Here’s an idea for you: Humans are by nature irrational. That’s because, as complex beings, we are constantly being pushed and pulled by our many intertwining emotions. Greed, fear, jealousy, joy, lust – our behaviours and activities tend to be largely driven by such forces, with balanced thought and logic sometimes taking a back seat.
As natural as it is to be irrational, it is normally considered a risky way to behave. Why? Because when we are not present within our adult minds, and too driven by our feelings, we tend not to make the best thought out decisions. The consequence? Challenging life experiences and strained interpersonal relationships.
What does it mean to be irrational or reactive?
Irrationality refers to the absence of logic or reason. Reactive refers to showing a response to a stimulus. When we react irrationally, it means we have responded to a stimulus in a way that is devoid of balanced reason.
There are said to be two types of irrationality:
- Fundamental irrationality: This is a low-level, constant state of irrationality that everyone around you is a victim of. It forms within you a set of imprinted biases that dictate your behaviours and reactions. For example, David functions on a level whereby any mistakes must be the fault of others, rather than himself. So, when a mistake occurs, such as David being late for an appointment, David’s instant bias is to become irritated with those around him, criticising them for this mistake even though they cannot have logically caused his lateness.
- High grade irrationality: Unlike fundamental irrationality which is constant and low grade, high grade irrationality is a less frequent and more intensely felt form of irrationality that flares up in response to specific stimuli. One example might be a sudden and unexpected failure, such as not getting a job you want. This failure can trigger intense fear of future interviews, and prevent you from applying for more jobs, even though there’s no logical reason to respond this way.
In either case, we can see that these forms of reactive irrationality are harmful to yourself and others. The problem is, however, that those suffering from irrationality can rarely see their own behaviours clearly – especially when it is fundamental. Often, it is other people who spot this character trait and it is not uncommon in couples therapy for one person to accuse the other of irrational reactions, while the other totally denies this is the case.
Therapy helps us to break down the behaviours into more management chunks and explore them in a safe way, often through the help of transactional analysis.
Transactional analysis and irrationality
Transactional analysis is a psychoanalytical theory that has been utilised by therapist for more than 70 years. It seeks to explain human behaviour (such as irrationality) and has been summarised as:
“…a system of psychology for understanding human behaviour, changing human behaviour and predicting human behaviour.”
The basis of the theory is that we are constantly motivated by unconscious areas of our personality, known as ‘ego states’. There are 3 primary ego states, which you can read more about here. These are ‘parent’ (often a mirror of the parenting we received as a child), ‘child’ (the more reactive and emotional state) and ‘adult’ (the state that allows us to process information and make rational decisions based on logic).
When discussing irrationality, we can assume much of this comes from our child state. Therapy helps us to move away from this state and into our adult self, so that we can make more rational choices.
Let’s revisit David for a moment:
David acts on a fundamentally irrational level and is blaming others for his missed appointment. He decides it must be the fault of the receptionist, who didn’t call him to remind him of the appointment. He decides it must be the fault of his ex wife, who caused him to feel stressed that day so that he couldn’t think straight or plan his day. He decides it must be the fault of the cab driver who didn’t show up on time. Or the company that kept him on hold on the phone for 2 hours that morning, messing up his schedule. Everyone is at fault except for David. What can transactional analysis tell us about David’s functioning?
- David’s child state is someone who cannot handle criticism or challenge, perhaps because he was overly scalded for mistakes as a child. Or perhaps his upbringing, which was quite chaotic, meant he never felt safe to own his feelings and behaviours, including his mistakes. Therefore David’s child state rules his life into adulthood, disallowing him the power and liberty of making mistakes in a healthy way.
- To move into an adult state, David must learn that it is safe to take responsibility and make mistakes. He needs to shift his thinking from perpetual victimhood, to a state where he can process information more logically.
How does he do this? The answer is therapy. If you can identify with David in any way, or if he reminds you of someone close to you, I would love to hear from you to explore that further.
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