Your depression and anxiety symptoms amped up. Wisely, you reviewed your triggers to make adjustments. But what if there’s a trigger you aren’t aware of? Cognitive dissonance deserves a long hard look.

Have you ever experienced an overwhelming feeling of emptiness, darkness, anxiety, or tension – and couldn’t figure out why?

Two weeks ago I posted “‘Am I self-sabotaging?’ 15 signs to look for.” Included in causes is cognitive dissonance. Since it can generate so much misery, we need to talk about it. What exactly is this potentially destructive force?

What is cognitive dissonance?

To make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s kick things off with a couple of definitions…

  • Cognitive: Relating to cognition, the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. It generates perceptions, intuition, beliefs, feelings, and behavior.
  • Dissonance: The tension resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements.

Cognitive dissonance (CD), then, is the mental discomfort and psychological stress we experience when we hold two or more contradictory ideas, values, or beliefs.

Jessica’s predicament

How ‘bout an example… Jessica found out her spouse, Henry, is having an affair. When confronted, he said it isn’t the first one and he wouldn’t commit to ending it. Jessica’s values tell her Henry’s behavior is deplorable, and a separation or divorce is justifiable. However, she believes vows are made to be kept. The contradiction of values and beliefs has left Jessica anxious and depressed. Now, in Jessica’s case an identifiable stressor is generating the CD. But never forget, an unidentifiable stressor can be the culprit as well.

Cognitive dissonance: The nuts and bolts

what is cognitive dissonance

“I had no idea what cognitive dissonance was, much less that it was a major trigger.”

Psychologist Dr. Leon Festinger got the CD ball rolling in 1957. He submitted that humans strive for “psychological consistency” between their personal expectations of life and how life actually plays out. To function within the context of the expectation of consistency in the real world, dissonance reduction is a necessity. It’s the only way we can continually align cognitions – perceptions of the world – with actions.

Psychologically uncomfortable

According to Festinger, when we experience internal inconsistency, we become psychologically uncomfortable – the mental discomfort and psychological stress we talked about earlier. And, again, we may be totally unaware of what’s generating our CD. I mean, think about it. Have you ever experienced an overwhelming feeling of emptiness, darkness, anxiety, or tension – and couldn’t figure out why? Consider CD.

How to manage cognitive dissonance

When we gain insight into the fact that CD is causing major problems in our lives – and we’ve finally had enough – it’s time to roll up our sleeves and do something about it. Here are some immediate reduction techniques, within the context of Jessica’s predicament…

  • Change the cognition or behavior: “In this case, maybe I can be flexible with my dedication to my vows.”
  • Justify the cognition or behavior by changing the conflicting cognition: “Given Henry’s behavior, it’s okay to at least learn about my legal options.”
  • Justify the behavior or the cognition by adding new cognitions: “You know, it really is time to feel good about myself again.”
  • Ignore or deny information that conflicts with existing beliefs: “My therapist says my commitment to my vows is too rigid. I told her I didn’t want to hear it anymore.”

What do you think? Anything jump out at you about the last one?

Half-truths, lies, and denial

When we’re invested in a given perspective and confronted with disconfirming evidence, we’ll likely devote great energy to justify holding on to the challenged perspective. Half-truths, lies, denial, ignoring trustworthy sources of information – we’re apt to use them when we need to…

  • Explain inexplicable feelings
  • Minimize the regret of choices we’ve made and can’t take back
  • Justify rejection of anything that’s opposed to our views
  • Align our perceptions of a person with our behavior towards them
  • Reaffirm held beliefs

And that’s the bottom-line truth.

That long hard look

Like most of us dealing with anxiety or depression, you’re probably aware of your triggers. Great, so you know where to look when symptoms amp up. Are you sure about that? Cover all your bases, okay? When it comes to the causes of our mental discomfort and psychological distress, we need to be curious and creative at all times. Be sure to take a hard look at cognitive dissonance. Mentioned it earlier, why not give it a read? “‘Am I self-sabotaging?’ 15 signs to look for” If you’re looking for more Chipur mood and anxiety info and inspiration articles, you know that’s fine by me. Peruse the titles.

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