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Emotional Reasoning: A Cognitive Distortion

As we continue our series on cognitive distortions, let’s take a look at one that can cause major problems: emotional reasoning.

You’ve heard the term “trust your gut.” Well, this isn’t a one size fits all term. Life is a little more complicated to navigate than this saying portrays it to be.

Emotional reasoning can alter a person’s perception negatively, leading them to make poor decisions. When someone thinks in a distorted way over a significant amount of time, they may start to experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, and the like.

When we base reality on our feelings rather than facts, we are headed for trouble!

Cognitive distortions such as emotional reasoning color the lens that people view their reality through. Cognitive distortions or faulty beliefs cause people to act in detrimental ways.

These actions then turn into behaviors. Once this type of thinking is established, it can be hard for a person to retrain their brain to think in a different, more positive way.

In this article, you’ll read about the cognitive distortion known as emotional reasoning, what it looks like, and ways to challenge it. So without further adieu, let’s jump in!      

What Is Emotional Reasoning?

Aron Beck, a founder of cognitive behavioral therapy, coined the term emotional reasoning. Engaging in emotional reasoning is when you interpret feelings as proof instead of basing your conclusions on facts.

Emotional reasoning many times leads a person to blatantly ignore any factual evidence, or at the very least forget to look for any factual evidence.

Let’s look at an example:

You’ve met the man of your dreams.

He takes you on amazing dates, holds the door for you, etc. He is as fine a gentleman as you’ll ever meet. However, you have extremely strong feelings of jealousy.

He never stays late at work and is always punctual when meeting you anywhere, but you can’t shake the jealousy that you feel. You just know that something is going on, so you accuse him of infidelity many times in succession.

He reassures you over and over again that he’s always been 100% faithful to you. After months of being accused, he has finally had enough, so he breaks up with you.

You’ve just ruined a great relationship based on a feeling that he was unfaithful even though there was no factual evidence to back this up.

More often than not, emotional reasoning stems from low self-esteem and extreme self-doubt.

Let’s take a look at another example.

An Example of Emotional Reasoning

You look in the mirror every day and don’t like what you see. You just know that you’re fat and feel disgusting. You go to your primary care physician for your annual physical and ask him what you can do about your weight problem.

He tells you that you are in the best possible weight range for anyone who is as tall as you are. You shake your head and tell him that’s not possible; however, he assures you that you don’t have a weight problem.

Over a period of time, you continue to tell yourself that you’re fat. This keeps you from going swimming with friends, eating your favorite foods, going on dates, or maybe it even keeps you from going outside much except to get the mail (and groceries that are delivered to your doorstep). 

When people have low self-esteem, they need their daily situations and interactions to reinforce their beliefs about themselves. Emotional reasoning fueled by low self-esteem is a one-way ticket to the land of self-sabotage!

This is a type of thinking that, when engaged in over any considerable amount of time, can lead a person to believe things about themselves that are extremely negative.

These eventually can become core beliefs that influence a persons’ actions. These actions will eventually turn into behaviors that will be extremely difficult to undo.

Emotional Reasoning and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Emotional reasoning can go hand in hand with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is a disorder that is characterized by repeated undesired thoughts, ideas, and sensations that drive a person to do something over and over again. So how do the two intermingle? 

Let’s take an example:

You have a cup of coffee on a Saturday morning and think about what you want to do for the day. You decide to go shopping at the local mall.

When you get to the mall, you begin to feel uneasy and start to worry about someone breaking into your home while you’re gone.

You start obsessing thinking to yourself, “Did I lock the door? I feel like maybe I didn’t lock it. Oh no. Did I or didn’t I? Did I or didn’t I? AHHHHH!”

Even if you try to reassure yourself that you locked the door, you start to think about if all the windows in your house are locked. 

Finally, your anxiety becomes so overwhelming that you become absolutely convinced that someone has broken into your house and is stealing your belongings at this very moment!

But what do the facts say? What does your experience show you?

Never in the history of ever have you forgotten to lock the door, and you made sure all the windows were locked. You were even in your car and about to leave when you decided to get out and check to see if everything was locked one more time.

Even though you have more than enough evidence to assure you that your house is safe and locked up, your anxiety gets the best of you.

You drop the pants you’re about to try on in Dillard’s and rush home. When you get home you check every possible point of entry to your house and make sure they are locked and secure.

Obsessive thoughts gave birth to uneasy emotions. These emotions created a reality that wasn’t based in fact, which led to compulsive behavior.

So much for your day at the mall! Bummer!

Recap: What are Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are irrational and exaggerated ways of thinking. This type of thinking typically has a negative undertone.

Cognitive distortions “distort” a person’s perception. Perception is 90% of the game folks, and it determines what you believe about yourself and everything around you.

You may believe that your thoughts don’t have much power. They’re just thoughts, right? Well, thoughts actually affect physical reality. According to quantum mechanics, thoughts actually have a vibrational frequency.

Some of these frequencies are positive where some of them are negative. You ever have a physical reaction such as sweating when rehashing a resentment in your head?

If you answered yes, then that’s all the proof you need to gather that your thoughts physically affect you and the world around you.

The Power of Emotional Reasoning

Feelings and thoughts are powerful. They are especially powerful when they feed off another. Anxious feelings can cause a series of anxious thoughts. Anxious thoughts can cause physiological changes in our bodies. 

Another thing that makes emotional reasoning powerful is our childhood experience. What we learn as children affects us the rest of our lives. Earlier, an example of emotional reasoning was given regarding a romantic relationship. Let’s look into that a little further.

Negative or harmful developmental experiences as a child may cause a person to lack social skills in the future. It may also cause a person to shy away from intimacy. This will often lead to isolation, which can keep a person from developing meaningful relationships. 

If a romantic relationship develops, then this hypothetical person will likely sabotage it. They feel unworthy, so they believe that they definitely don’t deserve to have a good relationship or be happy.

That’s why many times emotions will be chosen over facts. Since the person feels undeserving of a good relationship, they may automatically accuse their partner of all sorts of things that have no basis in fact.

My Experience with Emotional Reasoning

As a musician, I struggle with perfectionism. This perfectionism started when I was a child. There were very high standards set for me early on.

Anything below a B grade and would cause me to go into a panic because I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. I believe most of our parents do the very best they can, so I don’t blame them for anything bad in my life.

I’m just observing my past to show you how it may have led to emotional reasoning as an adult.

I really never liked there being a competitive aspect to music. Today, I feel as if it is healthy with the right mindset. Well, let’s just say I didn’t have the right mindset, LOL!

In high school, I was involved in different competitions, and in some of them I did well, but being videotaped or recorded at any time caused me to have panic attacks.

These panic attacks made it to where I could hardly perform at all. I wouldn’t do well in a competition or audition, and I would have a complete meltdown. I’m still affected by this stuff today.

I equate my worth by how well I perform. Every performance I do determines how I feel about myself.

So this is how I engage in emotional reasoning:

I have heaps of evidence that I’m a talented musician; I went to college on a full scholarship, I was a jazz piano lecturer at the University of North Texas in my mid-20s, and I’ve performed with some of the best musicians in the world.

However, deep down, I feel as if I’m not good, so, therefore, I determine that I’m not good. This has kept me from attempting many things that could advance my career.

All of this mess, just because I feel a certain way about myself. Quite a mess, but I have high hopes as I’m able to acknowledge all of this today. 

What You Can Do About Emotional Reasoning

There is hope for anyone who struggles with emotional reasoning.

In order to stop engaging in emotional reasoning, we must first become aware of what it is and where it’s happening in our lives.

A great thing to do is to start being mindful of your thoughts. Step back from your thoughts and look at them. There is a place behind your mind where you actually reside. Think of your thoughts as clouds passing over a blue sky.

Realize that you don’t have to engage in every thought that you have. It’s just a thought. When you see yourself going down the road of emotional reasoning, you can catch yourself and challenge your thoughts. 

You can say, “these thoughts are not helpful to me or the people around me, and I choose another path today. I choose to have better thoughts, walk out of my past thinking, and into a way of thinking that benefits me and my highest self.”

Practice affirmations and gratitude. Go to the gym, take a yoga class. Treat yourself better, and your soul will thank you for it!

Mental Filtering Keeping You Down?

Are you or someone you know struggling with cognitive distortions such as emotional reasoning?

If so, I hope that reading this will help you recognize patterns of thinking that are not beneficial to you. Life is too short to let cognitive distortions run your life.

Keep up with us here. We are all on this journey together, and as always, we would love to hear from you!

Leave us a message in the comments about your struggles with emotional reasoning.

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Michael Palma

Michael Palma is a drug addict in recovery who is passionate about recovery and recently has taken to writing about his own experience, strength, and hope and hopes to share this with as many people in recovery as he can. He has been a professional jazz pianist for over 20 years. He has performed with Wynton Marsalis, Jimmy Cobb (drummer for Miles Davis), Daniel Platzman (drummer for Imagine Dragons), Robert “Sput” Seawright (drummer for Snoop Dogg and Snarky Puppy), Greg Osby, and Terri Lynn Carrington to name a few.