Making Sense in Therapy

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Clients come to therapy looking for logical reasons for their behavior. Sometimes I have to disappoint them. But there are often better questions to ask than “why?”

Reason is such a powerful thing. Most of what we do in education is discipleship to abstract thinking and turning away from prejudice or intuition. Reason can get us a long, long way. At first glance, it seems Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and other technical disciplines which allow us to live as richly as we do today, rest firmly on a foundation of pure logic.

Yet there are places where logical reasoning doesn’t fit so naturally. The arts are a forum where we’re allowed to have ideas and preferences and not have to back them up with reasons. There is no accounting for taste. But even in the arts, reason wants to nudge its way in. Visual arts can be analysed through the lens of rationality, looking for patterns and reasons that make one painting more beautiful than another, or one popular song a hit while another is a flop.

The desire to make rational sense out of everything can lead us astray. Flustered parents will ask very young children “why did you do that?” when they misbehave. Children, when they can say anything at all, are most likely to say “I don’t know,” which is unsatisfying to the parent, but often absolutely right. In fact, much of the time adults don’t know why they do what they do, even when they’re convinced they do know.

One phenomenon that supports our belief that we are more rational than we actually are is called “back justification.” We’re making unconscious decisions all the time, and we must. We could not walk by deliberating on where to place our left foot, then our right foot, then our left, and so on. Our feet seem to know where to go most of the time without any special attention. But the truth is that we often make “conscious” choices as rapidly and as unconsciously as walking, then later confabulate reasons which explain the choice. And this isn’t malicious or even conscious. When we give our reasons, we really believe in them. In everyday life, there’s often no way to disprove our internal revisionist history, nor reason to doubt it. Our reasons are, for lack of a better word, reasonable to us. Psychologists know about back justification because of some very crafty laboratory experiments that catch back justification in progress. In our own lives, it takes real detective work to catch ourselves making irrational, back justified rationalizations for our decisions.

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Economists have built mountains of theories on a few premises: that people act in their own interest, that they know what they want and that they have ideas how to get it. But anyone who’s ever stood in a store, dumbfounded before an avalanche of consumer goods, knows their decisions are far from rational. Although modeling economies with rational actors works adequately in most circumstances, it fails to account for irrational events such as market bubbles and crashes.

Some clients in therapy want to know “why” as often as they want to change their lives. Others are intent in explaining their past behavior in some grand theory (remember back justification?) that wrestles their history into something that makes sense at least to them. I’m sympathetic since I know how appealing it is to believe our actions are rational even when they’re clearly not. But therapy is a place where back justification becomes a real problem. Having the wrong “why” is often worse than no explanation at all.

If you insist on having a “why” for human behavior, there is a sense, or a system to it, but it violates our intuition. In the same way the Earth appears flat to us when we’re standing on the ground, behavior appears fully rational inside our heads. But travel a few miles skyward and we find a curved Earth. When we back up a few metaphorical steps from ourselves, we see that often our thoughts and actions don’t match up with what we profess to value.

The counterintuitive, counter-rational sense of human behavior is that there’s a second part of us that runs parallel to our reason. Each of us has impulses or drives that affect our thinking and behavior whether we acknowledge them or not. Without the urge to breathe, we’d be dead in minutes. Impulses are almost always something to do with immediate survival, social belonging, or reproduction. We have the urge to eat and have sex and avoid danger. So perhaps there’s the sense we were looking for: impulses help us survive by satisfying very simple values.

But then why do people follow impulses that are self-destructive? Whereas reason is good at connecting long term cause and effect, impulse isn’t. So if eating makes us feel safe, we’ll eat and eat even if we don’t physiologically need the food, even if it makes us obese, sick and unhappy in the long term. We also live in a world far from the one where our basic drives and impulses worked well. In the evolutionary time scale, there were no drugs of addiction to divert our natural and healthy affinity for pleasure and comfort into substance abuse, addiction, and overdose.

Even given the above, often we don’t need a complete explanation of what has come before in order to change. If you show up at your family doctor and he diagnoses you with a bacterial infection, he’s perfectly capable of figuring out the specific category or species of bacteria giving you trouble, but he most likely won’t. Far more likely, he’ll give you a broad-spectrum antibiotic and consider the matter closed.

Rather than languishing in analysis paralysis, it’s far better to simply try something — anything — different from what you’ve done up to this point and then see what changes. Variation and experimentation give a different kind of understanding. “If I do this, then that happens.” “If I eat regularly, I’m not as short-tempered” for instance. Even if you never know that eating raises blood sugar, which helps curb impulsive action (such as anger), the problem is still solved.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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