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Unhelpful Thinking Patterns 11/11 - Emotional Reasoning

Updated: May 9

A 4x4 grid of photographs of an individual depicting the nuanced emotions of the human experience

This is the final part of a series looking at common unhelpful thinking habits. These are patterns of thinking that our minds can slip into as a way of coping with challenging situations.

You can read more about this in my earlier post here.

The Pitfalls of Emotion-Driven Conclusions: How Feelings Can Mislead Reality

The emotional reasoning pattern is a very common one thinking habit, and virtually everyone has experienced it at some point or other in their lives.

It is a way of judging a situation that we're experiencing based on the emotions that are joining us at the time; i.e. if we’re experiencing a negative emotion, we take that as being a reliable indicator that the reality of the situation we’re in is also negative.

So for example, if we experience feelings of guilt or shame, we can end up concluding that we are bad people, or perhaps that we are worthless as individuals.

Unmasking the Widespread Cognitive Distortion

It’s no wonder then, that this thinking pattern can contribute to anxiety and depression.

But interestingly, research has shown that it is also a common cognitive distortion in people who aren't experiencing anxiety and depression, so not everyone who is an 'emotional reasoner' will become anxious and/or depressed - but that doesn't mean that it isn't still an important thinking habit to keep an eye out for.

Separating Emotions from Facts

A key aspect of this unhelpful thinking pattern is that we intuitively accept our emotions as evidence of fact, or reality:

I’m feeling this way, therefore it must be true

But just because we feel a particular emotion at a particular time, it doesn’t necessarily mean that our perception of something is an absolute truth or reality.

For example, we might feel guilty about something and therefore conclude that we must have done something wrong; even if there is no evidence of wrongdoing and we have been reassured by others of this…if we just can’t shake that feeling of guilt then our mind can convince us that it is justified and the wrongdoing is a fact:

otherwise, why would I feel so bad?

Challenging Emotional Evidence

It is important to acknowledge and validate our emotions, but it is just as important to judge our reality on the facts…which are something completely separate from our feelings.

We can start to challenge this thinking pattern by asking ourselves questions like:

  • What facts support this perspective that I have?

  • Have I discounted, or am I ignoring, other more positive explanations?

  • Are my feelings about a past event causing me to make predictions about this current, or future, situation?

Navigating Emotions vs Reality

It is also helpful if we can work on starting to change our relationship with our emotions.

Often, when we experience intense and difficult emotions our instinct is to try to suppress them...metaphorically sweep them under the carpet.

Through our development of language, human beings acquired the skill of putting labels on things, both in the external world (which was really helpful when trying to avoid sabre toothed tigers) but also in our internal world, so it is completely natural to label difficult and challenging emotions as being something bad that we'd instinctively want to avoid.

The trouble is that our threat brain perceives anything with the label of "bad", or "difficult", or "uncomfortable", as being a threat and we are hardwired to avoid and get rid of anything threatening, because this is what has kept the human race safe over the millennia.

I talk more about this in my post about managing and understanding feelings.

Our relationship with challenging emotions is complex and can become very difficult.

Rebuilding Your Relationship with Your Emotions: The Power of Permission

A first step in changing the relationship we have with out emotions is to give ourselves permission to experience whatever the feelings are that are coming up for us.

We can remind ourselves that whatever it is, it is just a feeling – a nice metaphor for this is to think of feelings as being your internal weather.

Feelings come and feelings go, but they do not have to define our reality!

We can try to step back from the situation and assume the position of an observer – imagining a valued friend in this same situation, and asking ourselves what we would tell them to be supportive? Then say this to ourselves…out loud if we can.

We must also not forget to show kindness to ourselves – slip ups are an inevitable part of life, especially when we are trying out something new, so it's important to be open to forgiving ourselves on the occasions that we fall back into the old habits.

After all, you don’t want to wake up your inner critic!

As I mentioned above, this post is part of a series about the unhelpful thinking habits that we can fall into. You can find the other posts here:

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