Ever wonder why you find yourself at the mercy of your impulses during the holidays? Why you find it so easy to say “yes,” to buying things you don’t have money for or eating and drinking beyond what you know would be better for you in the long run?   

It’s the fault of our multi-talented brain that has a choice when it comes to making decisions. We can either choose from two different locations in the brain; the rational brain or the emotional brain. Each brain has a different decision-making function which allows us to come at reasoning in two distinct ways. One of the functions decides based on logic, objective rationale and the consideration of consequences. The other function decides on feelings and emotions, impulses, and a desire for instant gratification.   

Our rational brain is meant to communicate and negotiate with our emotional brain and help with the management of automatic impulses. This part of the brain, which contains our “executive function” is responsible for the management of aggression and impulses, emotional regulation, self-regulation, planning, reasoning, and social skills. It is the last to develop as we have to build neural pathways between our emotional and rational brains, so they communicate with each other. When we don’t develop our executive function so that it manages our impulses and allows us to delay gratification, we are at its mercy. 

Triggering Events 

During periods of prolonged stress, overwork, conflict or other situations our emotional brain gets triggered. The holiday season for many is a time of heightened stress, causing us to allow our emotions to take charge and decide how we interpret reality. We all have stories we tell ourselves when we are stressed or triggered and we can let our self-protective persona take over and just survive the holidays.  

When we let our emotional reactions cloud our thoughts by creating a type of fuzzy logic where we convince ourselves we can do whatever we want because after all, we can always start fresh in January, it paves the path to impulsive eating, drinking, spending money and getting triggered by family or friends the same way we might have in past years. It doesn’t allow us to create the holiday we want to have.  

When it comes to holiday decision making, emotional reasoning tends to overpower much of what we know to be in our best interest. Why?  Because emotional reasoning requires less effort than logic. Logical reasoning requires cognitive effort, meaning we have to think about it, whereas emotional reasoning is automatic. And our brain tends to do whatever takes the least effort. That’s why managing our stress, getting to know our triggers, recognizing our stories are so critical to not falling prey to our emotional reasoning.  

Examples of Emotional Reasoning 

Here are some Holiday Emotional Reasoning examples: 

  • “I am so full, I really shouldn’t have dessert. I worked so hard to lose that 15 pounds. Oh, but it looks so good. I’ll just sample a few bites of each dessert. That will be less calories.”  
  • “I feel guilty because I didn’t spend as much money this year as I have in previous years. I should buy more.”  
  • “I feel disappointed in the present my mom bought me. I thought she knew me better. She always gets others such perfect presents. I guess she doesn’t really love me the same way.”   
  • “I feel afraid, so I must be picking up on someone’s negativity. I am not going to dinner with my friends because I don’t feel safe.”  
  • “I’ll just have one more drink. I am having so much fun, I know it won’t affect my driving.”

Everyone uses emotional reasoning. Even when we seem perfectly reasonable, we can be tricking ourselves so that we can do what we feel like or to diminish difficult emotions like anxiety, guilt, loneliness, etc. If your emotions are hijacking your rational brain, and dictate your thoughts and actions here are a few things to consider.   

  • Become aware of how you manipulate yourself by letting your stories and emotions take over your thoughts and creating distress for you. Ask yourself: “Is what I’m focusing on fact, or is it a story I’ve created in my mind?” 
  • Your feelings don’t represent what you are worth. Just because you feel “stupid” doesn’t mean you are. Or if you feel “inadequate” doesn’t mean you are. These value judgements make us feel devalued. Catch yourself telling yourself devaluing, judgmental things about yourself and give yourself a pep talk instead. 
  • When you find yourself being hijacked by your emotions, take a step back and think about what you’d tell a friend or family member if they were feeling the same, and do the same for yourself.  
  • Recognize that a feeling is a way of communicating information and learn to interpret its meaning. Just because you are feeling something doesn’t mean you have to pay attention to it.  
  • Recognize that feelings in themselves are not right or wrong or problematic. However, the impulse to act on them in a manner that brings undesirable outcomes is a problem.  
  • Learn to distinguish between what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling. Also, it’s important to know the difference between judgments, pseudo feelings and actual emotional experiences. Talk your feelings out with a close friend to get some objectivity. 
  • Own your feelings and take responsibility for them. Recognize that no one “makes” you feel the way you do. While others can trigger our behavior, they are not the cause of us having a binge because we didn’t feel adequately appreciated by family members. Own your triggers and work at comforting yourself. 

Controlling our impulses can often be difficult at the best of times. But during the holiday season, it can be particularly challenging. Stay determined to let your executive function take charge during the holidays. Stay planful and stay connected to your feelings so that you can use them to express love, gratitude and appreciation for all that you have for all those you love. Including yourself.    


Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations.  They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals.

As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.

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