Key Takeaways

  • In the world of psychology, the term “rationalization” is used to describe a coping mechanism in which someone creates an inaccurate explanation for something they do or say to avoid discomfort.
  • We create rationalizations because they help us feel secure in the way we think, feel, and behave. They allow us to create seemingly reasonable justifications for unwanted decisions or choices that go against our values.
  • For the most part, rationalizations can be relatively harmless. But left unchecked, they can take a toll on our mental health and our relationships.
When you hear the word “rational,” what do you think of? If you’re like many people, you probably equate the term with something that’s reasonable, logical, or to be expected. If you ask someone about the rationalization behind a decision they made, you’re probably hoping to better understand the thought process they used to guide their choice.  In many ways, rationalization is a helpful psychological process. It allows us to connect thoughts and behaviors in ways that help us make sense of the world. But, like many psychological constructs, rationalization can have an unhealthy side if left unchecked. 

What is rationalization?

In the world of psychology, the term “rationalization” is used to describe scenarios in which someone creates an inaccurate explanation for something they do or say. On the surface, these rationalizations aren’t intended to conceal the truth. Rather, they’re meant to justify our actions to ourselves and to others. We tend to believe our own rationalizations even if they aren’t founded in reality because they help us feel more comfortable with our choices.  For example, imagine you’re among the countless people who make a New Year’s resolution to spend less time on your phone. You know that all that screen time is negatively affecting your well-being and your relationships with loved ones. Things go pretty well at first. But after a few weeks, you find yourself stealing glimpses at your phone during dinner with your family or as soon as you wake up. You create a rationalization that says “I really want to be more disconnected from my phone, but I just can’t do it. My boss expects me to be available 24/7 and I can’t lose my job. I have bills to pay!” You tell yourself this even though your boss supports you in having a healthy work-life balance.  We make rationalizations because they help us feel secure in the way we think, feel, and behave. They allow us to avoid the discomfort that comes from not understanding the rationale behind our decisions. But left unchecked, an overreliance on rationalization can become a defense mechanism that can make it harder to be honest with ourselves and others.

The psychology behind rationalization

The theory of rationalization has its roots in Freudian psychology and cognitive dissonance theory. Cognitive dissonance is something we all experience from time to time. It occurs when we do, think, or feel something that is misaligned with our personal values.  For example, imagine you’ve been a vegetarian for ethical reasons for over ten years. But lately, you find yourself experiencing cravings for meat. So you make an exception and order a turkey sandwich at lunch. This sort of clash of ideas and values creates discomfort and often prompts a defense mechanism like rationalization to kick in.  In this situation, we might create a rationalization to explain or justify the choice to do something that otherwise violates our code of ethics. This could sound something like “I was in a hurry and they were out of vegetarian sandwiches so I had no choice but to order the turkey.” Most of the time, this type of rationalization is relatively harmless. But frequently engaging in self-deception can take a toll on your well-being.

Common types of rationalization

Rationalization can take many forms, depending on the individual and the situation. But some common forms of rationalization include:
  • Justification of bad habits: “I’m so stressed out, smoking is the only thing that takes the edge off. I’ve tried everything else.”
  • Avoiding personal responsibility: “I know I said I’d mow the lawn this Saturday. But it’s my only day to myself and I don’t want to spend it doing chores.”
  • Minimizing negative consequences: “I was only going ten miles over the speed limit. I wasn’t going fast enough to hurt anyone.”
  • Maintaining self-esteem: “I’ve been running this place on my own for over four years. I know everything there is to know about managing people.”
  • Blaming others for problems: “I would have been on time for my doctor’s appointment if you would have remembered to set the alarm.”

The dangers of unchecked rationalization

Unchecked rationalization occurs when you frequently attempt to justify behaviors in ways that make the behavior seem reasonable or responsible when it’s not. This can lead to:
  • Acting in ways that violate your moral compass and leave you feeling guilty
  • Poor decision-making due to clouded judgment or a disconnect from reality
  • Feeling stuck in a situation or trapped by circumstance (when that isn’t really the case)
  • Avoiding opportunities to learn and grow
  • Hurting the people you care about because you blame others for your actions 
  • Ongoing psychological discomfort due to a lack of alignment between your thoughts, behaviors, and values

Find support for unchecked rationalization with Rula 

At its core, rationalization is a defense mechanism and we all use it from time to time. But if you’re finding yourself frequently doing or saying things that leave you feeling like you’re deceiving yourself or others, it might be time to consider seeking help from a professional. With the right support, you can learn to better understand your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and adopt healthy strategies to cope with whatever challenges you’re facing.  At Rula, we can connect you with a therapist who takes your insurance and who can help you get to the root of your over-reliance on rationalization. And our network of over 8,000 providers means you can be seen this week.  

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