Defense mechanisms are coping skills we unconsciously use to avoid the feeling of anxiety that comes from distressing or unacceptable thoughts. While more mature defenses have the potential to be beneficial, immature defense mechanisms can be harmful and negatively impact your life and relationships.
The rationalization defense mechanism causes people to develop explanations for bad behavior or negative emotions. These “rationalizations” are intended to justify their actions and feelings.
Keep reading to learn more about this type of defense mechanism. We’ll discuss how it works and why people rationalize as a defense mechanism. With a better understanding of rationalization, you can learn to use it in a healthy way.
What is Rationalization?
The rationalization defense mechanism can be explained as a reaction someone might have after they make a decision, have a thought, or engage in a specific behavior. In the aftermath of their choice, they may construct a reason that explains why they did certain things or felt specific ways. This reason can be used in an attempt to justify their action — to themselves, or to others.
The rationalization defense mechanism is one of the psychological defense mechanism theories originally identified by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. While some of the major Freudian psychoanalytic theories have been debunked, rationalization as a defense mechanism (and other defense mechanisms) is still considered a valued theory in psychology.
Rationalization, at its core, is a way for people to justify undesirable feelings or behaviors that they’re not comfortable with. When we try to rationalize an event, we might be able to come up with explanations that sound logical. However, rationalization unconsciously keeps people from acknowledging the true reasons for behavior or actions.
When someone uses rationalization, they aren’t necessarily lying. It’s better (and more accurate) to look at rationalization as a form of denial or repression. It’s frequently an unconscious action, and many people wind up believing the justifications that they’ve constructed.
How does it work as a defense mechanism?
At times, it can be difficult for some people to face the motives behind their thoughts and behaviors. Instead of addressing those uncomfortable feelings, the defense mechanism of rationalization allows people to create an alternative explanation that they can find acceptable.
Rationalization is often a way to justify or excuse mistakes. By rationalizing controversial behaviors, people can avoid placing themselves in a negative light. As noted, this defense mechanism is often used unconsciously. That said, it’s commonly used as a way to avoid criticism from others.
At times, rationalization can serve as a dissociation mechanism. It can be an effective way to disconnect from actions or outcomes that we perceive as negative. Rationalization allows us to deny sources of emotional turmoil or insecurity temporarily.
Examples of Rationalization
According to research, rationalization typically falls into one of two categories: sour grapes and sweet lemons.
- The term “sour grapes” describes rationalizations that try to ignore difficult information blatantly.
- “Sweet lemons,” though, refers to rationalizations that try to cast negative situations in a positive light.
A famous rationalization defense mechanism example is the Aesop fable The Fox and the Grapes. In the story, a fox tries to grab grapes that are out of reach. When he can’t take hold of the fruit, he decides that the grapes are probably sour.
Another common example of a sour grapes rationalization involves putting down a person or institution after being rejected. For example, if someone was turned down by a romantic interest, they might claim that they didn’t want to date the person in the first place. If someone was rejected by a potential employer, they might insist that the job wasn’t that great anyway.
When someone makes a sweet lemons rationalization, they’re trying to convince themselves that something undesirable is actually something they want or planned. Someone who’s recently been fired, for example, might insist that they’re excited to look for something new. A student who wasn’t accepted to their preferred college may claim that they’re looking forward to taking a gap year.
“Conflict or tension in relationships isn’t easy for anyone, but when rationalization is used as a way to cope, it can feel unfair on the receiving end. Typically rationalizing is when seemingly logical reasons are presented as a way to deflect a poor perception of someone or something. “A lot of people cheat” is an example of rationalization; the statement universalizes something that is suboptimal but might be thought of as common or acceptable if convinced.”– Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW
Reasons Why People Use Rationalization
People may use the rationalization defense mechanism for several reasons. Rationalization can be a way to fulfill many psychological functions, such as:
- Avoiding cognitive dissonance: When our thoughts and beliefs are inconsistent, it causes a form of discomfort known as cognitive dissonance. Rationalization can be an effective way to reduce cognitive dissonance, especially when making difficult decisions, according to some research.
- Preventing disappointment: Disappointment is a normal part of life, but it can still be painful and distressing. When someone is faced with a major disappointment, they may rationalize away that sadness and displeasure in order to avoid discomfort.
- Skipping self-analysis: At times, it can be hard for people to face themselves in the mirror. Rationalization can be a way to sidestep introspection and avoid thinking too deeply about painful emotions and unacceptable behaviors.
- Deflecting blame: People who have committed serious offenses may use rationalizations to blame others. One rationalization defense mechanism example is DARVO, which stands for deny, attack, and reverse victim or offender. It can be a way for abusers to manipulate and control their victims.
- Concealing mistakes: When someone has made an embarrassing error, they may look for ways to justify hiding their mistake from others. The defense mechanism of rationalization can help them try to avoid embarrassment and guilt.
- Ignoring limitations: We all have limitations, but that doesn’t mean our limits are always comfortable or easy to acknowledge. Rationalizing away limitations can be a way to ignore our shortcomings.
- Denying reality: When someone is dealing with a deeply distressing situation, such as an abusive relationship, it can be incredibly difficult to cope. In these scenarios, someone may use rationalization as a way to deny the truth and protect themselves from the reality of their situation.
- Avoiding past trauma: Traumatic experiences can cause people to behave in unusual ways. It’s not uncommon for someone to rationalize painful memories or experiences so they don’t have to acknowledge or deal with trauma of their past.
“We often think of rationalization as a way to cope, but of course that can also mean to defend or protect. At the core of protection are sometimes issues or feelings of hurt, shame, or insecurity. While it never feels good to be or present as vulnerable, some people aren’t as comfortable presenting as weak or rejected. Quite simply, rationalization can be a defense the ego uses to make something ‘feel’ more accepting and tolerable.”– Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW
Getting to the Root & Finding Healthy Mechanisms
While rationalization can be a way to avoid emotions you’re not ready to deal with, in the end, it ultimately does more harm than good. When you rely on rationalization as a defense mechanism, you’re suppressing your true feelings. Rationalization can move you further away from reality, preventing you from acknowledging danger or weaknesses.
There is hope, though. When you uncover the root cause of your rationalizations, you can replace this unhealthy behavior with more effective (and less damaging) defense mechanisms. By practicing conscious awareness you can learn to accept challenging truths and take responsibility for your own mistakes.
It isn’t always easy to confront rationalizations, but thankfully, this isn’t something that you have to face on your own. A therapist can help you learn how to process the experiences and emotions behind behaviors. With the help of a mental health professional through online therapy, you can learn to overcome unhealthy defense mechanisms and deal with difficult emotions in a more positive way.
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3. Harsey S, Zurbriggen E, Freyd J. Perpetrator Responses to Victim Confrontation: DARVO and Victim Self-Blame. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma. 2017;26(6):644-663. doi:10.1080/10926771.2017.1320777. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10926771.2017.1320777. Accessed September 24, 2022.
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