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The Folly of Emotional Reasoning

Individual Therapy Sterling, VA

Today’s post is another in my series on cognitive distortions — problematic ways of thinking that can lead unhealthy self-talk and to problems in interpersonal relationships. You can catch up on my previous posts on cognitive distortions (mind-reading, personalization, black or white thinking, negative filtering) if you’ve missed those in the past.

Emotional reasoning occurs when we are so powerfully impacted by how we feel about something that it shapes our perception of reality, often in spite of mountains of evidence to the contrary. Basically, we fall victim to emotional reasoning when we feel so strongly about something that we can’t be convinced otherwise — no amount of calm, rational conversation or objective information can convince us that our feelings aren’t correct.

On an individual level, this could manifest something like:

Michael struggles with feelings of doubt about his competence and intelligence. This continues despite lots of evidence that he is a very capable and smart individual, including a history as a strong student and lots of positive evaluations in his work. Even though there is lots of evidence that Michael is competent and intelligent, he FEELS incompetent and unintelligent and so believes that must be the truth. This belief so powerfully pervades Michael’s beliefs about himself that when others say things to reinforce their beliefs that he is smart and capable, he assumes that they are lying to or messing with him.

As you can imagine, this kind of emotional reasoning would make it difficult for Michael to operate in a healthy manner in his day-to-day life.

Emotional reasoning can also occur in and have a negative impact in relationships. For example:

Kelly has long experienced feelings of jealousy, in a variety of relationships throughout her life. This is also true in her marriage to Rob, with whom she has frequent conflict focused on her belief that he is being unfaithful to her. Though she has no evidence to suggest that Rob is cheating, her feelings of jealousy are so intense that she believes she must be correct. Rob’s consistent messages of reassurance and devotion do not seem to have any effect on Kelly’s suspicion, and it has begun to take a toll on their relationship.

Emotional reasoning was first described by Aaron Beck, who believed that those who engage in this cognitive distortion tend to disregard facts and evidence and instead rely on their feelings as facts.

Do you identify with these examples? If so, you may sometimes be guilty of emotional reasoning yourself. Take a minute to think about what kind of impact that might have on your relationship. Does it lead you to box your partner into roles or beliefs that they don’t deserve? Does it lead you to create distance to protect yourself from something that might not be real?

Luckily, there are ways to work on emotional reasoning so that it has less power to negatively impact you and your relationships. Try the following:

  • Push yourself to get objective. Ask yourself, “what are the facts that can support the feeling I’m having? What facts might lead me to believe something different? Identifying what parts of your belief are based in emotion and which are based in fact allows you to more accurately organize your ideas and make a solid decision about what you believe and then, how you should act.
  • Dig a little deeper. In the example above about Kelly and Rob, it is likely that Kelly’s struggle with jealousy predates her relationship with Rob. That means that some of the work she need to do to resolve it doesn’t have anything at all do to with her marriage, but with unresolved issues from her past.
  • Check things out with a trusted confidante. If you have a close friend or family member in whom you can confide, run your ideas by them and ask for their help in figuring out whether your emotions are exerting too strong an influence on your beliefs and decisions. This is a tough one because it requires the vulnerability to open yourself up about an area where you’re struggling, but allowing a close other to be a mirror for you can be a powerful way to effect change.

Just like the cognitive distortions we’ve discussed previously, emotional reasoning can have negative effects on both individual and relationship functioning. Though it’s a tough one to get a handle on, it’s also one with a great deal of potential to make a difference if you’re able to do so.

Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, LMFT, provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both the Bethesda, MD and Sterling, VA offices. Email or call today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Lindsey.