandable) no longer jibe with reality. In short, effectively reassuring the child is an inside job. And it can’t be accomplished till you’ve managed to emotionally access that younger part of you who “owns” this no longer  appropriate, or adaptive, program.

If you’re unable to effect such a “revision” yourself, there are many therapies that include significant “inner child” components. These therapy models include (but are hardly limited to) Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Inner Bonding, Lifespan Integration, Developmental Needs Meeting Strategy, and Ego-state Therapy.

But whether you attempt to better integrate your thoughts and feelings by yourself (to settle the tug of war between them) or through professional assistance, keep this in mind: Your conflict is not an inherent facet of your personality but originated out of earlier programming. And the most wondrous part of your brain is that, in its amazing plasticity, this programming can at any time be updated. So—at last—it’s all a matter of personal will and motivation.

© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.