At the root of the emotional reasoning distortion is the belief that what we feel must be true. If we feel like a loser, then we must be a loser. If we feel guilty, then we must have done something wrong. If we feel ugly, then we must be ugly. If we feel angry, someone must have done something to us.
All the negative things we feel about ourselves and others must be true because they feel true. The problem with emotional reasoning is that emotions by themselves have no validity. They are products of what we think. If we have distorted thoughts and beliefs (see other articles), then our emotions will reflect those distortions. Always believing our emotions is like believing everything you read online. There is a lot of fake news out there.
For many reasons our emotions can be inappropriate. Imagine driving in traffic and changing lanes. Someone starts to beep their horn at us manically. The first reaction many of us may have will be anger. How dare someone attack me like this. But for all we know they could be beeping because our boot is open or because they mistake us for a friend.
Emotional reasoning about ourselves, others and the world:
Feelings that can lead to emotional reasoning can generally be about three types of subjects. Ourselves, others and the world. If we are applying emotional reasoning to ourselves, we tend to think of ourselves in black and white terms.
We are all bad, mean, unattractive, unlovable, stupid or boring. The emotion experienced around these issues can be so strong that we see ourselves in these lights. The truth of course is neither black or white but the emotion seems so based on the thought. If we already believe something about ourselves then that affects how we interpret.
If we emotionally reason about others it is often be based on how they “make” us feel and that they are bad. This too can be in black and white and we paint others as all bad or toxic based on how we feel around them.
If we emotionally reason about the world we might speculate on the world and our place in it. We see life as totally unfair because we have had poor luck. We don’t see all the good things that may happen around us because we feel stuck and angry.
We constitute our own realities. Show a devout Christian, a member of an isolated amazon tribe and an empirical scientist a man seemingly walking on water then you will probably get a different reaction from each of them. We see things through our own lenses.
ABC of emotional reasoning:
In CBT for clients I often explain how this occurs this to clients by illustrating the ABC model. The ABC illustrates how we get to our feelings based on what we think. When illustrating the model, I stress that often what we see is the A and the C and not the B, so remember that and I will illustrate each one in turn.
A signifies activating event (trigger), so anything that happens just before the unwanted emotional reaction. B stands for belief: so that’s a thought, what we say to ourselves, image/ scene pictured, or belief activated. C stands for consequence. Consequences can be emotional, physical or behavioral.
If we take just the emotional piece we might see anxiety, fear, anger, disgust, sadness, shame as typical responses that when triggered lead to emotional reasoning. Yet the B is the fulcrum of the model and decides how we respond, but it happens very fast.
So, for an example of an ABC let’s take this scenario: (A) Mary doesn’t text Alan back quickly enough because her phone is dead, (B) Alan thinks she is ignoring him or is angry with him, (C) John emotionally feels upset and angry, physically he feels tense and behaviourally he goes out and gets drunk.
Here Alan only sees the A and the C and not the B. He emotionally reasons that what he is feeling is correct and therefore his behaviour and thoughts are affected.
We can all get caught in these loops when we only see the A and the C. They are the most obvious. You did X then I felt Y. Absolute causality doesn’t exist. We are active in the process too and sometimes we are the ones that cause our own emotional reaction because we don’t see our distorted B.
Emotional Reasoning Shortcuts:
Why do we do this? Humans have developed many ways to cut down on the amount of time our brain needs to work. This evolutionary trick helps us to complete complex tasks and normally steers us right, but sometimes wrong.
In clinic to illustrate this point I often tell a four-line story. I read this in a very good book on mindfulness. I believe it shows how we all make inferences about what we think is going on. Read each line slowly and allow a pause before continuing.
John was on his way to school
He was worried about the maths lesson
He was worried whether he could control the class today
It wasn’t part of his janitor duties.
Reading this story first we may see John as a small boy worried about school. Next, we may imagine John as a teacher. Then lastly the reveal takes place and wee see that John is neither. If your brain went through these steps, then you are not alone.
We all make judgements about what is going on around us. Often jumping to conclusions. But how often do we get things wrong. When we assume that the B is correct we assume our C or emotional response is correct. When we react strongest and instantly we risk emotional reasoning.
Comebacks for Emotional Reasoning
What you feel is entirely dependent on what you think and remember feelings can lie. If you have distorted thoughts, your feelings won’t have validity. Your feelings can lie to you. In fact, if you’re feeling depressed or anxious all the time, it’s almost certain they are lying to you at some level.
There is nothing sacred or automatically true about what you feel. If you feel unattractive or feel foolish and embarrassed, you tend to believe yourself ugly or a fool. But stop a minute. Maybe it isn’t true and you are suffering for nothing. Be skeptical about your feelings and examine them as you would a used car.
I recommend to people instead of thinking in black and white, think in terms of percentages. Break it down. Maybe you are only 50% sure you are foolish. Then check the evidence. Who has told you that, what hard facts have you about that, how would you judge another in your situation. If you do all this and don’t think in black and white your conclusions should change and with that the intensity of your feelings. Maybe you are still XYZ, but maybe only 25% as before.
Feelings feel true because they are experienced so strongly. But they can be fickle and temporary. A change in perspective, the garnishing of new information or just a change of heart can make what was highly troubling into something worth less suffering.
Undertaking change like this can be difficult, but we see people change their way of thinking and busy emotional reasoning every day. Anyone can do it.
Therapy is another way to get to the bottom of these questions and at Anxiety Ireland, we have a team of accredited psychotherapists who work helping thousands of people with anxiety every year.
Anxiety Ireland’s therapists help hundred of people each year with Anxiety related issues. If curious about anxiety please feel free to visit our website, take our anxiety quiz or get anxiety help. We are always happy to answer messages to our page or I am also happy to take calls/text to see how I can help: 087 063 0948.
Please like, comment and share if this was useful!
Team Anxiety Ireland
Anxiety is a merry-go-round, going nowhere fast, it’s ok to step off.