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How not to Rationalize your way out of Happiness

Updated on August 1, 2015
HealthbyMartha profile image

I'm a Certified Health Coach who wants to help you create the best balance of spiritual, physical and mental health that is possible.

Do I really need to rationalize this?

I was out hiking the other day and had an epiphany....well, actually I had several epiphanies. But the one I wish to discuss with you today is the realization of how much I rationalize every little thing that I do.

I want to back up a bit first to discuss what I mean by rationalizing. I recall one of my very favorite movies, The Big Chill, which was released in September 1983; about the same time I turned 26 years old. I was a bit young to fully grasp the character's struggles but I fell in love with the movie for it's stand out cast and excellent acting and dialogue. One line that has stuck with me all these years is one spoken by the character Michael, brilliantly portrayed by Jeff Goldblum. He is discussing the issue of rationalization and that in his opinion it is more important than sex. The character he's talking to looks at him with abject doubt and disagrees. Michael then says to him, in reference to the importance of sex vs rationalization "Have you ever gone a week without a rationalization?"

The point being that going a week without sex would be much less difficult that not having to rationalize. I have to agree with Michael on this one. I think that we humans often feel the need to rationalize or justify much of what we think, do and feel in any given day. I know that I do! I never really grasped how much that is true for me until the other day on my hike.

I have located to Phoenix, AZ from living most of my life in Denver, CO. In the past I have gone hiking many, many times in the Rocky Mountains. In that location I have been at very high altitudes with very large elevation gains, and thus I felt that I was in excellent condition to go no any hike that I might find here in lower altitude Phoenix. So, I set out on this hike feeling somewhat cocky about my ability to breeze through it and thus, I did not prepare very well.

About half way through my hike, on my way to the summit, I started really struggling. I was having to sit and rest and take a break before resuming the very steep and rocky trek. Many hikers, of ages much younger, to probably older than me, passed me by going up and coming down. I was a bit appalled to be resting but at this point I had no choice.

Then, a man who was clearly a bit younger than me came by and stopped to actually talk to me. He encouraged me that if I wanted to make it to the summit, it wasn't that far. He seemed like a nice person and I was encouraged to get up and keep going. We continued to hike and he and I were talking. It was during this period that I became aware of my incessant need to rationalize. I'll share more of that with you in the following paragraphs.

Hmm, this rationalizing is feeling a lot like being defensive

So, as my hiking partner and I continued to the summit, I found myself telling him how terrible I felt to have had to stop to rest. I explained how very fit I was and that this was just not at all like me. He was very nice, and he and I shared quite a bit back and forth about our similar interests and that he had hiked this trail many times. I felt suddenly that I was just some sham of a hiker and needed to explain myself. I launched into a discussion of how fit I really was, and how I just didn't know what was wrong with me; why I felt so terrible and had to keep resting.

He sympathetically listened and I continued to analyze and consider all the reasons that I was failing...or why I considered that I was failing since that was not his sentiment, but mine. I kept thinking aloud that maybe I didn't eat properly; or maybe I didn't have the right footwear?

And, throughout this I had to repeatedly sit and rest in order to continue to the Summit. It was after about 20 minutes of our hike together that I caught myself doing the rationalization dance. I realized that I was justifying myself to a stranger; rationalizing all the myriad reasons why I was struggling to keep up with my usual pace instead of just being in the moment!

Did this stranger need an explanation for my reduced performance? Did this stranger even know what level of performance I considered to be my optimum...and, more importantly, did it matter?

I realized that it mattered to me! I was feeling small and weak and rather than own that my own ego was bruised, I was caught in this trap of rationalizing and explaining all the reasons why I was failing to keep up with the standard I had set for myself.

In the small picture, none of my behavior really matters. But, in the big picture it matters a lot! To be so caught up in having to rationalize or justify my every move is to lose the moment. To be in the place of rationalization is to feel the need to explain to somebody; or even to myself the reason for a behavior that may actually need to have no reason or explanation.

In my over articulated, overly analytical life I have become much too dependent on the tool of rationalization and in the process, I've rationalized my way right out of some very good opportunities.

I can look at several examples of situations that caused some level of discomfort in me that rather than just accept the discomfort and press on through them, I rationalized the decision to avoid the situation altogether.

Some of these examples are:

Dates that I had accepted but in the last moment felt afraid and created rationalizations to cancel them.

Social engagements with new people that I've again felt intimidated or anxious and thus rationalized all these reasons why staying home was a better, "safer" option for me.

Job opportunities that have felt like a stretch for my skills, and I've rationalized that they wouldn't hire me without ever trying for the position out of fear.

I want to now discuss how to stop rationalizing and how to move forward

You don't have to be perfect...but you have to show up!

To return to the hike of the other day. I did eventually make my way to the Summit. I have my new friend on the path to thank for his encouragement of me. Without him I probably would have stopped short of the Summit and would have been very disappointed.

The other wonderful take away though is the one I had about rationalizing and how I've used that tool as a crutch to not press forward in times of fear or overwhelm.

I think it's important that we listen to our gut; to that voice of intuition that has wisdom and protects us from danger when we might otherwise go forward. That is not the same thing though as using rationalization to defend and justify staying stuck instead of moving forward.

There are simply times when we have to just "Do it" to borrow the phrase from a well known Ad campaign. The rewards of pushing beyond your comfort level and into something unknown can be huge. I know as I've been more attentive to my fears, and less willing to rationalize them and avoid the scary stuff, that the rewards I'm reaping are so worth it.

After years of being single, I've recently begun to date. I can tell you that Dating for me is a pretty scary proposition. I know that I should look at dating as a fun activity and not like a job interview. I have actually cancelled dates at the last minute, because my anxiety had me rationalize all the reasons why I shouldn't go; "he is too old for me, we'll have nothing in common", or "I don't like the same foods, so it won't be fun to go out to eat" and the list goes on.

But, instead of rationalizing, I have tried to just go out and have the best time that I can have! It has been so liberating for me to realize that I can date another person without expectation and just have a good time in the moment. I may come home and not feel like I've met "the one", but that doesn't mean that I can't say it was nice to get out of my house and have a meal with somebody else, instead of eating my usual dinner by myself. Each step has made it easier to take the next step.

I have also learned that with jobs, or volunteer opportunities to press forward even when the voice of doubt raises it's head "but you aren't as qualified as the listing says". I learned that maybe I don't have the exact background that is being asked for, but I might possess other life skills that make up for it. If I don't try; if I rationalize that they won't hire me, then of course, I won't ever get the job.

It is like unlearning a skill for me. I have to consciously make myself stop rationalizing and start instead to just go forward! Instead of all this "but..what if..." I just say, "I'm going to go out and I'm going to enjoy myself". This actually is a process that repeated, becomes easier each time.

The next time you start to rationalize.....

It's important to keep challenging yourself. Life can get pretty dull and unfulfilling if we never stretch ourselves a bit and move forward through difficulty.

The next time something challenging comes up for you and you catch yourself rationalizing why it would make better sense to just not do it, try a new tactic. Stop yourself and ask a few questions:

1. Is it true? Will I really have a terrible time if I go out with this person, even though we are very different? Or am I just afraid to go out and be with somebody new?

2. Am I rationalizing my way out of a potentially fun time, or is there a real issue that I should be heeding. It's important to listen to your intuition in terms of safety.

3. Am I afraid? Really look deep and ask yourself if you are really needing to stay where you are instead of moving forward for sane reasons, or are you simply afraid of leaving your comfort zone.

I think by taking these tactics you will find yourself being less willing to rationalize and make excuses and more willing to step forward and take some chances.

For me, I know that once I stopped making rationalizations and excuses I started opening up to new opportunities and a lot more fun. And, I even made it to the summit of a hike that I otherwise might have not achieved.

The choice is yours. May you reach the summit of all your life goals!


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    • HealthbyMartha profile imageAUTHOR

      Martha Montour 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you always my faithful reader! hank you Dr. Rangan for sharing your insights and for reading my work. Thank you also Karen. Glad that you enjoyed my article. I'm working hard at breaking the rationalization dance!

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Another very invocative article. Makes one stop to think about how so much of our lives are about rationalizing.

    • Dr Pran Rangan profile image

      Dr Pran Rangan 

      3 years ago from Kanpur (UP), India

      A nice hub of yours as usual. It is common that we rationalize so often that we miss many opportunities to find what is there in store for us in many situations.

      It can even prevent us from enjoying many things in life.

      No one is perfect and we don't have to rationalize our imperfections.


    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Another great post. I love your last quote - She believed she could - so she did.

    • HealthbyMartha profile imageAUTHOR

      Martha Montour 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you Jacqueline for taking the time to read and for sharing your thoughts.

    • profile image

      Jacqueline Conroy 

      3 years ago

      Great post Martha -You don't have to be perfect...but you have to show up!

      I love the three evidence testing questions too. x


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