Rationalization: “The devising of self-satisfying but false reasons for one’s behavior.” Sometimes we don’t know why we do what we do, and perhaps such ignorance is okay, or should be. Our temptation is always to explain, but that often does nothing useful. In fact, it can just get in the way of actual understanding.

All too often we rationalize instead of seeking the real reason behind our actions. This rationalization, the need for the quick, albeit wrong, answer actual prevents our growth and moving forward.

Rationalization – An Example

I was talking to a client and we were discussing his addiction. He stated he only drinks when he was lonely or bored. When I asked if he did anything besides drinking to prevent boredom, he stated “not until after I have had a few”.

As we kept talking, he went further, stating “I get bored every night, so I drink every night.” I pressed on, asking about how it would affect his kids. His answer was “It only affects me. It doesn’t affect anyone else.”

Of course, if you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize that this scenario is not unique. Many factors go into our decisions and actions, and we act as though we’re aware of them all. Like my client, we feel compelled to explain ourselves – and to believe our explanations. One of our strongest habits is rationalization.

Just Say ‘I Don’t Know’

When a child throws a plate at his brother, and his mother demands “Why would you do that!?” he says, “I don’t know.” It is almost certainly the honest answer, but it isn’t acceptable. With hours to study the child, a psychologist might not understand the child’s action with certainty, but a six-year-old is expected to understand his behavior and have an explanation ready in seconds.

We are taught at an early to have the answer for our behavior. We are taught that saying “I don’t know” isn’t acceptable. That six year old is learning that he should know why he does things. But think about this for a second, does a six year really understand why he does something? No, he doesn’t. How can he learn to understand his behavior when he is being to have a ready answer for everything?

Perhaps a better approach is to get in the habit of saying “I don’t know.” For the sake of our own comfort, we could follow with “Maybe it’s because of…” and let the explanations spill out, as long as we aren’t too quick to accept any of them. We need to understand that it isn’t always necessary to explain.

Suppose, for example, that you are avoiding a certain person, and don’t really know why. Isn’t it better to leave the question open than to accept a false explanation based on a habit of self-justification? If you leave questions unanswered, you may someday have a better understanding. Quick answers mean a quick stop in your thinking.

Self-explanation can be the opposite of self-understanding. Maybe it’s time to learn to accept our ignorance, and to start observing ourselves. Just say, “I don’t know,” to break the habit of rationalization.

Once you stop rationalizing, then you can begin the process of understanding and growing.


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