Posted by: chrismaser | November 12, 2010


To rationalize in the sense of a coping mechanism is to devise self-satisfying, but incorrect, reasons for one’s behavior. For example, I’ve been told to do something in my job with which I ethically disagree, but if I don’t comply, I’ll lose my job—a real possibility in days of corporate/political administrations. So, I rationalize that I can do more good by keeping my job and working unobtrusively for change on the inside of the agency than I can by getting myself fired for sticking openly to my beliefs. In so doing, I intellectually rationalize the “okayness” of the order and comply with it, but I’ve simultaneously repressed the honesty of my feelings. I’ve thus murdered a vital, creative part of myself.

A few years ago, I put on a workshop for the Forest Service fuels managers who, simplistically stated, are those people who help control and prevent forest fires. I spent an entire day with them, seventy-four men and one woman. We talked about forest ecology, fire ecology, Forest Service policy with respect to the management of ecosystems and fire, and human dynamics.

Finally, toward the end of the day, I said, “Now turn off your minds. I don’t care about what you think. I want to know how you feel about what you’re doing.


Then an older gentleman got up and said, “I’m going to retire in about six months, and damn it, I don’t feel good about what I’m doing. I haven’t for some time now.

It turned out that was the general feeling of the audience. So then I asked: “If you don’t feel good about what you’re doing, why are you doing it?” The answers had the tenor: I do it, because it’s Forest Service policy. I can rationalize its being okay in terms of policy and politics if I don’t examine it too much. It may sound good, but now that you’ve asked, it doesn’t feel good.

Our truth is how we feel about something, not what we think about it. Those seventy-five folks could no longer just think—rationalize—that something was okay, when in fact it wasn’t. From that day on they’d have to check their feelings at some level, and if they were untrue to their feelings, they’d have to deal with a moral and ethical crisis.

Finally, “can’t” is a great word in the arsenal of rationalization, so it’s not surprising that it’s one of the favorite words in the federal government. What it means is: Just because your request is explicitly permissible in the personnel manual has nothing to do with the fact that I perceive your request as a risk, and there’s no way I’m taking a chance on doing something for you, whatever it is, for which I might be held accountable.


Series on Resistance to Change:

• Our Institutionalized Resistance To Change

• My Introduction To An Agency

• The Inception Of An Agency

• Stages In The Cycle Of An Agency

• When Dysfunction/Malfunction Creeps In

• Homeostatic Defense

• Coping Mechanisms

• Coping Mechanisms: Anger And Aggression

• Coping Mechanisms: Appraisal

• Coping Mechanisms: Defensiveness

• Coping Mechanisms: Denial

• Coping Mechanisms: Displacement

• Coping Mechanisms: Filters

• Coping Mechanisms: Projection

• Coping Mechanisms: Repression

• Coping Mechanisms: Resistance

• Breaking The Dysfunctional Cycle

• From Where I Stand

Text © by Chris Maser 2010. All rights reserved.

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This article is excerpted from my 1994 book, Sustainable Forestry: Philosophy, Science, and Economics. St. Lucie Press, Boca Raton, FL. 373 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.

If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.


  1. The theme is based on Ocean Mists, a selection from WordPress, however, the mountain image is a photograph I took in the Himalayas in 1996 while conducting ecological/medical research.

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