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Emotional Reasoning

An Axis Course On Don’t Believe Everything You Think

The first cognitive distortion we want to address is called “emotional reasoning.” As you might expect, emotional reasoning involves allowing our feelings to completely take over our reasoning, or our interpretation of reality. Someone experiencing this distortion might think thoughts like, “I feel depressed—therefore, I don’t belong in my friend group.”

Sometimes a person feels a feeling, and then their brain tries to come up with an explanation for why they’re feeling that feeling. Sometimes their brain’s explanation is correct, but other times it’s totally wrong. In the above example, the assumption is that the feeling of depression must mean something ominous about the quality of this person’s relationships. But in reality, a feeling of depression or sadness could come from any number of things—like maybe this hypothetical person has been sitting in a dark room for 18 hours eating unhealthy food.

Now, if someone this person thought was a friend said, “Go away, you don’t belong here,” it might be natural to feel a feeling of sadness, or depression. But in emotional reasoning, the order is reversed. A feeling comes first, and then the (often inaccurate) interpretation of what it might mean comes afterward. Just because it feels like something is true doesn’t mean that it’s actually true. 

Feelings, of course, do have an important role to play in the life of Christians. We have been made in the image of an emotional God. But feelings can only tell us something about our experience of life in that moment; they do not reveal to us general truths about reality, our relationships, or our lives as a whole.

As C.S. Lewis once put it in his Letters to Malcolm, “Don’t bother much about your feelings. When they are humble, loving, brave, give thanks for them; when they are conceited, selfish, cowardly, ask to have them altered. In neither case are they you, but only a thing that happens to you. What matters is your intentions and your behavior.” When we begin to believe that our feelings are more than just our personal response to things happening outside of us, we are at risk of falling into this cognitive distortion.

In Psalm 42, David describes feeling forgotten and forsaken by God. In verses 9 and 10 he writes, “I say to God my Rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?’ My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’” In other words, David doesn’t try to ignore his feelings of pain and desolation; he gives full voice to them.

But he doesn’t allow his feelings to control his thinking. The psalm ends with David writing to himself in verse 11, reminding himself of what he knows to be true, regardless of how he feels: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

Learning to think clearly involves recognizing when our interpretation of reality is being completely controlled by the emotions we are experiencing, and reminding ourselves of what we know to be true.