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More PsychNotes: Stress and Coping

July 26, 2016       
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Irrational: Is it the Word or the Intention that is Offensive?
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Text: Irrational is not a dirty word I notice some people are offended when I and other cognitive-behavioral therapists use the word “irrational” to describe their thinking. I propose, however, at the risk of adding insult to injury, being offended by a common word is usually irrational itself. In particular, it is the irrational thinking style of “emotional reasoning” in which a person believes that because they feel something it must be true. In other words, they don't evaluate the evidence for the emotion.

For those who are offended by the word “irrational” their emotional reaction is likely due to past negative experiences with the word. Perhaps they were called “irrational” as a way of shaming them: “You're just being irrational.” Or maybe they have associated the word with other words that were used maliciously against them such as thinking “irrational” means the same as “crazy.” Or perhaps they believe they should never be irrational because it is an illogical emotional reaction.

We tend to attribute meaning to words based upon our experiences. But that doesn't always mean the word itself is bad or intended to cause hurt. Certainly, there are some words that have been so closely associated with malicious intentions that the two cannot be separated. However, with ordinary words or, in this case, ones that can convey particular psychological meaning succinctly the intention needs to be considered. Is the word being used in a way that is meant to be hurtful?

When I write about thinking I only have so many choices of words I can use, all of which could cause offense to someone: distorted thinking, inaccurate thinking, problematic thinking, illogical thinking. “Distorted thinking” seems even more harsh to me (but maybe that's an emotional reaction). “Inaccurate thinking” isn't really accurate. Someone could be irrational but accurate: “he will be upset with me” may be correct but it is still the irrational thinking style of mind-reading. And “problematic thinking” is just, well, problematic—it doesn't seem to describe anything clearly. As far as “illogical” is concerned, I've known people whose thinking appears to be perfectly logical but when they apply logic to an illogical, unpredictable world, it becomes irrational. “They should be fair” may be logical but as an expectation it is irrational.

And without a single descriptor I am left with a burdensome phrase like “thinking done by habit that can sometimes create problems in living and relationships.” As many times as I use the word “irrational” replacing it with a phrase like that could make my writing quite tedious to read. So I decided that “irrational” is the clearest and best word to use for “thinking done by habit that can sometimes create problems in living and relationships.”

So, what is to be done about emotional reactions to words?

1) What is the evidence? When evaluating the reaction to the word “irrational” the problem is in the assumption that being irrational is wrong. However, we are all irrational as a condition of being human. We are emotional beings who have had a variety of experiences that lead us to inaccurate conclusions at times.

The development of “irrational” emotions was necessary as a means of survival. For instance, many irrational fears such as fear of snakes developed in our evolutionary history as a way of protecting us: an emotional reaction to a snake meant that we were more likely to immediately react to avoid it whereas an assessment of whether it was poisonous or not might take too long. So our emotions allow an instantaneous decision: jump and run rather than be bitten while thinking through the situation.

Another way to think of emotions is that it is the brain using the logic of our past experiences and education to come to an immediate conclusion. Thinking through a situation may not always be quick enough to protect us. So, as I said, being “irrational” is not wrong, but instead it is a necessary part of being human. Only when it is causing problems for you do you need to decide if you want to make a change.

2) Change the reaction. However, even understanding that a word may not be offensive, many times we find ourselves reacting emotionally when that may not be in our best interests. In those situations we need to step back from the emotion and evaluate the situation. Determine the intention of the word rather than just reacting to it.

We can't get rid of all words that might be offensive to someone because communicating would become almost impossible. Instead, the solution is learning to accept words as they are intended. For instance, I can playfully say “you're a jerk” to my husband but he doesn't take offense because he knows I don't think of him that way and my intention isn't to hurt him. However, someone could say “you're an angel” with a certain sarcastic tone that could actually be offensive and is intended to be hurtful.

So if you find yourself reacting to a word that isn't intended to be hurtful, identifying why you are reacting and reminding yourself why your reaction may not be in your best interests can help you change the reaction. “If I react to the word 'irrational' it may be difficult for me to learn this information which could be helpful to me. It is just a word intending to help me understand but I'm having an emotional reaction to it because of being hurt by it in the past. It is not being used to hurt me now.”

Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank



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