Ask a Therapist: On Emotional Reasoning
Q: I feel things so deeply and I know that those feelings sometimes cloud my thinking. How can I understand my feelings without letting them takeover?
A: A phrase that I often offer my clients in therapy is that something can be “real but not true”. That is, we can experience tangible, real feelings and physical sensations in our hearts and bodies but they may not accurately depict reality or provide the full picture that is needed to improve our mental health.
Emotional reasoning is the cognitive distortion that traps our brains into thinking that something is true just because we FEEL it is so. When we are processing something through this lens, we are not focused on the rational or evidence-based aspect of the situation that may counter our emotional experience of it.
For example, if your boss offers some feedback to you that feels like criticism and so you interpret the situation as if your boss is unhappy with your work and thus feel down on yourself and dejected, these feelings may or may not be a correct assessment of what has actually happened. It might be that your boss did not intend to be critical at all and was only offering constructive feedback to help you improve and excel because she values you as a growing professional. It may be that you are experiencing a feeling that is similar to a past toxic work environment that you left and so your system is telling you that “this feels like that” even if it is not the same situation. It could be that your feelings are a result of something your spouse said to you that morning and so your perspective is skewed when you receive the information and so your interpretation causes it to land in a more emotional way. And, of course, there are so many other reasons that your initial reaction may have given rise to a host of different feelings.
However, even when we have a real emotional response to a stimulus (often something that someone says or does) we can understand it better by evaluating what part of the reaction is remembered, what part of it is perceived, and what part is true? This doesn’t invalidate your emotions in the situation – because feelings are important symptoms that are communicating something to you – but it helps to make sense of them in a more balanced way.
When part of our emotional reaction is based in memory we know that it is tied in some way to our past or our trauma and so it’s not necessarily a true barometer of the situation at hand. When part of our reaction is perceived, we can note that the story we are telling ourselves about what is happening may be based on our interpretation of the information and not in reality. When we consider those two components together, we can see that only part of our reaction is likely true; that is, based on the factual and rational reality of the situation.
If you notice yourself assuming that your feelings are true, it can be helpful to work with a therapist to develop strategies to tease out those components and make sense of them so that you can have greater clarity and respond from a place of balanced, not emotional, reasoning. We need our feelings to help us navigate life but we don’t want them to be fully in the driver’s seat if we want to be mentally healthy.
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