All of us face conflict in life. This isn't just in relationships or at work or somewhere else in the world around you. You have conflicts within yourself. The fancy psychology term for this is cognitive dissonance.
cog·ni·tive dis·so·nance /ˈkäɡnədiv ˈdisənəns/ (noun PSYCHOLOGY)
The state of having inconsistent or incompatible thoughts, beliefs or attitudes; especially as they relate to making choices.
You experience cognitive dissonance in a variety of ways and to different degrees. You can't make up your mind. You feel stuck. You're confused. You're angry because things shouldn't be this way. You start avoiding things. You get stressed out and start doing useless, random or self-destructive things. You start bargaining with yourself. You decide to do something and then keep putting it off. What can you do about it? You can start by recognizing it's happening and using a few simple strategies.
How you typically handle dissonance is part of your personality and your style. So, let's take a look at some common patterns and you can figure out which ones fit you at different times. Once you know this you can use a good strategy to deal with it. This sounds easy, but in practice it still takes work to keep moving. Knowing it's happening and knowing what you should do about it can turn into more cognitive dissonance if you let it.
Everyday Examples of Dissonance
- "Cold Feet" – You were planning to do something important. Now, you're having a hard time getting started or following through.
- A "Bad Situation" – When you think about your job, relationship or some other difficult aspect of your life, you feel stuck. All your options feel bad. You think anything you do will likely backfire. You want to do something but feel like you can't.
- Making a "Big Choice" – Any time you find yourself answering questions like: "Is it the right one?," "Does it cost too much?" or "Am I getting ripped off?"
- "I'm supposed to/should/have to _____, but I don't feel like it/have to/want to." or "They don't deserve it. They've been _____ to me."
- "Am I being selfish?" or "Am I doing enough?
- "They hurt me. I'm very angry. I have to forgive them." or "They hurt me. I'm very angry. I still love them."
- "They hurt me. I should do something about it…. It was really my fault. I shouldn't have _____."
- You find yourself ignoring, "forgetting," "freezing," or becoming depressed, apathetic and doing nothing.
- You find yourself getting agitated and doing useless, random or counterproductive things.
- You're distracting yourself with drugs, alcohol, eating, sex, shopping, binge watching, gaming and so on.
- You're bargaining with yourself about doing or not doing something. You're trying to motivate yourself to do something you don't like or don't want to do.
- "This isn't OK. I can't think of anything that won't make this worse."
- "I should be able to expect _____." (Behavior, help, "love," favors, etc.)
- "I love _____. But this isn't OK."
- I'm a good person. I'm so messed up and can't do anything right."
- "I can't handle this. This is too much. I have to do something. Nobody will help me."
- "Just leave it alone. It'll go away. Maybe somebody else will fix it."
A few positive counter examples:
- "I need to be my own best friend."
- "There is something I can do to get started."
- "This keeps happening." or "This keeps coming up."
Handling Cognitive Dissonance
When you recognize that cognitive dissonance is making life difficult for you, you can start working through it in a way that helps resolve it rather than postpone it for a little while. The basic goal is to weaken or strengthen one or the other belief/value or add a stronger one so you can take action or make a decision. Remember, some ways of handling dissonance resolve it and other, often tempting ones, just postpone it.
Here's a flexible way through:
- Clarify the "sides."Think about how to "title" the thoughts that are creating the dissonance.
- Decide what the sides "mean." Thinks about feelings, values, beliefs and attitudes that go with each side. Don't try to decide how "good" or "bad" they are. Just pay attention to what they are. You're getting to know yourself better and being judgmental isn't going to help you. Being judgmental creates more dissonance.
- Decide if there are other considerations. Take some time to build a bigger picture.
- Are there a few other thoughts and feeling to consider?
- Are there other ways to think about the sides? How can you use other words to express them "better"? Is there a less emotional way? How do your feelings and attitude change when you do this? Is there a more "accurate" way to talk about the sides?
- How are your feelings shifting? As you are working through this, are you feeling tempted to escape, ignore or engage in some sort of "coping" rather than resolve things? Are you tempted to blame, attack or start thinking like a victim? What are you focusing on as a way out?
What Is a Good Question?
We've talked about questions several times over the weeks. You can make your week better by selecting one or two of the questions that follow and writing out your thoughts and feelings about them over the next few days. Knowing yourself is really a start to knowing others. Caring about your own thoughts and feelings can also be a start to caring more about others. Making progress with both of these can reduce some kinds of cognitive dissonance.
Good questions help you see things in a new way. They give you hope and a sense you can make a difference. Poor questions leave you feeling stuck and going in circles with anger, resentment, a critical attitude or helplessness, anxiety and depression.
Good questions also look for ways to build relationships and understand others compassionately. We look for the truth in what others say, even when they say it very badly and give them the benefit of the doubt. We also ask questions that help us understand their point of view, needs, expectations and boundaries.
Some Questions to Consider
- Are you asking yourself good questions regularly? How about when things aren't going too well? What good questions have you asked yourself today?
- Are you healthy enough to feel good reliably? Do you get enough sleep, eat reasonably well and stay physically active? Remember our thoughts and feelings will tend to line up with our bodies. You don't need to make big changes to feel significant benefits.
- Are you paying attention to the things that you do or tolerate that tend to make you unhappy?
- Do you tend to be angry, depressed or preoccupied with how you or others are doing? Are you analyzing or overanalyzing yourself, your situation or others? Are you ruminating on the past or what might have been?
- Are you focusing on what has just happened or is currently going on and what it might mean (without being negative or judgmental)?
- Are you trying to figure out what you want, what is important to you, what your boundaries and values are or where you want to go from here?
- Are you trying to figure out another person or group's interests, what's important to them or understand where they are coming from or where they want to go?
- How much do you pay attention to how you're thinking and feeling? How's your "meta-cognition" doing?
- How stuck are you in your thoughts and feelings when things aren't going well? How easy is it for you separate your thoughts and feelings from your choices and behavior? How tough is it to do the "right thing," keep your values or long-term goals in mind when things aren't going well?
- Do your "bigger" more difficult thoughts and feelings help you get started in the right direction, keep you stuck, going around in circles, or going nowhere at all?
- What are you resisting, not doing or ignoring?
- What could you do today (and going forward) to have a few minutes of couple time before bed?
- What could you do today to be a better you or learn about being a better you? What are you willing to work on in yourself?
- What goals are you currently working toward? Where would you like to be a year or so from now?
- What good or useful things have you learned about the most important people in your life in the last few days?
- What are you and your significant other willing to work on together?
- What could you do today to start building trust and positive regard with the people around you?
Marilee Adams, Ph.D. and Marshall Goldsmith, Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 12 Powerful Tools for Leadership, Coaching, and Life, 3rd Ed. (2016)
Louise Evans, 5 Chairs 5 Choices: Own Your Behaviours, Master Your Communication, Determine Your Success (2016)
Robert Shemin and Hugh O. Stewart, The Magic of High-Quality Questions: A Recipe for Success in Business, in Relationships, in Life (2011)
Quotes for the Week
Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.
Our lives are shaped by the questions we ask. Good questions lead to good outcomes. Bad questions lead to bad outcomes.
Shannon L. Alder
Courage doesn't happen when you have all the answers. It happens when you are ready to face the questions you have been avoiding your whole life.
William S. Burroughs
Your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer.
At the end of the day, the questions we ask of ourselves determine the type of people that we will become.
Prayer for the Week
Help me this week to begin to ask better questions about myself, my situations and what I want for myself and those I care about. I want to pay attention so that I can move forward consistently and start making my life and relationships happier and healthier. I really want to understand others better. I want to ask them better questions and really listen to their answers. I want more insight into how they are in some ways like me and yet so different. Amen.