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Cognitive Dissonance


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Dissonance sounds negative, like being dissed (acting or speaking in a disrespectful way toward others). At least that is what comes to mind for me when I hear that word. I don’t even immediately hear the word cognitive before it, my mind directly jumps to dissonance. In the phrase cognitive dissonance, dissonance is used to mean the inconsistency between the beliefs one holds or between one’s actions and one’s beliefs. Add the word cognitive, meaning–pertaining to the act or process of knowing, perceiving, remembering, etc. So, combining the words into the phrase cognitive dissonance based on the two individual definitions I come to a single definition–knowing or perceiving the inconsistency between what one believes and what one does.

According to Wikipedia “In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort experienced when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions.” On psychology site it states “The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the feeling of discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs.” Basically the same definition, with a little more specific examples of cognitions. also states: “When there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviors, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance.” So, what must change? Either our belief or our behavior must change. We must decide if our belief is unrealistic, too extreme to be possible to attain, is it our belief or is it someone else’s that we have been forced or coerced into accepting? Or, we must change our behavior so both our belief and behavior are in line with one another. An important factor when looking at this is that our behavior does not have to be 100% in line with our belief. Maybe 80% is sufficient. Maybe 90% or even only 60%. Remember perfection is not possible, if it were, there would be no reason to be here on earth. Only one person on this earth has been perfect.

By virtue of my religion which I believe in, I should not drink, period. there is not a clause in it that says only on special occasions, or one drink a week is ok, or when you go out with friends go ahead and drink because it is socially acceptable to do so. Any time I take a drink, I cause cognitive dissonance. My behavior (taking a drink) is not aligned with my belief (that I should not drink at all). In order to resolve the dissonance I either must not drink or change how I feel about drinking. In this example the answer is black and white. I will or I will not drink, unless for example, I change my belief to 1 drink per week is ok. Only after changing my belief will I not cause cognitive dissonance as long as I have 1 drink or less per week.

I believe that for my health I should exercise 5 days a week for an hour each day. If I look at this belief and say that 45 minutes one day would cause me to have failed to meet my belief I will cause myself to feel cognitive dissonance. Is it necessary to cause this discomfort over 15 minutes? I don’t think so. I am happy with achieving 75% to 80% of this goal. In my life this doesn’t have to be black and white, there is gray area here. What if I only do 40% of the goal/belief? I am learning it is not the end of the world and next week I will try to do better. My discomfort is there when I only meet 40%, but at a lower level.

You do not have to have a mental illness to have cognitive dissonance in your life. Everyone does, whether it is recognized or not. I am acutely aware of it because of how my brain sees and interprets things due to my mental illnesses. I have dissonance that is out of proportion to the general population. My world is so black and white, I expect so much from myself, too much in fact. I experience discomfort at the slightest “infraction”. A level of discomfort so high that I cannot function, I have severe panic attacks, I beat myself up mentally and withdraw from the world.

A lot of my cognitive dissonance is directly related to my cognitive distortions. From feeling shame when it is not necessary. This raises my stress level exponentially.

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