What Is Rationalization Psychology And How Can I Benefit From It?

Updated October 3, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Life can be hard. That’s a pretty bleak way to begin, but sadly, this is simply true for everyone, and it can be difficult to manage the heartbreaks, disappointments, and curve balls that come to us in life. Some people can find these struggles especially difficult to manage and that’s when unhealthy coping mechanisms often come into play. Rationalisation is one such unhealthy coping mechanism and in this article, we’re going to learn how rationalisation works in practice, why it’s unhealthy, and what you can do about it.

Are You Constantly Rationalizing Your Actions? It Could Indicate A Larger Issue

What Is Rationalisation?

For starters, we need to establish a solid, basic definition of rationalisation. So, to do that, we’ll start with an example that pretty much everybody can relate to. Everyone has done something they shouldn’t at one point or another. Whether you took something that wasn’t yours, lied, or cheated on a test, we’ve all done little things that are morally wrong, even if we’ve never committed any crimes. For example, let’s say that you ate your co-worker’s sandwich.

It was in the office refrigerator, it was marked with his name, and you knew it was his. But still, you took it and ate it. Afterwards, you might have felt guilty about your actions, but maybe you told yourself something like, “It wasn’t really that bad because he usually goes out to eat anyway!” Or perhaps you thought, “It’s not a big deal— he has time to get something else to eat if he wants; I have back-to-back meetings all day and I’m starving!”

Both of these are examples of rationalisation. Put simply, to use the dictionary definition, rationalisation is “the action of attempting to explain or justify behaviour or an attitude with logical reasons, even if these are not appropriate.” So, if we connect this definition back to our example, we can clearly see that the person who ate their co-worker’s sandwich used rationalisation to convince themselves that their behaviour was justified.

Now, obviously, this is a negative example of something that no one should ever do. And, in this scenario, we can see how rationalisation helps people to think that their behaviour is justified even when it isn’t. But is all rationalisation bad? Not necessarily. And, over the course of this article, we’ll explore rationalisation in closer detail.

The Results Of Rationalisation

Rationalisation is not always inherently wrong. So, not every instance of rationalisation is bad. For example, let’s imagine that you interview for your dream job and you get rejected. But shortly thereafter you receive an offer for another job. This one isn’t quite what you wanted but you’re happy to have a job.

So, when your friends and family ask if you got your dream job, you might say something like, “No, I actually decided to turn it down for this one that has a better salary or better commute or more affordable rent close to work!” Of course, that isn’t true at all. But this is a classic example of how people use rationalisation as a defence mechanism. 

Although making up an excuse about your new job isn’t the worst thing in the world, it can have negative consequences for you and your mental health. Let’s take a look at some downsides of rationalisation.

The Downside Of Rationalization

Rationalisation often makes you feel better in the moment but it can have some negative consequences in the long run. For example, about your job may seem pretty innocent and it might spare you some initial awkwardness, but it can still be problematic for you, even if no one else finds out. That’s because it’s all too easy for us to believe the lies we tell ourselves.

And because the human brain is wired to crave bursts of pleasure, we always want more of the things that make us feel good. So, if it makes you feel good to rationalise your behaviour, it’s likely that you may continue to do so over and over. Rationalisation can become a pattern for many people and that’s when this becomes a toxic thought process and a maladaptive coping mechanism.

As you increasingly rationalise your behaviour, you run the risk of hiding your emotions from yourself. For example, everybody experiences break-ups and moments of rejection. As sad as it is, this is simply an unpleasant reality of life. We all have to experience these things but it’s okay to feel sad, hurt, or angry about the difficult things that come your way. In these cases, rationalisation can be problematic when you convince yourself that these circumstances don’t bother you.

How Rationalisation Effects You

For example, if someone experiences a painful breakup that really makes them sad, they often say something like, “Maybe it was for the best” or “Maybe it was meant to be; I’ll find the person who’s right for me in the end.” Both of these are positive ways of looking to the future with hope and they can help you establish a realistic and positive outlook for your future as you move on from the breakup. Statements like these allow you to feel sad in the moment while reminding you that you won’t be sad forever.

But if, instead, you comfort yourself by saying something like, “It didn’t really bother me that much” or “We’re just taking a break; we’ll get back together in the end,” you’re setting yourself up for unhealthy and unrealistic thought patterns. When you rationalise a situation in this way, you shield yourself from coping with the pain you’re feeling and prevent yourself from working through the pain in a healthy way.

How Rationalisation Impacts Your Growth

So, as you can see from these examples, rationalisation can have a very negative effect on your mental and emotional health! Unfortunately, however, the downsides to rationalisation don’t end here. If you develop a holistic pattern of shielding yourself from uncomfortable truths, you may also become blind to the reality of many situations, such as instances of your own inappropriate behaviour. For example, everyone has moments where they behave badly at times, even if they didn’t mean to.

Perhaps you get too drunk at a party and say something inappropriate or behave in a way that makes others feel uncomfortable. Similarly, if you get angry in the heat of the moment, you might lash out in anger and hurt others with your words. No one likes to think that they’ve made a fool of themselves or offended other people, but sometimes, that’s simply the unpleasant reality of our actions. In those cases, it’s best to acknowledge the embarrassment and discomfort you feel.

Once you’ve dealt with your emotions in a healthy way, you can make amends if possible, and begin to think critically about your behaviour, its causes, and your future course of action. But if you prevent yourself from experiencing any pain or discomfort, you also rob yourself of the learning opportunities that come when you learn how to grow through the pain.

Get Help For Rationalisation

Are You Constantly Rationalizing Your Actions? It Could Indicate A Larger Issue

If any of these examples sound familiar to you, then you might be rationalising your behaviour. But whether you only do it on occasion or you’ve rationalised for years, the good news is that it’s never too late to get help! The first step is to recognise your rationalisations. Start by identifying your feelings and the types of circumstances that motivate you to tell yourself something comforting, especially if you feel like what you’re telling yourself is different from reality.

This initial step can be painful but it can also be an empowering moment of self- discovery. As you examine your rationalizations, you will find that there are many situations which you have the power to change. There are many situations in life that make us feel sad or stuck. But breaking free from rationalisation can show you that you have the power to create a better future for yourself. And, as a result, you can live a happier, more satisfying life.

So, if you want to deconstruct this maladaptive thought pattern and reach your full potential, you don’t have to do it on your own. Licensed counselors at BetterHelp can guide you through a specialised treatment plan that will help you work through your thought processes and develop new, healthy coping mechanisms. And as you learn these new patterns of behaviour, you will be able to live your life with true authenticity and greater freedom.

Online counseling through BetterHelp is a convenient and affordable option for anyone who’s interested in seeking therapy. There are many benefits to online counseling compared to traditional therapy. One is that online counseling platforms offer a plethora of different tools and resources that can be tailored for your specific situation.

If you are unsure about seeing a mental health professional in person, you can connect with a uniquely qualified and trained counselor through video conferences, text messages, or phone calls. Additionally, you can schedule sessions depending on your schedule and at your convenience. You can continue sessions for as long as you need them.

Read below for just a few testimonials from individuals who are going through similar concerns and struggles:

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