Why We All Have Cognitive Dissonance

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cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable internal feelings a person experiences when they have two contradicting beliefs. One belief might have been something they have felt for a long time. The contradicting idea can come along when the person is provided with new evidence that does not fit the original belief. For example, imagine an individual is raised to believe divorce is wrong and that couples should work to stay married at all costs. However, they witness their sister living in an abusive marriage to her husband. The person might feel a desire for their sister to be safe, away from her husband. Cognitive dissonance could come from the new experiences contradicting her original belief that divorce is wrong and couples should work to stay married no matter what. This is an extreme example but can provide an idea of what cognitive dissonance can look like.

It can be extremely unsettling when we experience a situation like the example above. We all have our own values, beliefs, and ideas. Some of those beliefs can become ingrained in us at a small age and become part of our identity. When those beliefs are challenged, even with compelling evidence, it can be extremely difficult. For some of us, it can challenge our identity. It can even turn our whole world upside down. Think about the example above. If we have beliefs we feel deeply to the point where feel it to be almost absolute truth, when those truths are challenged, it can be devastating. Suddenly, the cracks can seem to form in a foundation we were once certain of. It can create doubt and doubt can create turmoil within us.

The psychologist Carl Rogers focused part of his therapy on the concept of congruency. Our ideal self is reflected by our behaviors. Simply put what we feel and think on the inside about ourselves and who they want to be lines up with what we portray to the outside world. Carl Rogers described how essential congruence is in terms of our self-worth. When we are congruent people, we have a better sense of self and experience higher self-worth. When cognitive dissonance exists, it can suddenly create a sense that we lack some congruency. We feel that parts of ourselves cannot agree on what we think and feel. If we become uncertain about what we think and feel, we can find it difficult to understand how we want to portray ourselves to the world. If we choose one or the other, a part of us might begin to feel unheard or even betrayed. The lack of congruency we can feel from something like cognitive dissonance can begin to negatively impact our self-worth.

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All of us experience this to some extent especially as we age. When we are young, we develop the thoughts and ideas, typically speaking, of those who are a major part of our upbringing like family, mentors, and teachers. Once we become independent and enter the world on our own, we are often overwhelmed by different perspectives and opinions that challenge our long-held beliefs. Sometimes, these challenges do not affect us much. However, we are not just vanilla, one-note people. We are complicated human beings who hold a vast amount of ideas, feelings, and beliefs. There will be moments in our lives where something will hit us hard, resulting in cognitive dissonance. We will experience a lack of congruency and it will be difficult. While it is hard and even painful at times, it is a part of our personal journeys. As we work through those moments of cognitive dissonance, we often can come through the other side a better version of ourselves.

Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant in sports psychology.  Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.