Sometimes, smoke is just smoke

This week finds us examining another cognitive distortion or thought error in greater detail: emotional reasoning. As you might recall from the past few articles sometimes our automatic thoughts are based on irrational assumptions.

This week finds us examining another cognitive distortion or thought error in greater detail: emotional reasoning. As you might recall from the past few articles sometimes our automatic thoughts are based on irrational assumptions. If we stop and think about them rationally and break them down based on solid evidence, then we can see them as irrational and replace them with new, more rational viewpoints. If we analyze them with emotional reasoning, though, we feed into them and come to faulty conclusions. Basically, emotional reasoning is basing our thoughts and beliefs on our feelings, and using emotion as a substitute for evidence; however, the reasoning can’t  hold up because it doesn’t take into account all of the other factors operating at the time.

This “I feel it, therefore it must be true” mentality can cause a lot of backward thinking. It says you are what you feel – the facts don’t matter because it’s feelings that count. And if the facts contradict your feelings, then go with your feelings and ignore the facts. Since its’ human nature to think with our heart this can sometimes be a difficult thought error to spot and correct. It’s about thinking with your head, feeling with your heart, and not letting your emotions control your thoughts.

An example of this thought error was presented to me last week by an adolescent client of mine who said: I feel so alone all of the time (the emotion being experienced). It must be because nobody likes me (projecting the emotion onto the external world). However, as we explored this belief she was able to discover that a negative emotion about herself doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the reality about herself.  When pressed further, she came up with evidence that some people actually did like her, and also with some tangible evidence of why she was feeling so alone. This concept can then be universalized: how one feels about reality – positive, negative, or neutral – does not necessarily have anything to do with what’s actually out there in reality.

Other examples of emotional reasoning include “I feel guilty. Therefore, I must have done something bad”; “I feel stupid and boring, therefore I must be stupid and boring”; “I feel overwhelmed and hopeless. Therefore, my problems must be impossible to solve”; “I feel inadequate. Therefore, I must be a worthless person”; “I’m not in the mood to do anything. Therefore, I might as well just lie in bed”; “I feel anxious about this test. It must mean I’m going to fail it”; or “I’m mad at you. This must mean you are a bad friend.”

So what can you do if you hear your child or teen (or maybe even yourself) using emotional reasoning? I like to put it to the evidence test. Ask your child/teen/partner/self what evidence there is that makes their negative thought true besides their feelings about it. Challenging them to think of all the other possible factors and variables that might exist will help them see that a feeling isn’t enough to base an assumption on. This, in turn, will help them not be blinded to the difference between feelings and facts.

Remember the old adage: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Well, it’s wrong. Smoke is not firm evidence of fire. Smoke may just be smoke. And thought errors, especially emotional reasoning, are a good example of this.

 

Eryn Wicker (M.A., R.C.C.) is a mental health clinician with the Child and Youth Mental Health team of the Ministry of Children and Family Development, Chilliwack, BC.

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