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Knowledge Base » Mental Health » What is Emotional Reasoning?

What is Emotional Reasoning?

We have all had times when we have felt anxious about something and thought to ourselves, “I know this isn’t going to work out well” or “I feel that I won’t enjoy this”. Sometimes, our attitude in approaching something will bring about a self-fulfilling prophesy; however, more often than not we are wrong in our assessment. As humans, we tend to take our feelings and emotions as being evidence for the truth, we may see it as our intuition, but they are not the same thing, which is why emotional reasoning is one of the most common thinking traps that people fall into.

What is emotional reasoning?

Emotional reasoning is a style of unhelpful thinking where a person bases their views of and makes conclusions about situations, themselves or other people, on the way that they are feeling. One way of summing up emotional reasoning is with the statement “I feel, therefore it is”.

Emotional reasoning is a thinking error where a person mistakes their feelings as a sign that something is right or wrong. When they use emotional reasoning, they confuse their feelings with facts, but feelings are not facts.

The term emotional reasoning was first coined by the American psychiatrist Aaron Beck in the 1970s. Beck referred to thought responses to an emotion or feeling as “automatic thinking”. For example, if someone has been feeling anxious about a project at work, their automatic thoughts may be based on that anxiety. They may assume that their manager will be disappointed with the results of the project. As a result of emotional reasoning, this automatic thought will occur in the absence of any objective proof to suggest otherwise.

Research has shown that isolated automatic thoughts can result in negative thought cycles. In the example above, for instance, the person was feeling anxious about their project. This feeling anxious gives way to the emotional reasoning that they are not doing a good job, which in turn aggravates and increases the anxiety, which can begin to negatively impact their performance.

A 2017 study suggests there are 27 categories of emotion. These were classified into five main types of emotion by psychologist Paul Ekman:

Enjoyment – People generally feel happy, calm and good. Emotions associated with enjoyment include:

  • Amusement
  • Contentment
  • Excitement
  • Happiness
  • Joy
  • Love
  • Peace
  • Pride
  • Relief
  • Satisfaction

Sadness – This might relate to a specific event or have no specific cause. Emotions associated with sadness include:

  • Disappointed
  • Gloomy
  • Grieved
  • Heartbroken
  • Hopeless
  • Lonely
  • Lost
  • Miserable
  • Resigned
  • Troubled
  • Unhappy

Fear – This happens when there is any kind of threat, real or perceived. Emotions associated with fear include:

  • Anxious
  • Confused
  • Desperate
  • Doubtful
  • Horrified
  • Nervous
  • Panicked
  • Stressed
  • Terrified
  • Worried

Disgust – This is usually a reaction to unpleasant or unwanted situations. Emotions associated with disgust include:

  • Aversion
  • Disapproving
  • Dislike
  • Disturbed
  • Horrified
  • Loathing
  • Nauseated
  • Offended
  • Revulsion
  • Uncomfortable
  • Withdrawn

Anger This is usually experienced with some type of injustice, either real or perceived. Emotions associated with anger include:

  • Annoyed
  • Bitter
  • Cheated
  • Contrary
  • Frustrated
  • Infuriated
  • Insulted
  • Irritated
  • Mad
  • Peeved
  • Vengeful

Emotions can be complicated. Some might feel intense, whilst others seem mild in comparison and people might feel conflicting emotions at any given time. It is when emotions affect and override logical reasoning that it may be a form of cognitive distortion.

Emotional Reasoning

When emotional reasoning is a cognitive distortion

When a person is so strongly influenced by their emotions that they assume that they signify objective truth, and that whatever they feel is true, without any conditions and without any need for supporting facts or evidence, and this style of unhelpful thinking becomes consistent and habitual, then their emotional reasoning has become a cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortions are consistent unhelpful, unrealistic or irrational thoughts, or errors in our thinking; the way that we are thinking about something doesn’t match up with the reality of what is happening. This is often tied to negative emotions and mental states.

Anyone can experience cognitive distortion. For some of us, distorted thinking is a fleeting glitch; for others, cognitive distortions are a pattern of thinking that interferes with their lives. When these inaccurate beliefs influence a person’s thoughts, emotions and actions, they can feel anxious, stressed, angry or depressed about themselves or about the world around them.

For many of these people, cognitive distortion occurs as automatic thoughts; they are so habitual that the thinker often doesn’t realise that they have the ability to change them, and they grow to believe that’s just the way things are. Often in these cases, distorted thinking can lead to chronic anxiety, depression and behavioural issues such as misuse of substances. If left unchecked, these automatic thought patterns can become deep-rooted and may negatively influence the rational, logical way a person makes decisions.

Factors that influence emotional reasoning

Emotional reasoning can stem from many different situations. Frequently these are traumatic or involve danger of some sort, and this danger can be either real or perceived. This is linked to our “fight or flight” response, an innate survival mechanism that humans have developed during our evolution. This can fuel some forms of cognitive distortions, including emotional reasoning, especially in times of stress or uncertainty.

Emotional reasoning is often connected with panic disorder. People who struggle with emotional reasoning often engage in negative self-talk that escalates their emotions, leading to a full-blown panic attack.

Emotional reasoning is also a common cognitive distortion in people with anxiety disorders, depression and those with low self-esteem, where people may believe thoughts such as, “I feel that I am worthless, so I must be worthless”.

Children are particularly liable to engage in emotional reasoning. This is a normal part of their development. Toddlers often throw tantrums about insignificant things, such as being given a different brand of yoghurt; they may be emotionally attached to the usual brand because of familiarity, and so reject the new brand because it doesn’t feel right. Studies have shown that particularly anxious children are more prone to engaging in emotional reasoning.

It is human to rely on emotional reasoning because of the way our brain is wired. It is much easier to make a decision based on feelings than it is to make one based on facts. We don’t usually look for facts to back up our conclusions, we just accept them at face value because it is easier. Our emotions play a complex role in shaping our thoughts and judgements, making them a powerful force in our decision-making processes. Because our emotions stem from inside us, they feel unquestionably genuine. However, despite the power of emotions, they can be a flawed guide when it comes to interpreting our environment, making judgements, and sorting out truth from falsehoods.

Examples of emotional reasoning

Emotional reasoning leads people to take their emotions as accurate information about the world around them, even when the emotion is not generated by the situation. Some examples of people exhibiting emotional reasoning include:

  • Someone who “feels” fat, despite not having gained any weight, and being complimented and told by others that they look good, engages in a rigorous fitness and diet regime.
  • A person who is feeling jealous in a relationship. This intense feeling makes them believe that their partner must be unfaithful to them even if they did nothing wrong.
  • A successful career person who suffers from imposter syndrome, feeling that they are a fraud despite their achievements.
  • A person has guilty feelings so reasons that they must be a bad person.
  • Someone who feels like they don’t belong at a social gathering even though they are included in conversations, makes excuses to leave early.
  • Feeling angry and reasoning that it must be someone’s fault that you feel that way.
  • Feeling a strong dislike toward a group of people or a specific person for no particular reason, you just dislike them.
  • Suspecting that anyone who wants to befriend you wants something from you, otherwise why would they want to know you?
  • A person feels scared so avoids going out of the house.

Sometimes anybody can experience thoughts that are to some extent irrational, “I can’t explain it, I just feel irritated by that person on the TV”. However, when the severity and/or frequency of this irrational thinking becomes extreme, these negative thought patterns can impact a person’s life and wellbeing.

Negative emotional reasoning

Negative emotional reasoning are judgements and conclusions based on negative emotions such as those identified earlier in this article. These include fear, anger, disgust and sadness. Someone experiencing negative emotional reasoning may feel that they are a failure, so they tell themselves that they are a failure. This may lead them to avoid attempting anything because they believe that it will end in failure. The person then becomes entrenched in a negative thought cycle which can intensify and perpetuate symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Negative emotional reasoning can also lead to procrastination where a person puts off tackling important tasks in order to feel better. For example, just the thought of preparing that presentation makes you feel overwhelmed, so if you don’t start it yet you will feel better.

Positive emotional reasoning

Positive emotional reasoning are judgements and conclusions based on positive emotions such as enjoyment, which was identified earlier in this article. Someone experiencing positive emotional reasoning may, for example, look on a social event as an exciting opportunity because they feel excited about it, and they attend the event in a positive frame of mind, which often leads to the person enjoying the experience. However, there are instances where positive emotional reasoning can be hazardous, for example when a person feels brave or daring, and takes perilous risks such as driving too fast. This type of thinking can be particularly precarious for people with a mental health condition such as schizophrenia.

The effects of emotional reasoning

Our thoughts have a great effect on how we feel and how we behave. When a person treats these emotional thoughts as facts, they may see themselves and act in a way based on these faulty assumptions. Emotional reasoning becomes a problem when we allow our feelings to tell us what is happening and how to behave.

Emotional reasoning can have negative consequences because it can lead to misunderstandings, poor decision-making, and unhealthy behaviours. For example, if someone is feeling depressed, they may believe that their life is hopeless and that there is no point in trying to change things. This can lead to a lack of motivation and a downward spiral of negative emotions. These feelings of hopelessness may even lead a person to consider self-harm or suicide.

Emotional reasoning plays a massive role in almost all cases of depression. Since depressed people feel things so negatively, they usually assume things really are that way. It never occurs to them to question whether the perception coming from their feelings is valid or not.

Similarly, if someone is feeling angry, they may lash out at others or engage in aggressive behaviour, even if it is not warranted. This may lead a person to, for example, commit domestic abuse or other forms of violence.

If someone is feeling anxious, they may believe that they are in danger, even if there is no logical reason to think this. This can prevent people from doing everyday activities such as socialising, leaving the house or going on holiday because of the feelings of fear. Feeling anxious can also lead a person to making impulsive, emotionally driven decisions over well-thought-out choices.

When someone feels fear for no apparent reason, it can perpetuate irrational thoughts that may lead to developing all kinds of phobias, which are unrealistic, overwhelming and debilitating fears of certain objects, places, situations, feelings, people or animals.

If someone is feeling guilty, they may believe that they have done something wrong, even if they have not, and that events outside of their control such as their child failing an exam is somehow their fault.

Emotional reasoning has implications for people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), for example a person may continue to feel dirty even though they have showered twice within the past hour, so they obsessively clean themselves believing that they are dirty. These unhelpful thoughts and beliefs are intrusive and cause distress or anxiety.

When a person relies on their emotional reasoning as opposed to rational or logical thinking taking into account the facts, they run the risk of making flawed or unwise decisions. Strong emotions can place a constraint on clear thinking and can create a kind of tunnel vision. Whilst emotions do have a part to play in decision-making, immediate and unrelated emotions can create mistakes by distorting and creating bias in judgements.

In these cases, the individual’s emotions are dictating their beliefs, rather than taking into account the reality of the situation.

Emotional Reasoning Disgust

Overcoming emotional reasoning

There is a great deal that we can do to resist ineffective and irrational emotional reasoning and to harness our emotions to the benefit of our thinking. A good starting point to deal with emotional reasoning is to notice when you are applying it. The goal is not to eliminate or suppress emotions. It is to prevent emotions from overwhelming you and to give them the proper weight as you consider facts and reality, make decisions, and go about your daily life. The most important thing is recognising when emotions are helping or hurting, and developing strategies for managing them.

If you find that you are prone to emotional reasoning, the best way to overcome it is to take a step back and examine a situation before reacting. If your feelings are assumptions about yourself, “I feel worthless, no one will want to socialise with me” or “I feel that I am not lovable, why does my partner stay with me?” try to find proof that the thought accompanying the feeling is not true.

Once you identify that you are using emotional reasoning, unpack it by thinking about the things that may have triggered it, for example a stressful event, memory, or something you saw or heard. Take note of your thoughts. Remember that those feelings might not have much to do with what is actually going on around you. Think objectively about things. Ask yourself if you would look at the situation differently if you were much calmer. Try to look at the evidence and decide if the emotions you are feeling are appropriate and understandable in the actual situation. You could also talk to people you trust about how you are feeling; other people may be able to reassure you and help you realise that your feelings are irrational.

Make a note of when you feel any self-doubt, inadequacy or other signs of emotional reasoning. Think about what led to these thoughts, what you were doing and who was there. Recognise that these are your feelings rather than actual facts – they are not real. Recognise your strengths and write down your strengths and achievements. Think about how your qualifications, experience and expertise have led to where you are now. Keep a record of positive feedback from others too, and read this back to yourself whenever you need a boost.

Try mindfulness, that is breathing deeply, remaining present in the moment, and noticing small details of your surroundings, sights, sounds, smells and sensations. Mindfulness means being present and grounded in the current moment rather than fixating on the past or future.

Since stress is a common trigger for anxiety, which predisposes a person to cognitive distortions such as emotional reasoning, keep stress under control each day. Coping with stress includes introducing habits into your life such as eating healthily, getting adequate sleep, and exercising.

If you are struggling with emotional reasoning, particularly if it is affecting your mental wellbeing, you may want to get professional help. Therapies including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help, which aims to teach people that while they cannot control every aspect of the world around them, they can take control of how they interpret and deal with situations. The NHS talking therapies services finder can help you find out which services are available in your local area. You can also find accredited CBT therapists through the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP)

Final thoughts

We believe that all our feelings feel true because they are experienced so strongly, but so often they can be erratic and changeable. Additional information, a new perspective or a change of heart can all impact our feelings and emotions. Remember this when you are thinking emotionally and might not be thinking accurately.

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About the author

Megan Huziej

Megan has worked with CPD Online College since August 2020, she is in charge of content production, as well as planning, managing and delegating tasks. Megan works closely with Freelance Writers - Voice Artists - Companies and individuals to create the most appropriate and relevant content as well as also using and managing SEO. She gained her Business Administration Level 3 qualification over the duration of being at CPD Online College as well. Outside of work Megan loves to venture to different places and eateries as well as spending quality time with friends and family.

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