Overcoming Cognitive Dissonance

“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.” – psychiatrist, writer and philosopher Frantz Fanon

These wise words speak volumes about the ways in which most of us approach daily life events and the decisions we are called on to make as a result. When people are faced with the idea of putting aside their drug(s) of choice or habitual behaviors, they may fight them – either literally or symbolically – kicking and screaming.

When our choices become as familiar to us as our own name or face in the mirror, why would we want to relinquish them? We have ourselves convinced that we are somehow at least tolerably served by engaging in them. They have been our companions on the journey and yet we need to give some of them up, just as we would our baby blankets; as comforting as they might have been at one time. Remember when you were a kid and hid beneath the covers, thinking that if you couldn’t see others, then naturally, they couldn’t see you? Kind of like that.

Psychologist Leon Festinger coined the phrase “cognitive dissonance” and explained the theory simply: “Humans strive for internal consistency. When inconsistency (dissonance) is experienced, individuals largely become psychologically distressed.” His basic hypotheses are:

  1. “The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance.”
  2. “When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance.”

Perhaps this is part of the reason why in pre-contemplation of recovery, some will remain enmeshed in relationships that reinforce their prevalent beliefs. If you had an investment in maintaining a way of life, why would you be with people who were asking you to change?

Common Examples of Cognitive Dissonance

  • “I know that using drugs/drinking has cost me my license, job, relationships, freedom and health and yet I continue to use because it meets needs for socialization and keeps my emotions under control.”
  • “My partner is verbally, emotionally and physically abusive, but I stay because (s)he needs me and I really don’t have anywhere else to go and I don’t want to be alone.”
  • “I want to lose weight, but don’t really feel like going to the gym. I had a bad day and need a treat, like that chocolate-chip ice cream. I’ll exercise tomorrow instead.
  • “They are loud, obnoxious, racist, sexist and homophobic and when I leave there, I feel like I need to take a shower to rinse off the slimy feeling, but they’re my family, so how can I not visit them?”
  • “I need to quit smoking since it is an expensive, unhealthy habit and I wake up coughing every day. My doctor tells me that if I don’t stop, I could die. But I have been smoking since I was a teenager and it’s just too hard to quit.”

Healers Are Not Exempt

In my own life, a recent example brought the chickens home to roost. Friends and family had warned me to slow down and take care of myself, but I kept powering on. After a gym workout, I experienced jaw tightness and profuse sweating, then searing heartburn pain in my chest and back.

At that moment, I knew I was having a heart attack (although I prefer the euphemism “cardiac event”). Yet my immediate response was to call work and cancel with a client, then drive myself to the hospital, rationalizing that I would be okay. Enter potentially deadly and dangerous cognitive dissonance, since I put myself and anyone else on the road at risk. Maybe I was lacking oxygen to the brain?

At the ER, doctors installed a stent and got my blood flowing smoothly again. Now my new reality includes ongoing medication, rest, stress reduction, dietary change and visits to cardiac rehab in a few weeks. Ironically, those instructions are far easier than one major change that this recovering codependent caregiver needs to put into place. STOP… just stop the frenetic wheel spinning that has had me thinking that I need to be on duty 24/7, getting by on little sleep, exhibiting savior behavior and being a performance junkie. I will put the before and after pictures on my refrigerator to help prevent slipping back into my old ways.

Healer, heal thyself, indeed.

Ways of Reversing Cognitive Dissonance

Here are a few helpful strategies for challenging unproductive core beliefs:

  • Cost/Benefit Analysis – I have clients make a two-sided list of the ups and downs of maintaining their behaviors as a visual tool to see which side of the ledger is lengthier. Generally, the habitual choices have cost them more than any potential long-term benefit they could have experienced. If that doesn’t work, I then ask them to put options on a scale and see which weigh them down more.
  • Dragging the Chair – I have them imagine a chair piled high with their dysfunctional choices and then have them hook their ankle around the leg and attempt to drag it across the floor. Amazingly, it does feel too heavy to move.
  • If/Then — “If I do this, then ________ will likely occur.” The next sentence is “Do I really want that outcome?”
  • Best Case/Worst Case Scenario — “If I make this choice, what will be the best possible outcome? What could be the worst?”

What are some of the core beliefs you have that are odds with what you would like to change or know you need to change?

How would it be in your best interest to stop holding onto that which is holding on to you?

What would your new reality look like?

By Edie Weinstein

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One Response to Overcoming Cognitive Dissonance

  1. Avatar
    Judy Haas March 25, 2015 at 7:05 am #

    This is a concept I can definitely use with my group clients. I think too many therapists don’t use clinical terms like “cognitive dissonance” for fear of overwhelming clients by using jargon. So they go to the opposite extreme and “dumb down” concepts. This is insulting to many clients who are aware when it’s being done. This article has inspired me to define the term and the process for clients, during which discussion they can question whether or not this is something they are engaging in themselves.

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