The more you ignore it, the cooler you look

The more you ignore it, the cooler you look -

I’ve been thinking a lot about cognitive dissonance lately.

I’m not a psychologist so I’m sure I am bastardizing the concept a bit, but basically cognitive dissonance is the discomfort involved in holding conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. A simple example would be the contrast between what you believe (stealing is wrong) and what you do (I steal my neighbour’s newspaper every day). This mismatch causes immense psychological distress, and psychologists theorize that human beings are driven to reconcile this sort of internal disharmony.

But, humans are also lazy. Thus, conflicts between belief and behaviour often occur because acting in opposition to your beliefs is often easier than acting in accordance with them. So, instead of getting dressed, going outside, walking to the corner store and paying for a copy of the Globe and Mail, you sneak next door and nab your neighbours before she wakes up. It’s easy, yes, but now you are stuck with two contradictory realities, one in which you believe stealing is wrong, and one in which you steal.

Sometimes cognitive dissonance is felt as guilt, or the voice of our conscience (Hi, Jiminy Cricket!) It’s that shitty, sinking feeling you get when you’ve doing something wrong and you know it. Guilt is an extremely unpleasant feeling and so we usually try to get rid of it.  The best way to get rid of the guilt – and the dissonance – is to change the behaviour (stop stealing). Boom! Done!

But, when we are unwilling to stop (because it takes too much work , it’s inconvenient, or impossible), we are still driven to reduce the dissonance. We continue to steal but we also continue to feel shitty about stealing – in order to go on like this we need to massage our beliefs a bit to bring these two things in line.

So, we rationalize. We convince ourselves that what we are doing isn’t really that wrong. “My neighbour’s a jerk. She has a dumb face and I’m almost positive I saw her kick a squirrel one day. Sometimes the newspaper just sits there outside her door all day, I mean, she probably doesn’t even read it!”

By rationalizing we are able to focus on our own projections and ignore the fact that it doesn’t matter if the neighbour really is a horrible, illiterate, squirrel-kicking paper-waster (which she most likely isn’t), stealing the paper is still wrong.

We are capable of performing mind-numbing leaps of logic and rationale to convince ourselves (and often, others) that we aren’t wrong – it’s the system that’s wrong! The rules are wrong, the standards are wrong, the people judging us are wrong! Anything to avoid realizing that this uncomfortable feeling didn’t originate externally, it came from inside. From you.

One of the reasons cognitive dissonance is so disturbing is because one of the cornerstones of how we exist in the world is made up of the beliefs we choose to align ourselves with. Think about the characteristics you would use to describe an ideal mate: honest, trustworthy, compassionate, helpful. These are all based on our own internally-held belief systems: that it’s right to be honest, it’s important to be trustworthy, it is good to have compassion for others, and offer help when needed. We have these same views of ourselves, and when we witness our own actions (stealing) going against our values (honesty) it’s immensely upsetting, it threatens our sense of self and it is, above all, unsustainable.

And what do we do when it seems too hard to change the behavior, and it’s getting increasingly hard to rationalize it? Well, we avoid it. We retreat or distract or, in extreme cases, drink or drug or shut out everyone who wants to talk about it and suggest we should be doing otherwise.

OK! Truce! Long-winded pop-psychology intro over, I can’t believe you made it this far! The reason I’m sitting here writing a marathon post about an obscure psychological concept is that I’m back. And describing the idea of dissonance is the best way I could think of to explain where I feel I’m coming back from.

Ever since everything happened, I’ve been struggling with dissonance. My emotional state has been consistently one step removed from what I believed to be right.  Over the past six months my friends and family – and some of you – have told me how gracefully I have dealt with this. But it hasn’t always felt that way to me.

I’ve had many ugly moments. I recognize that this is pretty natural given what happened, but they still upset me because my feelings and actions were deeply at odds with who I am as a person.

I felt myself absolutely consumed with anger and hatred when I don’t think I’ve ever hated anyone before in my life. I wanted to lash out and hurt others as deeply and carelessly as they had hurt me, when I knew that it would just create more pain and, more importantly, it would never feel like enough. In the early months I’d lie in bed while Olive watched a seemingly endless stream of videos on my phone, when I’ve always been staunchly anti-TV for her.

I wasn’t the person I wanted to be, or the mom I wanted to be, and it was eating me up.

There was extreme discord between my beliefs and my feelings. I believe in compassion and understanding, but I felt hatred and anger. I believe in forgiveness, but I didn’t want to forgive (and, if I’m honest, I still don’t. This one needs time). I believe in being present and engaged with my daughter, but I was struggling to do so because being in the present was the absolute last place I wanted to be.

All of this was made tougher by the fact that it wasn’t just the initial event, it’s been an earthquake with a series of aftershocks. Each time I thought it was over I’d find something else out and it would throw me back into it again – hurt, angry, and feeling like a strange, wounded, venomous version of myself.

It was deeply uncomfortable, like seeing a stranger in the mirror when you look up expecting to see yourself. I couldn’t find a way to change it – the thoughts ran on this endless loop that I felt powerless to shut off.

So then I rationalized it: This is normal. This is understandable. This is what I need to be feeling right now in order to work through it.

(All true, by the way, but no matter who I heard this from it still didn’t change the fact that what I was feeling didn’t jive with my core self).

So then I tried avoiding it. I tried to block it out and keep myself endlessly busy just so I didn’t have to think about how I was feeling, just so I didn’t have to confront the fact that I’m not an angry person, but I often felt myself burning white-hot with rage. So I could ignore the fact that I’m not an inattentive mother but I sometimes found myself sitting Olive down to eat all by herself just so I could have twenty minutes alone.


In the past three weeks I have felt happier and more content than I have in a long, long time.

I’m back. And it feels fucking fantastic. This move has achieved what once seemed utterly impossible. It was a difficult decision to make for many reasons, but as each day passes and I see all of the people, places, and experiences that have opened up for me because of it I realize more and more that it was the best decision I could have possibly made.

I feel like myself again. I feel light and happy. I’m reading again, I’m writing again, I’m smiling again, the anger is gone, I’m being the mom Olive deserves- it feels good.

Even when the aftershocks come, as they continue to do, they don’t throw me as much. My reaction is muted, as though I am looking back at something instead of being in it. With this distance (real and figurative) I can simply smile and shake my head, wonder at how on earth this is seriously happening, and then just keep walking, without looking back.

Kind of like this.

(Do you enjoy Internet Blog posts that pair psychological mumbo-jumbo with Lonely Island songs? Me too!)

 (Also, given the subject matter here, I feel it is necessary to state that I have unequivocally NOT set fire to either people or property, nor caused any explosions. I will accept gold stars in the comments, thank you.)

Anyway, this was one of my trademark long-winded rambling posts which has all been to say what I could have said far more simply in just three words: Guys, I’m good.

I know some of this renewed energy may have come through in previous posts or copious Instagram photos, but I also felt it needed to be explicitly said. You have been such a support, and I know so many of you have felt this pain alongside with me, so I wanted to share the positive too.

Things are looking up! It’s sunny, it’s summer, and anything is possible.

Say it with me now: Namaste.

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  • Reply enchantedground May 3, 2015 at 11:03 PM

    I like the honesty of this post. I’m not one of the readers who is here for the environmental stuff. I’m here for the life-stuff, good or bad. I feel like when bad things happen, bloggers often tend to disappear or avoid the topic. I’m glad you’re talking about the reality of what you’re feeling, openly and honestly. I feel like I’ve been missing that from you blog lately, honestly (sorry — though I do realize it’s not all about me or about your readers, obviously). I hope this blog is therapeutic in a way though. I wonder if perhaps it could be, even more so, if you’d let it?
    Lastly, I’ve gone through a similar situation and the rage is indeed so troubling to feel and experience. We aren’t taught to experience rage. We aren’t really taught how to handle such intense emotions on the opposite side of the spectrum, are we?
    And it can take a really long time for those feelings to fade. It’s been two years for me, and I still feel… pangs. Much less often. But that first year… it was hell. I tried to speed up the process in any way I could. It didn’t really work. It just takes time. And when people tell you that (which they will, over and over) it sounds so false that you want to rage at them. But it’s true. That’s the curse and the blessing.

    • Reply sweetmadeleine May 3, 2015 at 11:32 PM

      I know exactly what you mean about bloggers disappearing – I remember thinking that when I used to visit my favourite blogs after the writer had a baby. It was the time I was most curious about (WTF happens when you go home with a newborn?!) but the demands of the baby meant posting was light- sometimes for months…Ack!

      This situation is different, but you’re right, I am finding it tough to write about. Sometimes I would like to want to write more openly, but it’s not entirely my story, and I am always aware of the people who might be reading it. Olive is also involved and when I write I try to imagine her 15-year-old-self reading it. I need to feel OK with whatever she might read. As time goes on, however, it becomes easier to write about. Thank you for your honesty (and for wading through the Eco-friendly babble in the meantime 🙂 )

  • Reply Steph Bardsley May 4, 2015 at 12:33 AM

    As someone with a master’s degree in psychology, I think you did a lovely job of describing cognitive dissonance.
    Much love to you and O as you continue on your journey. May it be better than you could ever dream.

    • Reply sweetmadeleine May 5, 2015 at 7:49 PM

      Oh thank god. I kept expecting someone to bust into the comments claiming I had totally misunderstood the basic concept 😉 Thanks, Steph!

  • Reply Saffron May 4, 2015 at 1:53 AM

    I am so happy that you are feeling yourself and happy again. I absolutely love your blog (found it through the infant sleep post) I love the honesty in a world of perfect Facebook (don’t get me wrong I do love a bit of Facebook!) and perfect social media posts. It just makes me realise like you said in another post a while ago that life isn’t perfect and bad things happen. I used to be a person (am probably still am a bit) who would run away at the slightest sign of trouble or when bad stuff happened would freak out or when all was good was just waiting for it too implode. But I’ve had a little bit of a rough time recently (all while becoming a new mum which has been amazing and also REALLY scary at the same time. Someone left me in charge of this little amazing person, who let that happen?) and I have had no choice but to get through it and this time LEARN about myself. And reading your blog has really helped. And I have also loved the pics of Olive, too cute! Good luck on your journey lady. It’s almost winter here (I live on the other side of the world) but I feel the same new season = new start. Anything is indeed possible! Namaste! Take care xx

  • Reply harriet May 4, 2015 at 3:07 AM

    Go girl xxxxxx

  • Reply Danica Godri Wrench May 4, 2015 at 8:18 AM

    I admire your strength and courage so much, Madeline. I found your blog through a friend who was reading it and sent me your infant sleep post. That post helped me so much and, as you said in that post, things have gotten much easier in the sleep department. Anyway, you are amazing and I applaud you for being so open with your readers about what you are dealing with. It is a beautiful gift you give others as many can relate to these things even if our circumstances are different. Thank you Namaste. ♡

  • Reply Inna May 4, 2015 at 8:56 AM

    You’re simply amazing, Madeleine (this was the first thought that popped into my mind after reading this)…and I am sure you will do great!.. With everything. And thanks for being real, it must be very hard. P.S. You shouldn’t be writing only eco-friendly books ( which is great btw, got it and following it)…You have so much more to offer…..xx

  • Reply Fernanda Vazquez May 4, 2015 at 2:54 PM

    Lots of love Madeleine, you are a great person, you are just “being human” and all kind of feelings as far as you don’t fire a person or a property is completely fine. Olive and we NEED You! xoxoxo

  • Reply Sam Pereira May 4, 2015 at 6:52 PM

    Oh what a relief! I’m so glad you’re starting to feel better, because frankly, worrying this much about a person I don’t know, and wanting to kill the person who hurt her – who I also don’t know – is just freaking me out! I think you’re writing about it really well too… you could have used this space to totally “diss him on the internet” (to paraphrase Destiny’s Child, Survivor) but you’ve kept a great balance, and your dignity! Just remember to be gentle with yourself. You’re doing great, and we’re all here routing for you.

  • Reply Angie May 5, 2015 at 2:19 AM

    You really are awesome. I too found you via the sleep post (you should charge people to read that thing – I have re-read it about 20 times…people DO care about infant sleep! We parents care..very very much!).
    Madeleine I have been willing you through this tough time and cheering on your progress – you have come so far in a short period, choosing intelligence over emotion alone – so impressive.
    Anyway, from my reading of your blog, some points:
    A) You write beautifully – graceful yet punchy. Love it.
    B) Your writing is most interesting/resonates with people most when you write about observations/growth from these shitty times.
    C) Other people are always going to be going through the same issues (no sleep, divorce)…leading to me to:
    D) You would sell a lot of books if you wrote one about this stuff!

    Very glad you are doing well – it’s inspiring. Peace and joy to you and your beautiful girl.

  • Reply aneasyworld May 5, 2015 at 12:48 PM

    YES! I am fist pumping for you. You fucking made it! PS. I bought both of the books you recommended for my SIL. We both cried when I gave them to her, but I know she’s going to be okay. X

    • Reply sweetmadeleine May 8, 2015 at 1:24 PM

      Oh, I hope she likes them, and they help a bit. Please tell her to email me if she wants to chat. xoxo

  • Reply Erin May 5, 2015 at 2:37 PM

    I don’t even know you (although I feel like I kind of do!) and I’m so proud of you. You are an amazing role model for your daughter. I can’t wait to read more about your adventures as you create this new life for the two of you. You’ve totally got this.

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