Emotional reasoning (emotional filtering) is a common unhelpful thinking style. Each of us views the world, ourselves and other people in our own unique way. And, of course, this all depends on a complex set of life circumstances, upbringing, contemporary social and environmental influences, sex, religion, health, random events, genes, and more or less anything else a human can come into contact with. Despite each person's individuality, we do all have a lot in common. We're all subject to the human brain's tricky manoeuvres and resulting unhelpful thinking styles.
We all see the world through our own lens or filter, but when subject to stressors, our brain relies on experience to match up what it recognises with previous triggers which have been filed away in our memories as 'threatening' situations, people or places. Once our fight or flight system (our primitive survival mechanism) is activated, cortisol and adrenaline are released which produce primary emotions such as anxiety or anger.
The impact on the body can't be missed - racing heart, feeling sweaty, tingling sensations, light headedness, muscle tension, feeling ready to run or fight (plus a host of other intense physical symptoms). The resulting emotions feel so strong that they can compel us to act or behave in certain ways to avoid a feared situation, or to defend ourselves against a threat.
Our mind needs to filter our experiences and let through the right stuff. If our filter is flawed, then like a coffee machine that is playing up, we can end up with a poorer than necessary experience. If we use our emotions to filter or decide on our course of action, we can unwittingly work against our own best interests. Consider some of the following examples of emotional filtering:
- I feel guilty, therefore I must be bad.
- I feel afraid, the danger must be real.
- I feel so anxious... I'm pathetic.
- I'm very angry, they need to pay for what they did.
- I'm feeling very anxious, this must be a bad thing and I need to do something about it.
In CBT we learn that our emotions are a consequence of our thought patterns, and a response to the way we are thinking. Our thoughts can be automatic, like a reflex, and our beliefs can be out of date and no longer serving us.
Our emotional responses may also be influenced by memories of past events or traumatic circumstances, tricking us into believing that a past threat is here and now. The memory may lead you to feel upset, but it is not happening now, so your current emotion would not be the wise way to determine your choices. Your emotions can lead you to confuse the past with the present.
If we only use how we feel as our filter for living our lives, we can unwittingly make mistakes and hold ourselves back in life. The emotions we feel when we are experiencing stressful events are so compelling that we 'feel' we need to take evasive or defensive action. This does not always take us closer to where we want to be - it often takes us further away from our valued goals.
Here's a rather everyday example which many people can relate to. Take a fictional character Procrastinating Peter... "I feel so stressed about all this work I have to do." His anxiety feels so uncomfortable, he unknowingly feels compelled to avoid this feeling of anxiety, by avoiding the work he needs to get done. Anything will do: making endless cups of coffee, going on social media, tidying his desk, taking a sickie so he can feel better.
All of these actions take away the anxiety for a while, but the work doesn't get done, because Peter has used his 'feelings' to guide his action. The key is to understanding what thoughts or beliefs are underlying Peter's stress. Peter's thoughts could be going along several directions - "I'm not going to do a good enough job", "I can't ask for help, I'll look stupid", "I will get the sack, if this isn't up to scratch."
As observers, we can easily see that if Peter keeps putting off his work because he feels anxious, he is leaving himself less and less time to do the work, and possibly increasing the likelihood of his work not making the mark. He could end up rushing, staying up late, making mistakes, or not giving himself time to carry out any revisions his boss might ask for. Additionally the more he acts on his anxiety, the more he increases his own stress, as, by avoiding the situation, he even gives his brain the message that this is a real danger.
How to handle emotional reasoning
So, what can we do? Emotional reasoning or emotional filtering requires awareness and a mindfulness of emotions. There are many things people find helpful, but if you can follow these simple steps you may find it easier to step back and observe what is happening...
1. When you are experiencing a strong emotional reaction, it's helpful to step back and acknowledge how you are feeling. Can you name your emotion? eg. I am feeling anxious / angry / fearful right now. Accept and be kind to yourself in that moment, and nod to the fact that you do have a Tricky Brain which is primed to experience these difficult emotions.
2. If you are feeling the full force of anxiety or anger, and feeling shaky or out of control, you can try some deep breathing to steady yourself. A good technique is Soothing Rhythm Breathing (blog post to follow). This can balance your emotional response and enable you to discover that you can cope.
3. As you begin to settle, you can choose to take a look at the facts here. What are your thoughts? What specifically is going through your mind? Are other unhelpful thinking styles (eg. black and white thinking or jumping to conclusions) taking hold and increasing the pressure? Write this down. When you get better at this, you can do it on the fly. Try reframing or balancing your thinking. Nobody claims this is easy, it takes practice and perseverance, but with practice old thinking patterns can be broken.
The main problem with emotional reasoning is that it can keep you stuck in an unhelpful autopilot state, where you continue to act on your emotional filter. The emotional filter's go-to actions include avoiding people or places, procrastinating, lashing out at others, all in an attempt to stay 'safe' or 'defend' yourself from harm. In situations where you really need protection, this is genuinely helpful, but realise that when you are being adversely affected by stress or are suffering from anxiety disorders or depression, for a lot of the time, your mind is like an overhelpful friend giving you advice you don't need.
If you'd like to find out more about other unhelpful thinking styles, take a look here:
Jumping to Conclusions
Black and White Thinking
Ali Binns is a CBT therapist in Bath, UK. She help her clients to identify and manage their unhelpful thinking patterns and underlying beliefs. If you're looking for therapy in Bath, please feel free to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org