Thought Errors – Emotional Reasoning

Posted on 10/14/11 by erynwicker No Comments

From a series I did for the local paper The Chilliwack Progress on the various cognitive distortions.

Thought Errors: Emotional Reasoning

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
(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
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

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

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.

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