Life can be challenging for everyone at times, and managing the heartbreaks, disappointments, and curve balls can be difficult. Sometimes, we use a variety of defense mechanisms, such as rationalization—without even realizing. In this article, we’ll explore how rationalization works in practice, why it can be unhealthy, and what you can do about it.
What Is Rationalization?
The American Psychological Association defines rationalization as “an ego defense in which apparently logical reasons are given to justify unacceptable behavior that is motivated by unconscious instinctual impulses.” For example, most people have done something they shouldn’t have at one point or another. Let’s say that you ate your co-worker’s sandwich. It was in the office refrigerator and was marked with his name. You knew it was his, but you still 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.” 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.”
Both of these are examples of rationalization. Put simply, to use the definition by Merriam Webster, rationalization is “a way of describing, interpreting, or explaining something (such as bad behavior) that makes it seem proper, more attractive, etc.”
If we connect this definition back to our example, we can clearly see that the person who ate their co-worker’s sandwich used rationalization to convince themselves that their behavior was justified. In this scenario, we can see how rationalization helps people to think that their behavior is justified even when it isn’t.
The Results Of Rationalization
Rationalization is not always inherently wrong. For example, let’s imagine that you interview for your dream job and you get rejected. 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.
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, better commute, and more affordable rent close to work.” Of course, that isn’t true at all, but this is a classic example of how people use rationalization as a defense 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. Below, we’ll take a look at some downsides of rationalization.
The Downsides Of Rationalization
Rationalization often seems positive in the moment, but it can have some negative consequences in the long run. For example, lying about your job may seem pretty innocent and 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 can be easy for us to believe the lies we tell ourselves.
Because the human brain is wired to crave bursts of pleasure, we tend to want more of the things that help us feel good. If it seems encouraging to rationalize your behavior, it’s likely that you may continue to do so over and over. Rationalization can become a pattern for many people, and that’s when it can become a toxic thought process and a maladaptive coping mechanism.
How Rationalization Can Affect You
If someone experiences a painful breakup that really produces genuine sadness, they may 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 can help you establish a realistic and positive outlook for your future. Statements like these may allow you to feel sad in the moment while reminding you that you won’t be sad forever.
However, if you instead comfort yourself by saying something like, “It didn’t really bother me that much,” or “We’re just taking a break,” you may be setting yourself up for unhealthy and unrealistic thought patterns. When you rationalize a situation in this way, you may shield yourself from coping with the pain you’re feeling and prevent yourself from working through the pain in a healthy way.
How Rationalization Can Affect Your Growth
There are other potential downsides to rationalization. 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 behavior.
Perhaps you get too drunk at a party and say something inappropriate or behave in a way that leads to discomfort in others. Similarly, if you get angry in the heat of the moment, you might lash out and hurt others with your words. No one likes to think that they’ve embarrassed themselves or offended other people, but sometimes, that’s the unpleasant reality of our actions. In those cases, it’s likely best to acknowledge the embarrassment and discomfort you feel.
Once you’ve managed your emotions in a healthy way, you can make amends, if possible, and begin to think about your behavior, its causes, and your future course of action. However, if you prevent yourself from experiencing any pain or discomfort, you may rob yourself of the learning opportunities that come when you grow through the pain.
If any of these examples sound familiar to you, then you might be rationalizing some of your behavior. However, whether you only do it on occasion or you’ve rationalized for years, it’s never too late to improve in this area. You might start by identifying your feelings and the types of circumstances that motivate you to tell yourself something comforting, especially if you realize that what you’re telling yourself is different from reality.
This initial step can be painful, but it may also be an empowering moment of self-discovery. As you examine your rationalizations, you may find that there are many situations that you have the power to change. Breaking free from rationalization can show you that you have the power to create a better future for yourself. As a result, you may find that you can live a happier, more authentic life.
Getting Help For Rationalization
If you want to deconstruct this thought pattern and reach your full potential, you don’t have to do it on your own. There are licensed therapists with experience helping people through the process of exploring rationalization. However, if the thought of going to a therapist’s office to discuss sensitive topics creates discomfort in you, you might try online therapy, which research has shown to be just as effective as traditional in-office therapy.
With BetterHelp, you can engage in therapy via phone or videoconferencing from the comfort of your home at a time that works for you. Additionally, you can write to your therapist at any time via in-app messaging, and they’ll respond as soon as they are able.
Licensed counselors at BetterHelp can guide you through a specialized treatment plan that can help you work through your thought processes and develop new, healthy coping mechanisms. As you learn these new patterns of behavior, you may find that you can live your life with more authenticity and freedom.
Read below for just a couple of testimonials from individuals who are going through similar concerns.
“Patrick is a very kind-hearted and intuitive therapist. It's not difficult to see that he has a very clear understanding of what approach to take with his clients, even after only having worked with them for a short time, and he always seems to know what to say. His methods always feel very individualized and engaging. He challenges me and my irrational thought processes that I have held onto for so long. He's supportive, patient, very intellectual, and empathetic. He possesses all of the really great and clearly, finely cultivated traits that you would hope to see in a therapist. It's very apparent that he cares deeply about his clients and their growth. He really has given me a sense of hope that I feel I haven't had in quite a long time.”
“I am so grateful to have had Lisa as my therapist. I was and am still dealing with intimacy issues that stem from years of childhood trauma. I have been carrying this baggage for years and I still am. After only two months of working with Lisa, I feel a lot of that baggage being lifted and my perspective has changed considerably. Lisa is not only empathetic but also rational. She affirms your feelings while giving a logical explanation as to why you feel the way you do….I would recommend her.”
What is an example of rationalization?
While rationalization can occur in any number of situations, one common example can be seen during the termination phase of a relationship. The rejection of a breakup can threaten a person’s ego or self-image and may cause them to lose face within their social groups. As a result, a person may rationalize the breakup, saying that they “wanted to focus on their career” or “the person wasn’t right for me.” While there may be truth to these statements, some may use these rationalizations as a way to protect their emotional or mental health during a challenging transitional period.
What is rationalization in psychology?
Rationalization in psychology typically involves justifying a behavior or pattern of thought with potentially irrational or illogical explanations. Sigmund Freud identified rationalization as a defense mechanism in his classic psychoanalytic theory, which indicated that a person engaging in rationalization may be attempting to explain the reason for their own behavior or the behavior of someone they care about. In many cases, these rationalizations are meant to protect someone from internal feelings of guilt or shame, which may harm a person’s ego and damage their self-esteem. Rationalization may also be used in order to avoid being criticized or ridiculed by one's peers.
What is rationalization in human behavior?
Rationalization can refer to a type of defense mechanism that may help an individual avoid the shame, guilt, or stigma associated with a specific thought or action. A person engaging in rationalization may do so to explain their own behaviors, either to themselves or others, in an effort to hide their true motivations. Rationalization typically involves the use of illogical explanations to justify a certain behavior, though these explanations will often be presented as logical or factual in order to be effective.
What are the types of rationalization?
There are four types of rationalization: formal rationality, substantive rationality, practical rationality, and theoretical rationality.
- Formal Rationality: A way of determining what is most important in a specific citation and what method will be the most effective in reaching a desired goal.
- Substantive Rationality: The consideration of the value of an action through the analysis of consequences and benefits.
- Practical Rationality: The form of reason we apply to action in regards to what directs, motivates, evaluates, or predicts it.
- Theoretical Rationality: The beliefs we create based on evidence, arguments, and assumptions about a specific situation.
What is the main purpose of rationalization?
In psychology, the main purposes of rationalization are typically to avoid consequences or criticism of one’s actions, protect oneself from unpleasant feelings of guilt or shame, or to maintain self-respect or social standing. Rationalization may also be a way to reconcile cognitive dissonance and help someone feel more comfortable with potentially shameful behavior.
Outside of psychology, rationalization may have different purposes, like in the world of business. For companies, rationalization can be a process by which they identify flaws in their policies, products, or employees in order to improve the way things happen within their organization.
What is cognitive rationalization?
Cognitive rationalization is a psychological behavior that involves justifying specific thoughts or actions to oneself or others. This type of behavior can function as a form of dissonance reduction that may be used to help a person feel more comfortable with inconsistency in a cognitive system. Rationalizations may use illogical reasoning or explanations in order to avoid judgment or punishment relating to a person’s behavior. A person engaging in rationalization may do so internally (often to avoid damage to their self-respect) or externally (in order to avoid ridicule or rejection by others.)
How do you rationalize your thoughts?
While forms of rationalization that function as excuses for inappropriate behavior may not be appropriate, it may be helpful to rationalize thoughts in some situations. For example, if you are experiencing irrational or negative self-talk, it may be helpful to identify these thoughts and consciously oppose them. In instances where you may believe that the worst-case scenario may occur or that you are dying with no indication of illness, it could be beneficial to approach these thoughts with a rational mind and discern whether they are valid. If you find that these thoughts are persistent, it may also be helpful to seek the support of a therapist or counselor.
What is rationalization in decision-making?
In decision-making, rationalization can be a process that allows someone to make choices based on an analysis of the available facts, figures, and potential outcomes. Rationalization may also be used to justify behavior that could lead to harm or negative outcomes. For example, a person who wants to defend their consumption of large amounts of alcohol may justify the decision by stating that they had worked hard this week and had “earned it.” While this may seem to be logical at first, their argument does not acknowledge the damage alcohol misuse can cause in a person’s life, nor does it explain the ways that alcohol directly connects to the work one has done at their job.
How do people rationalize unethical behavior?
People can rationalize unethical behavior in a number of ways. Here are a few examples of hypothetical scenarios where one may use rationalization.
- A person stealing something from a corporation may state that it is okay to do so because the corporation is “bad or evil.”
- Someone who underpays a person for their services may say that the person wasn’t deserving of their full compensation for various reasons.
- An individual may justify cheating on their spouse by shifting the blame to them, possibly claiming that they haven’t been meeting their needs.
While people may experience a sense of cognitive dissonance while trying to rationalize certain behaviors, their fear of judgment or consequences may be strong enough for them to continue justifying their actions.
What part of the brain is responsible for rationalization?
Rationalization occurs primarily in the frontal lobe, the area of the brain responsible for thought and decision-making. This region is the largest lobe in our brain, extending from the forehead to the precentral gyrus. In addition to decision-making, the frontal lobe is responsible for our emotional responses, memory, impulse control, creating strategies, organization, and self-monitoring. Because the front lobe houses the primary motor cortex, it also plays a large role in voluntary movement. Specific parts of the frontal lobe, like the prefrontal cortex, may be responsible for the majority of rationalization, though other areas of the brain like the amygdala may also play a significant role if the situation involves elements of fear.
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