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.