I remember being told more than once growing up that I rationalized things. With my over-inflated ego and lack of self-awareness I took this as a compliment. Convincing myself, “rationalizing means I’m being rational and that’s a good thing.” In reality when we rationalize what we’re doing is telling ourselves rational-lies. These are just a few examples: “I can’t be a drug addict, addiction is a choice and I can quit when i want… I know I screwed up honey, but I promise it was just one time and it won’t happen again… Sure I should be filling out job applications, or one of a million other things, but I’m going to run just one more game of Madden…” I got really good at being able to rationalize anything in my mind, and where did it get me? Miserably hooked on drugs, blindly committed to an unhealthy relationship, and completely devoid of purpose. The negative effects of rationalization can be seen in the results of our decision making process. There comes a time when you have to stop buying your own bullshit. A genuinely terrifying proposition for me.
If you seem to make the wrong choices consistently I guarantee it’s the result of buying your own bullshit. Our Third Pillar, Ending Rationalization, means to address this dilemma. Through this process we stop buying into our own bullshit. Ending Rationalization is one of the most valuable skills you can teach yourself because it makes life easier and more simple. Providing clarity in life, direction, and purpose. As you might expect, the effects of this are felt in the decisions we make. Most importantly, it allows you to prioritize life and reach the achievements you need to truly feel whole. Doing this brings a sense of inner peace.
What is Rationalization
Ah rationalization. According to classic psychoanalytic theory, it’s a defense mechanism. Defense mechanisms are unconscious attempts to avoid addressing underlying reasons for a behavior. More than anything Ending Rationalization means becoming cognizant of when you’re employing one of these “defense mechanisms”. Some other examples of defense mechanisms include:
Projection – The act of projecting one’s own unconscious feelings onto another. For example, a wife might insist that her husband seems angry when she is actually the one who is angry.
Denial – Refusing to acknowledge an unpleasant truth or emotion. Denial is widely cited as the first stage of the grieving process after a significant loss.
Somatization – Transferring negative feelings into physical symptoms. For example, a man might develop stomach problems every time he becomes anxious.
Reaction Formation – Acting out the exact opposite of one’s unconscious wishes or thoughts. For example, a man who is a devout Christian who feels sexually attracted to other men might become extremely homophobic because homosexuality is not accepted in his religious culture.Goodtherapy.org
Rationalization is using our mind to justify immoral, unsettling, or unsavory behavior in order to avoid the true reason behind the action. In other words, it’s making excuses. For example you might rationalize using substances because your back hurts. When, in reality, you’re not in that much pain and using because you like how they make you feel.
Why is it so hard?
There’s a lot of layers behind why this is easier said than done. In short, what makes ending rationalization- becoming conscious of our defense mechanisms- hard is emotions drive decisions. We’re wired to avoid pain and pursue pleasure, so we rationalize the things we do to make ourselves feel good rather than guilty (bad).
According to The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica defense mechanisms are, “any of a group of mental processes that enables the mind to reach compromise solutions to conflicts that it is unable to resolve. The process is usually unconscious, and the compromise generally involves concealing from oneself internal drives or feelings that threaten to lower self-esteem or provoke anxiety.” Developing new (more effective) ones aren’t painfully difficult, however they take considerable time and effort. After all we are replacing an unconscious learned behavior. What makes this hard is that while they’re learned behaviors, we utilize them unconsciously. Think of it this way, imagine someone told you that you’ve been breathing wrong your whole life, and that breathing through your mouth was the proper way to get oxygen. It would be bloody hard to change this innate, unconscious, learned behavior.
Our minds are fascinating in that they’re constantly looking for ways to interpret the world around us. Rationalization, defense mechanisms as a whole, are simply tools our minds use to make sense of our environment. When presented with data that would make us feel bad (cause pain) by threatening to lower our self-esteem or cause anxiety we naturally look for other explanations. An example of this would be a person in an unhealthy relationship who doesn’t want to admit their relationship has gone to shit because it would make the time they’ve invested into it a waste. This would hurt their self-esteem if the image of the life they envisioned turned out to be a facade. When faced with such a dilemma a person might rationalize their partners unacceptable behavior. I’m relatively certain everyone has seen that movie play out. While this type of response is perfectly natural it’s unhealthy.
How this ties in with addiction:
People generally have a reason for using drugs, and addicts use for a multitude of reasons. These range from masking trauma and mental illness to just wanting to get high. For some (addicts) it becomes instinctive or primal, almost unconscious, just like our use of rationalization. There is a reason for the correlation between rationalization (our choice of defense mechanisms) and addiction.
Psychologists actually categorize defense mechanisms based on how primitive they are. Defense mechanisms fall into three categories: primitive, less primitive, and mature. These classifications are based, in part, on the levels of maturity required for their development. Put another way, we develop healthier defense mechanisms as we mature. This is a big part of the reason why delaying exposure to addictive substances until the age of twenty-one is so advisable. When use starts at an early age brain development, along with the development of additional defense mechanisms, comes to a halt.
Substance abuse often begins as an attempt to find relief. Unfortunately when use begins early this creates a paradox because abuse prevents the brain from developing to the point where it can relieve itself using healthy defense mechanisms. The issue persists, particularly in times of stress or trauma, because better ways of coping are can’t be developed without time in sobriety. Our defense mechanisms end up working against us to validate our continued use, which inevitably becomes a perceived need.
Final Thoughts & Where to go From Here
The keys to ending rationalization are honesty and acceptance. We must be willing to accept we don’t have all the answers and we aren’t some special exception immune to the grasp of addiction. A good indicator of rationalization is recognizing when your brain goes into “explaining” mode rather than “thinking” mode. Are you trying to logically think your through a potentially unsettling reality? Does it seem as though you’re trying to talk yourself into it? If you’re in “explaining” mode the answer is probably yes. When explaining we generally operate under the assumption that our desired outcome or conclusion is correct. Actually thinking takes a lot more energy and should feel uncertain. If your logic feels pre-concluded you’re probably rationalizing. Remember to keep it simple.
The most effective alternatives to rationalization are what are known as mature defense mechanisms. These require effort and conscious practice to implement on a regular basis. They focus on aiding us become a more valuable contributor to our world. Examples of mature defense mechanisms include:
Sublimation is the ideal mature defense mechanism regarding the urge to use substance. It’s the act of transmitting an unhealthy impulse (the desire to use) into a more palatable one. When I want to get high I’ll instead transfer that energy into an intense workout. There are three outcomes that can occur when we have a harmful impulse: we can succumb to our desire and use, we can sit on the impulse which results in extreme anxiety, or we can transfer that energy elsewhere.
As a defense mechanism humor is the transferring of intolerable thoughts or impulses into a funny story or joke. This reduces the magnitude of the impulse and puts a cushion of comedy between the person and impulse.
As a defense mechanism fantasy is the transferring of intolerable thoughts or impulses an artistic expression of the imagination. For example, fantasizing over new business ideas can be useful when dealt a bad grade in school. Humor and fantasy can help you look at your circumstances in a different light, or focus on an angle not previously examined.