This post was updated on Nov 29, 2022
Have you ever been annoyed by another person’s attempt to justify their unacceptable behavior? That person may have been rationalizing, i.e. using logic as an unconscious attempt to avoid facing their negative or unwanted feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.
We often rationalize due to being unable to address the underlying reasons for our unfavorable behavior. This helps us avoid guilt and hurt, as well as maintain a semblance of self-respect.
If you notice yourself rationalizing, don’t fret – rationalization can be harmless, even necessary. However, if you keep deceiving yourself and making excuses, you may find yourself facing an array of issues, from accepting abusive behavior to intimacy avoidance in relationships.
Keep on reading to find out why we rationalize and what steps you can take to prevent this defense mechanism from wreaking havoc on your personal life.
What Does Rationalization Mean In Psychology?
By definition, rationalization refers to a defense mechanism in which we give apparently logical reasons to justify or explain our controversial behaviors. This may mean using seemingly plausible means to make unacceptable behaviors tolerable or even admirable.
You may rationalize in two steps:
- You perform an action or make a decision for no apparent reason or for a given reason.
- You then use rationalization to justify the action after the fact, trying to make it more tolerable.
While most people rationalize on a somewhat regular basis, constant rationalization may lead to the encouragement of controversial or irrational behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. The process may be somewhat or fully conscious, where you try to protect yourself from ridicule, or unconscious, where you attempt to avoid unpleasant feelings such as guilt or shame.
Why Do Humans Rationalize?
You’ve surely caught yourself trying to make yourself feel better after doing something you considered not in alignment with your core values. It’s human nature to attempt to avoid negative feelings and thoughts. This is the main reason why people rationalize – to defend themselves from bad or painful behavior and avoid addressing the underlying causes for it.
When rationalizing, you may try to distort the facts or find seemingly logical reasons to make things look more acceptable. You may strive to convince both yourself and others that your actions are not that bad, that you deserve understanding. Essentially, rationalization often means making excuses and lying to yourself.
However, you do deserve understanding. Just because you rationalize, just like most people, doesn’t mean that everything you tell yourself is a lie. In fact, rationalization is often adaptive, as it protects people from unsafe motivations and thoughts.
Still, it is important to keep an eye out for rationalizing attempts, as they may contribute to a variety of maladaptive behaviors. For instance, they may interfere with your romantic relationships and encourage self-destructive or destructive behaviors.
How Does Rationalization Work As A Defense Mechanism?
Rationalization was described by Sigmund Freud as a defense mechanism that comes from the attempts of your ego to make a behavior more acceptable to your superego. Superego, as the part of you that demands moral behavior from you, may protest when you perform an action it deems unacceptable. For this reason, you may consciously or unconsciously try to paint the action in a more positive light, using seemingly sound logic.
On the other hand, some motivations for your behaviors may just be too painful or uncomfortable for you to face. Your rationalization may be motivated by a traumatic experience you just don’t want to think about. Nevertheless, understanding these motivations is an important step in the healing process.
While contemporary psychology has abandoned a large majority of Freud’s ideas, some of the defense mechanisms he explained, such as rationalization and repressing unwanted or painful emotions are still widely accepted.
What’s An Example Of Rationalization?
You can rationalize in an endless variety of ways. Some common examples may include the following statements:
- “I’m not upset that I wasn’t promoted. I never wanted the responsibility anyway.”
- “I worked out this morning… I deserve this slice of pizza.”
- “So what if I fear the dark. Most crimes happen when it’s dark, that’s a fact.”
- “I must have done something wrong, they wouldn’t treat me like this if I didn’t.”
- “Ok, I messed up on that exam, but at least I took it.”
- “He cheated… But at least he told me. I may give him another chance.”
You’ve probably heard similar statements in your life at least a couple of times. This is because rationalization is quite common, thanks to its ability to disguise itself as an apparently rational way of thinking.
How Can I Stop Rationalizing And Save My Relationship?
How you prevent rationalization from damaging your relationship often depends on who the person rationalizing is. If your partner is the one doing it, you may try speaking with them or attending a couples’ workshop to help them address their problematic behaviors. However, there may be little you can do to actually change their behavior unless they are willing to work on themselves.
The process would be quite different if you’re the one rationalizing. Naturally, becoming more aware of your rationalization attempts would be the logical first step. Furthermore, you may want to try and explore any underlying reasons for your behavior.
By understanding why you rationalize and when you make excuses, you may be able to gain deeper insight into your personality and the areas you may want to work on.
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People use all kinds of defense mechanisms to maintain self-respect, present themselves in a more positive light, and avoid dealing with painful emotions. You might be prone to projecting your negative thoughts on others, run in the opposite direction of your impulses, or even rely on positive mechanisms such as sublimation. No matter which behavior you want to address, you can find support at PIVOT.
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