Unhelpful Thinking Patterns 11/11 - Emotional Reasoning
Updated: Aug 4
This is the eleventh 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.
This thinking pattern is a very common one and virtually everyone has experienced it at some point in their lives. It is a way of judging a situation based on the emotions that we are experiencing at the time, ie if we’re experiencing a negative emotion we take that as a reliable indicator of the reality of the situation we’re in. So for example, if we experience feelings of guilt or shame, we might conclude that we are bad people or are worthless. 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 don’t experience anxiety and depression.
A key aspect of this unhelpful thinking pattern is that we’re accepting our emotions as evidence of fact or reality:
“If I’m feeling this way, therefore it must be true”
But just because we feel particular emotions, it doesn’t necessarily mean that something is true –for example, we might feel guilty and conclude that we must therefore have done something wrong, even if there is no evidence of wrongdoing and we have received reassurance from others of this…if we can’t shake that feeling then our mind convinces us it is a fact:
“otherwise, why would I feel so bad?”
It is important to acknowledge and validate our emotions, but it is just as important to judge our reality on fact…which is something completely separate from feelings.
You can start to challenge this thinking pattern by asking yourself 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?
It is also helpful to start to change our relationship with our emotions. Often when we experience intense and difficult emotions our instinct is to try to supress them. Through our development of language human beings put labels on things, and it is natural to label difficult and challenging emotions as bad. The trouble is that instinctively we perceive anything with the label of bad as being threatening and we are hardwired to avoid and get rid of anything perceived in that way, so our relationship with challenging emotions can become very difficult.
A first step in changing this relationship is to give yourself permission to experience whatever the feeling is that comes up for you. Remind yourself that this 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 your reality.
Try to step back from the situation and assume the position of an observer – imagine a friend was in this situation, what would you tell them to be supportive? Say this to yourself…out loud if you can.
And don’t forget to show kindness to yourself – slip ups are inevitable, so be open to forgiving yourself on the occasions that you fall back into the old habit; after all, you don’t want to wake up your inner critic after working so hard on that in my earlier post!