Working with the Non-rational

“I know it’s irrational, but…”

“Stop it, you’re acting so irrational!”

“I can’t help being irrational!”

How often do you think, say or hear these types of comments? They’re common statements and sentiments, which reflect prevailing cultural attitudes regarding what is considered irrational. They also demonstrate the predominantly negative opinion of what is perceived as irrational. While the virtues of rationality are axiomatic, it is also important to avoid merely dismissing the irrational as inherently inferior. Appreciating the connection between rationality and irrationality, and how these two opposites can influence the other, is necessary in the development of greater perspective and insight. Furthermore, in a seemingly contradictory way, the more one can accept, understand, and give expression to irrationality, the more likely one is to behave in ways that are generally accepted as rational.

The tension between what is considered rational and irrational invariably emerges in the therapeutic process, whether in individual, couples, or group therapy. Generally, when this issue arises there is an innate valuing of what is deemed rational over what is deemed to be irrational. Frequently, the discomfort and judgement of what is perceived to be irrational results in the minimization and criticism of the behaviors, attitudes, emotions, or thoughts that are considered irrational. This tendency, however, misses the opportunity to understand what is connected to, underneath, or driving the irrational emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. It prevents the development of insight and the generation of meaning. Instead, if a compassionate and accepting approach can be taken toward irrationality, it is possible to more deeply understand what is trying to be communicated and expressed through the irrationality. This can bring about greater self-awareness and an improvement in communication and relationships.

Because the word irrational has such negative connotations associated with it, non-rational is a helpful substitute that distinguishes it from rational in a less judgmental and stigmatizing way. To engage in rational behavior is obviously very important and is an adaptive and socially necessary function. At the same time, it is also important to recognize this is not always the case. The non-rational is as much a part of human experience and psychological and emotional composition as rationality. This is a valuable reality to recognize, albeit one that we tend to deny. Once the non-rational dimensions of one’s nature and experience are accepted, they can then be explored and expressed in ways that promote self-understanding and creativity. Important and valuable components of human nature, such as emotion and imagination, are connected to the non-rational and can be accessed through accepting and working with this dimension of human experience.

So how does one actually “work with” the non-rational? There are really a limitless number of ways to work with and access the non-rational in healthy and socially adapted ways. Engaging in therapy is of course one way to do this. In the therapy room it is okay to allow the non-rational parts of oneself and one’s emotions to be expressed, seen, and heard. This opens the way to understanding these parts and experiences. Often participating in creative acts will provide some outlet for the non-rational to be expressed. Another profoundly useful methodology for accessing the non-rational is a practice the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung created called Active Imagination. The essential idea of Active Imagination is to allow the thinking/conscious mind to relax and to enter into a meditative state which allows elements of the unconscious to surface. These elements, whatever they might be for any individual person, are then expressed through some means such as image making (painting, drawing, etc.), writing or dialoging, dancing, etc. It is imperative, and often difficult, to truly let the judging and thinking mind relax enough to genuinely allow non-rational contents to emerge. However, when done it can be very powerful and healing. There is a lot of literature on Active Imagination and more information is also available on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_imagination

It is often the case that the more an individual or society distances and denies the non-rational elements of experience and being, the more energy and power the non-rational gathers. Eventually this spills over and results in an outburst or some behavior that is indeed non-rational, and that later brings embarrassment or regret. An alternate approach consists of accepting and recognizing that while we have the capacity for rationality, and should certainly strive for attitudes and behaviors that are rational, we also have a non-rational side that deserves to be tended to and heard. If we can be compassionate to the fact that we also have the capacity to behave in non-rational ways, we can be proactive in working with this side so that it has an avenue for healthy expression. This enables an adaptive and meaningful outlet for the non-rational and prevents it from being bottled-up and collecting increasing energy until there is a reactive episode and the contents of the non-rational world burst forth in a manner that is not helpful. Ultimately, if practices that allow for the contained expression of the non-rational can be developed and implemented, the overarching result is that the rational side of our nature is more reliably available to us in moments of stress or high emotion.