Healthy Weight, Healthy Mind: The Problem with Emotional Reasoning

We are pleased to bring you this regular column by Dr. David Creel, a licensed psychologist, certified clinical exercise physiologist and registered dietitian. He is also credentialed as a certified diabetes educator and the author of A Size That Fits: Lose Weight and Keep it off, One Thought at a Time (NorLightsPress, 2017).

Do you have a weight loss question for Dr. Creel? Email him at [email protected]. He may answer your question in a future column.


In the last few posts we’ve been reviewing thoughts that might interfere with achieving health goals, including catastrophic predictions and labeling, all-or-nothing thinking, mind reading, and filter focus. This week we will explore emotional reasoning.

Most of the thought patterns we’ve looked at in the last few articles are based on emotional reasoning. This type of reasoning occurs when we think or feel something so strongly that we believe it must be true. In other words — we’re fooling ourselves.

Emotional reasoning can stem from positive or negative emotions. Imagine an engaged couple who can’t keep their hands off each other. We’ll call them Jack and Susie. Everything about their communication with each other indicates they’re madly in love. Although he wouldn’t admit it to his friends, Jack has learned to like chick flicks because Susie loves to snuggle up close to him and watch them. Susie’s phone is full of cute selfies of the two of them just hanging out. One day you get a chance to talk to the couple.

“I’m just curious. The two of you are obviously in love, but every couple has problems. Susie, can you tell me one thing about Jack that sort of gets on your nerves?”

Susie looks at you and then back at Jack and sort of giggles while brushing the side of his cheek with the back side of her slightly bent index finger. With a glimmer in her eyes she says, “Really, there’s nothing about Jack I don’t absolutely love. He is my everything; we’re soulmates.”

You try to keep a straight face as Jack gently leans forward and kisses Susie on the forehead. Then you ask Jack the same question. “How about you, Jack? There must be something about Susie that sort of bothers you.”

Jack responds, “I guess nobody is perfect, but I think Susie is perfect for me. I mean look at her, she is absolutely beautiful and she treats me like a king.”

This interaction is an example of being blinded by love, which in short is emotional reasoning. These powerful feelings influence their reasoning. Let’s fast-forward five years. Susie and Jack are now in marital therapy because things have turned sour in their relationship. Jack sits at the end of the sofa and Susie is as far away from him as the furniture will allow. Their bodies lean away from each other and their eyes no longer sparkle. In fact, Susie’s eyes seem to squint with anger and Jack’s are constantly rolling into the back of his head as Susie unleashes her laundry list of complaints. The therapist asks Susie a simple question.

“Tell me what attracted you to Jack, why you fell in love with him in the first place.”

With her arms folded she sighs, and says, “Honestly, I can’t tell you. I don’t know if we were truly ever in love. We have just really never connected like some couples.”

The therapist poses the same question to Jack. “What about you, Jack? Why did you fall in love with Susie?”

“That’s a hard question. We were working at the same company and neither of us was in a relationship. Maybe we got together because it was convenient.”

Let’s compare the two conversations with the couple. Before they were married, Jack and Susie were blinded by love. Now they’re blinded by anger and negative feelings toward each other. In both situations they weren’t thinking rationally because their feelings got in the way. Somewhere in between these two extremes lies a happy medium for Jack and Susie. Perhaps the therapist can help them reach that point.

Emotional reasoning permeates many areas of our lives, including relationships, career, self-image, and certainly weight management. Having a strong emotional reaction each time you see the scale move in the wrong direction may cause a surge of negative emotions that leads to irrational thinking. Maybe you vow to eat nothing all day forgetting that each time you try this it ends in disaster. Or perhaps you feel strongly that you’ll never succeed and, as a result, you stop trying to eat right or stay active.