Rationalization, a Dangerous Defense Mechanism

Rationalization is a common defense mechanism that often hinders the ability to cope with problems. This is because it leads people to create fantastic narratives to justify the unjustifiable and not have to face reality. 
Rationalization, a Dangerous Defense Mechanism
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 20 October, 2022

Rationalization is a defense mechanism most people have used on more than one occasion, without even noticing. It defines the situations in which you make sense of what’s impossible and justify the unjustifiable to avoid pain. Many people tell themselves appeasing tales when they confront something they don’t want to acknowledge.

There are several examples of this psychological dynamic. For example, when a person perceives their partner as cold and distant, they tell themselves and rationalize that it’s all due to work-related stress and that their relationship will soon improve.

Another example is when you told yourself that you didn’t succeed in your project because others didn’t support you, not because you didn’t work hard enough. Likewise, perhaps your teenager failed every subject and you told yourself it’s because the teachers aren’t doing their job, not because your teen has a problem you may not be aware of.

Rationalizing is the same as building a series of judgments that keep you from facing a tangible reality. This is a mental trap many people fall into.

Rationalization is basically resistance to change. Unfortunately, not confronting reality will only lead you to keep making the same mistakes.

“Rationalization is a process of not perceiving reality, but of attempting to make reality fit one’s emotions.”

-Ayn Rand-

An introspective woman.

Rationalization, definition, and the mechanisms in which you apply it

One could define rationalization as the creation of a series of arguments that seek to be plausible enough to justify something you don’t really want to accept. It’s an attempt to convince yourself that what happened isn’t so terrible. What’s the consequence of not being able to openly acknowledge a mistake, failure, or uncomfortable situation?

The consequence is obvious: it becomes chronic and you make the same mistakes over and over again. In his book In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust said that happiness is good for the body and mind, although what really drives you to change and improve is pain. Not wanting to acknowledge pain leaves you trapped in denial, unconsciousness, and constant distress.

However, the most striking thing about this defense mechanism is that a person who tends to rationalize isn’t aware of it. This explains why it’s so hard for a therapist to unmask such sophisticated self-deception traps in therapy.

Denying the obvious is one of the dangerous skills of a rationalizer

This type of person creates complex arguments to justify their weaknesses, mistakes, or shortcomings. A person who can’t find the perfect partner does it. According to them, no one matches their values.

Another example is a person who’s spent ten years trying to get their degree and makes a thousand excuses after every failure. They fail to admit that perhaps the career isn’t for them. What defines these people is denying the obvious in order to avoid contact with the harsh reality and what it implies: being responsible for the outcome.

In addition, studies such as those conducted at the University of British Columbia in Canada point out that the status quo, society itself, also leads people to rationalize. In other words, we often take controversial dimensions for granted just because everyone else does. This is definitely something to keep in mind.

Fear and resistance to change are behind rationalization

The Psychoanalytic School spoke about defense mechanisms back in the day. Sigmund Freud defined up to 15 mechanisms, including rationalization. Specifically, he defined this psychological means as an attempt of the ego to make an uncomfortable or traumatic situation acceptable to the superego.

An example of this was the story of one of the patients of the Viennese psychologist, who was afraid of the dark. The man argued that being afraid of dark spaces is normal because no one knows what lurks in unlit spaces. However, an uncomfortable and traumatic reality was behind these efforts to rationalize his fear: sexual abuse during his childhood.

In other words, fear and resistance to change dwell in this skillful and effective defense mechanism. Nobody likes to find themselves face to face with their wounds, weaknesses, or those facts that ultimately deform the image they have of themselves.

A man looking out the window.

How to stop rationalizing

How can you be more aware of the realities you should face to attain well-being and psychological balance? The truth is that it isn’t easy to remove those filtering glasses capable of making grayish facts seem vibrant.

In your eagerness to take the heat off failures or mistakes, you create alternative narratives that serve as lifelines. However, these lifelines will lead you to sink again at the slightest opportunity. What can you do to avoid resorting to these psychological mechanisms?

A basic resource that can help you in these circumstances is to always ask yourself why. Ask yourself why something didn’t go as you expected. Give yourself time to meditate and reflect before resorting to fabulation and self-deception.

Courage also lies in recognizing you’re fallible, humbly “licking your wounds” without looking back, and telling yourself “This wasn’t so terrible, I can handle it”.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Laurin, K. (2018) Inaugurating Rationalization: Three Field Studies Find Increased Rationalization When Anticipated Realities Become Current. Psychol Sci; 29(4): 483-495.
  • Knoll, M. et. Al. (2016) Rationalization (Defense Mechanism) En: Zeigler-Hill V., Shackelford T. (eds) Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer, Cham.
  • Simon, G. (2009, March 16). Understanding Rationalization: Making Excuses as an Effective Manipulation Tactic. Retrieved from http://counsellingresource.com/features/2009/02/17/rationalization-as-manipulation-tactic/.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.