The danger of emotional reasoning and using our emotions as proof

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Cognitive distortions are thought patterns that can affect our perception of reality. One such distortion is emotional reasoning. This is a thought pattern in which our emotional reactions, or our feelings, lead us to believe that something is true even when the empirical evidence tells us otherwise. 

Emotional reasoning is very common in the workplace. If you have ever found yourself thinking, “I know this project will fail because I feel scared,” or “I know my manager must dislike me because I feel unappreciated,” or “I know my colleague has been hiding something because I feel suspicious,” then you have already experienced emotional reasoning.

Taking our emotions as information

Recent research described emotional reasoning as a mechanism that “can lead people to take their emotions as information about the external world, even when the emotion is not generated by the situation to be evaluated.” This leads to inaccurate emotional truths which directly contradict any objective, perceptual truths.

Emotional reasoning was first coined by the American psychiatrist Aaron Beck in the 1970s. In a career that spanned more than 65 years, Beck studied cognitive theory and therapy, and is considered the founder of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Beck’s extensive clinical career, and related research, illuminated the way in which our emotions sway the way we feel. For example, Beck found that his depressed patients were plagued by self-criticism and regret, whereas those with anxiety experienced fear-filled thoughts.

Beck referred to thought responses to an emotion as “automatic thinking”. His research suggested that the content of automatic thoughts was often linked to the diagnosis a patient had. However, it is likely that automatic thoughts will be relevant to your state of mind, even if you do not specifically struggle with your mental health.

For example, if you have been feeling anxious about a project at work, your automatic thoughts may be based on that anxiety. When presenting your findings to colleagues you may assume that they are disappointed with your progress. As a result of emotional reasoning, this automatic thought will occur in the absence of any objective proof to suggest that your colleagues are perceiving your work negatively.

Furthermore, studies have shown that isolated automatic thoughts can result in negative thought cycles. Emotional reasoning such as “I am sure I am doing a bad job at work because I feel anxious about it every day,” aggravates your fear or apprehension. Increasing anxiety can begin to negatively impact your performance. You may struggle to focus, make mistakes, or see a decline in your output. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a cycle of negative thoughts is set in motion.

How to avoid emotional reasoning

If your beliefs have become founded on emotional reasoning rather than logical facts, it is vital to search for objectivity to manage this cognitive distortion. Taking control of automatic thoughts will help to prevent emotional reasoning from derailing your efforts in your professional and personal life.

The process involves challenging your emotional beliefs so that automatic thoughts are thoroughly interrogated before being accepted. There are several ways you can investigate the source of any discouraging thoughts to avoid unnecessary negativity or anxiety.

1. Practice validity testing. Validity testing is key to checking whether you are experiencing emotional reasoning. If you feel sure that your work has not been of the expected standard, you must search for objective evidence to prove that this belief is true.

Ask yourself if anyone has questioned your work, and reflect on any recent appraisals or informal feedback you have received. In the absence of negative feedback or criticism, you may find that your thoughts cannot be upheld and are therefore unlikely to reflect the truth.

2. Write in a journal. Journaling is a great way to pay attention to your thought patterns. Specifically, you should record the difficult situations you face, and which emotions or thoughts a dilemma provokes.

If a colleague requests a meeting with you without giving you any context, use your journal to document the automatic thoughts that appear. You might automatically assume that they want to talk because your performance has been below average, or that you are facing redundancy, despite there being no evidence for this. 

Recording your feelings in this way will allow you to reflect on your natural thought patterns so that you can start to identify when emotional reasoning is affecting you. This provides an opportunity to reject negative thoughts before they take hold.

3. Discuss your emotions. If you feel anxious about work, you may struggle to accurately assess your performance. Talking to a trusted colleague or friend about your concerns could give you a much-needed objective view. It can be illuminating to learn that others speak highly of you or your work, and this can help to dispel cognitive distortions.

Emotional reasoning is a form of distorted cognition that can lead to an unwarranted negative opinion of your ability or character. By generating negative thoughts, a downward spiral of anxiety can cause a self-fulfilling prophecy of worsening performance.

Learning to probe emotional beliefs to check their validity can help to avoid unnecessary negative thoughts and self-talk. Discussing your beliefs with someone you trust, using a journal to understand your thought patterns, and practising validity testing can all help you to avoid the pitfalls of using your emotions as a form of proof.

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