Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort of self-image colliding with reality. Such collisions are inevitable, as self-image tends to be based on values – what is most important to you – while reality tends to be created around behavioral choices, expectations and commitments in the world around us.
Psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ to describe the uncomfortable tension we feel when we experience conflicting thoughts or beliefs (cognitions) within ourselves, or when we encounter behavior that is opposed to our beliefs.
For example, if someone believes that they are not racist, but then discriminates against another based on race, this confronts the discriminator with the discomfort of facing that their behavior is in fact racist. To escape this discomfort, the discriminator may rationalize their behavior on some other grounds, no matter how obtuse, but which allows them to hold on to their otherwise discredited belief.
Not everyone feels cognitive dissonance to the same degree. People with a higher need for consistency and certainty in their lives usually feel the effects of cognitive dissonance more than those who have a lesser need for such consistency.
To release the tension between two opposing cognitions, we can take one of three actions:
- Justify our behavior by changing the conflicting cognition;
- Ignore the dissonance by diverting our attention to new issues; or
- Minimize the dissonance by changing our behavior.
While cognitive dissonance happens to all of us, it is HOW we respond, that determines whether we evolve through expanded understanding or whether we devolve into a reactionary, limiting stance.
Unconscious strategies can serve as temporary coping mechanisms, but will not result in optimal long-term solutions. To optimally resolve cognitive dissonance, we need to take conscious action.
Unconscious Coping Strategies
Some unconscious strategies often used to cope with cognitive dissonance, include:
- Avoidance– avoiding information that leads to dissonance by avoiding discussion of emotionally charged topics.
- Distortion– deleting or distorting facts and beliefs to reduce dissonance.
- Distraction – distract oneself from uncomfortable issues by focusing on other issues.
- Confirmation– exercising selective bias by embracing information that confirms or bolsters one’s own cognitions while ignoring other, verifiable facts.
- Reassurance– looking for reassurance from others that one’s cognitions are correct and OK.
- Re-valuation– changing the importance of existing or new cognitions to reduce inner dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is a formidable adversary that can destroy good judgment. But this is something we must overcome as individuals if we wish to grow and mature.
A huge part of combating cognitive dissonance is learning how to navigate from outdated worldviews and limiting belief systems to updated ones where we expand our understanding and grow in maturity. That transition takes effort, but the alternative is worse – delusion and stagnation.
Healthy Coping Strategies
Here are seven healthy strategies for overcoming cognitive dissonance in ways that empower and lead to personal growth:
- Question Everything
The first step in overcoming cognitive dissonance is to go deeper; questioning our own values, motives, desires and expectations. We may not have answers to the dissonant issues yet, but cognitive dissonance offers us a chance to review our own principles. When we do so honestly, we can release those that no longer serve us, update our outdated frames of reference, and recommit to our core values. This willingness to question ourselves as well as the dissonance outside of us, forms the foundation for personal growth.
- Comfort vs. Accomplishment
Human beings are absurdly insecure. We tend to cling to comfort and avoid discomfort to feel safe and secure. Ironically, comfort is the enemy of accomplishment. It’s at the edge of our comfort zone where true growth is achieved: the place where we question our cultural conditioning, beliefs and ideas. When we muster the courage question our own tightly-held beliefs, we stretch our comfort zone until we become more adaptable and fluid in our living.
- Live and Let Live
In a world of rampant anti-intellectualism and mindless trolls hell-bent on attacking the Other, we can find personal freedom by recognizing that we need not change another’s belief systems in order to feel safe. In fact, it takes all kinds to make a world, and the sum of diversity is richer than the individual aspects that comprise it. When we recognize that we do not gain stature by chopping off another’s legs, we become more tolerant of the endless variety of belief systems that make up society.
- Celebrate Uniqueness
Personal freedom lies in recognizing that we are limitless souls experiencing life in a dualistic Universe. When we recognize the uniqueness of each soul sharing this human experience, we find the equanimity to celebrate the uniqueness of each life, no matter how different, without the need to judge or change them. It also frees us to celebrate and develop our unique gifts and talents as a gift to ourselves, the world and our Creator.
- Harness Dissonance for Growth
We can learn to harness our cognitive dissonance as a tool for growth instead of seeing it as a threat to comfort. Indeed, a rough road often leads to greatness. One of the ways to turn perceived threats into opportunities, is to ask ourselves about a challenge, “How can this be useful?” Rather than resist the challenge, we can look for ways to use it as a stepping stone for growth.
- Find the Humor
Humor and joy are powerful tools to help us escape the intensity of cognitive dissonance. Anthropologist Joseph Campbell said, “Find a place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.” When we learn to poke fun at our own fears and failings, it sets us free to find joy. Comedians use this principle well by ridiculing the very things which others take too seriously. Robert Frost quipped, “Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee, and I’ll forgive Thy great big joke on me.”
- Get Off The Hamster Wheel
There’s an awful dread that comes with knowing that we are fallible, prone-to-mistakes, and imperfect mortal beings; but there is also a kind of awe-inspiring beauty to it. The idea that we can learn from our mistakes; that we can transform pain into knowledge, anger into courage, and loss into love, is at the heart of the soul’s journey.
To fully participate in this journey, we need to actively participate in shedding the habits and limiting beliefs that have kept us running on the hamster wheel of life without any point of arrival. The change that needs to happen is not outside of us; it starts within. As Gandhi said, we need to BE the change we wish to see in the world. The more we use the discomfort of cognitive dissonance as a sharpening stone to hone our core values, beliefs and truths, the more we will experience inner peace, regardless of the outer challenges we face.
The choice to courageously deal with obstacles is at the heart of personal growth work. Cognitive dissonance can actually help us mature.
As dissonance arises, we can face it head-on. We can work at getting a clear sense of what has changed in our environment and how best to respond. We can recommit to our truth and values despite the dissonance it evokes, and determine to hold our space as unique souls until the tide turns.
About the author
©Copyright Ada Porat. For more information, visit http://www.adaporat.com. This article may be freely distributed in whole or in part, provided there is no charge for it and this notice is attached.