Why do we sometimes act irrationally?

Have you ever done or said something that you later regretted? The usual response is something like, “Do you mean in the last hour or just today?” Take a moment to think about the last time this happened to you.

Examples of “irrational” behavior

How about the time you responded angrily to something that bothered you although you know perfectly well that a softer answer would have been more effective? Or you skipped your well-established exercise routine although you know that exercise is good for you? Or you catch yourself eating compulsively but know that a healthy diet is important?

If you are like most people, not only do you occasionally engage in behaviors that are not in your own best interests, but you are quick to rationalize or justify those behaviors! After all, we humans do not like being judged by anyone, much less by ourselves!

Since behaviors that we don’t like in ourselves are so common, there must be an excellent reason for the phenomenon. This is a classic example of the conflict between the thinking brain and the feeling brain.

The feeling brain ignores the thinking brain

The thinking brain is logical and knows/believes what is right, correct and true. This may or may not be consistent with someone else’s thinking brain or with objective reality. No matter. If you believe it, it is true for you and you will act accordingly. When your thinking brain is in charge, you will respond to a conflict assertively, not aggressively. You will exercise regularly. You will eat healthily and avoid junk food. Reason and logic prevail! Super!

But when the feeling brain takes over and hijacks the thinking brain, reason and logic go missing! This happens whenever anxiety strikes. As you know*, anxiety results when you perceive a treat (anything that you become aware of, consciously or subconsciously, that is contrary to a basic belief) and a defense mechanism is initiated. The unwanted behaviors that you do not like in yourself, those that are not in your own best interests, are defense mechanisms.

Examples of underlying basic beliefs

When in the midst of a conflict, you may believe that the other guy should agree with you, that what they are doing/saying is wrong or that they are likely to harm you in some way. Since any of these situations would be contrary to your basic beliefs, they are perceived as a threat, you feel hot, flushed, upset, angry (all signs of anxiety) and you react aggressively by raising your voice, pointing your finger, your hands ball up into a fist or you make a scathing, sarcastic comment. These, and similar behaviors, are defense mechanisms, designed to squelch your opponent.

So you skipped your regular exercise routine today. Your feeling brain detects that you are mentally and physically exhausted, and that it’s raining outside. Exercising is out of the question for today, you can make it up tomorrow. Inactivity becomes a defense mechanism that allows you to not do something that you would ordinarily do.

And how about those sugary, fatty or other nutrient-less foods that you eat excessively without a thought? “Comfort foods” are called that for a reason: they help reduce anxious feelings that you may not even recognize! Anything that you do to reduce anxiety is a defense mechanism.

The rationale behind “irrational” behavior

Bear in mind that the feeling brain is far stronger than the thinking brain. This is essential because you must be able to respond instantly to the perception of a threat before you have time to think about it and make a rational choice. Otherwise, you could be annihilated before reason could lead you to adequate protection. The feeling brain is there to protect, but it does not have the capacity to determine whether the defense mechanism it initiates is safe, effective, ultimately harmful or otherwise inappropriate. The intent is perfect; the mechanism is sometimes flawed.

Freedom from stress comes with healthy mental health.

Stress Free Zone

How to avoid “irrational” behavior

What can be done to avoid the self-sabotage that is so common? First, simply recognize that problematic behaviors are defense mechanisms. Then you can bring up to consciousness what is causing the underlying anxiety and decide (using your thinking brain) whether to continue the current defense mechanism, choose an alternate one that is not harmful or even change the basic belief that was triggered. This avoids unnecessary anxiety and the need for a defense mechanism. Just know that you can control unwanted behaviors when you know their source.

How behaviors relate to mental health

It is mentally healthy when your behaviors improve the quality of your life because they reflect beliefs that are consistent with the inbornintention of human dignity.

*For more information

For a better understanding of some of the terms used in this post, such as “thinking brain,” “feeling brain,” “inbornintentions,” “basic beliefs,” “human dignity,” “sense of accomplishment,” “anxiety,” or “defense mechanisms,” go to the Glossary.


Book: Pathways to Mental Health and Anxiety Management, by Frank Hannah.
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