Emotion and Reason Working Together

Dan Heller
5 min readNov 28, 2023

I recently started a newsletter on Substack called, “Type 1 Diabetes: It’s Not That Simple!”, where I help disentangle the complexities of type 1 diabetes (T1D) in terms that may make it easier to manage the disease. T1D’s complexity is particularly vexing because optimal treatment regimens are too complicated for most people to understand and comply with, leaving many in pretty unhealthy conditions, which leads to traumatic mental distress, including depression.

Oddly enough, the true barrier to managing diabetes isn’t biology, it’s the psychological impact of living with a disease that’s relentless, perpetual, painful and highly personal. No matter how hard one tries, failure is always right around the corner. And yet, we have no choice but to continue–to strive to live another day. It’s hard to engage in the rational process of self-management when strong emotions act as cognitive barriers. They intercept the mind, and require immediate attention in order to ease anxiety and relieve trauma. This makes it hard to think analytically, despite the fact that it’s that very process that solves the problem!

Dealing with trauma is a growing problem these days, especially as world events become increasingly more unsettled. All the more reason why it’s so important to induce rational thinking when possible.

When I was speaking with someone about this recently, he said it was similar to his own experience in trying to process the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The mass media’s 24/7 news cycle delivers raw footage that’s relentless, perpetual, painful and highly personal to him. He pointed out that no one can be spared from the emotional shock and awe of the imagery and rhetoric that has erupted, so how can anyone deal with it? Pure emotion–no logical reasoning needed or wanted.

When challenged to explain why he felt as he did, he simply reduced it to “blame the other side.” Unproductive, he said, but what else can he do? It’s a complex situation.

We believe we try to engage rational thought, but forget the emotional side is still highly influential. So our minds fool us into thinking we’re thinking rationally by using a technique called, motivated reasoning, which is when “individuals, consciously or unconsciously, allow emotion-loaded motivational biases to affect how information is perceived.” It’s not really rational thinking, it’s a form of self-delusion to avoid contradicting predisposed opinions.

Learning to engage in a more constructive blending of emotional and rational thinking is possible, but expectations need to be set.

The first is that rational thought does not guarantee a clear and obvious solution. Nor are you assured it’ll work. H. L. Mencken once said, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

Among the truly thoughtful analyses I’ve heard about the Middle East, they’re not on network television; they’re on wonky political podcasts, where experienced, seasoned journalists and other experts explain why and how things are as they are, what kinds of outcomes are possible, but which are more likely given the facts and circumstances on the ground. But they also concede that there are no clear, simple solutions.

H. L. Mencken would approve.

Indeed, for some, such analysis is an emotional balm, but it doesn’t work for others. Most people want to start with validation of their emotions first. Otherwise, the barrier won’t be lowered.

A useful technique is “sleight of hand.” Distraction towards another mindset.

A good example is spirituality, which works particularly well for issues involving the Middle East conflict. I recently heard a reference to a sermon by Martin Luther King who cited Matthew 5:44 from the Christian Bible as a message to both sides of the conflict:

“Jesus says, ‘Today I give you a new teaching. You have heard that you should hate your enemies and love your friends. I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”

King then clarifies what he means by love. “Jesus doesn’t say to like your enemies, because that’s a sentimental thing. To like is to feel, to love is to decide.”

In a similar vein, Rabbi Sharon Brous gave a sermon that speaks of the Book of Genesis, B’tzelem Elohim, “in God’s own image.” I.e., All human beings are created equal. She goes on to say that, in the five Books of Moses (the Torah), the texts speak of the exodus from Egypt, where she recites, “Do not oppress the stranger. You were strangers in the land of Egypt. You know the heart of the stranger. And you are strangers in the land of Egypt. You must love the stranger, protect the stranger.”

My take on these sermons is that love is a decisiona rational process. You choose to love. We love many people in our lives, even though we may have disputes with them, or even dislike them at times. We may feel all sorts of emotions, but those are all ephemeral. To love someone is to transcend emotions, a rational process that perseveres through turbulent times.

This is an effective blending of emotions and rational thought, and can open the door to allowing oneself to engage in rational thought. From there, other rational ideas can seep in.

If read as literature rather than scripture, holy texts are not too different from modern psychology: reasoned, rational explanations of the human condition–both bad and good–told as stories (that’s open to interpretation).

If spirituality and scripture aren’t your thing, look to other sources. In my article, “Why I Haven’t Died Yet: My Fifty Years with Diabetes”, I describe the technique I use, described by psychologist Brian Little’s concept of “free traits”. By “free,” he’s referring to traits that may be inherent to our natures, but they are “free” in that they can be curtailed when something is important to you — a “core project.”

As I explain in my article, my personal core project is the desire to one day pick up future grandchildren, which I can only do if my diabetes is under control. I don’t want to lifelessly look at them from a hospital bed with tubes keeping me alive as drool drips from the corner of my mouth. This motivation has nothing to do with managing diabetes, but it does help me get past my emotional barriers about diabetes so I can move forward.

Working through trauma requires finding a balance between emotions and reason. To do so, find a narrative that works for you, so long as it avoids motivated reasoning. Don’t avoid your emotions–expand them. Every story is a human story, and every human story is one we’ve heard before, just couched in a different form, with different actors and circumstances. One of these will help you find a way to bypass the emotional barriers, and that’s when the balance will come.