It’s not very often that your whole world changes. When things happen that don’t line up with your entire view of the world, you automatically go into a state of panic and stress. This disharmony is something our bodies and minds actively strive to avoid, so typically when our beliefs are challenged, we find a way to make it all feel ok. The human body is creepily smart, and it’s incredible what lengths it will go to in order to try and help us feel settled.
Cognitive dissonance has become absolutely fascinating to me recently. I can look back on the last few months and recognize myself going through it at different points, and now I can clearly see others experiencing it too. It’s insane how your perspective can change once you break down a wall or three hundred.
According to Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, there are three main ways we try to make the uncomfortable (often painful) feelings that arise when our beliefs are challenged go away:
- We focus more on things that support our existing beliefs.
- We minimize the importance of the conflicting belief. (So if you smoke but you find out it’s bad for you, you rationalize that the stress-relief it provides probably outweighs the negative health risks.)
- We change the conflicting belief so that it’s consistent with our other beliefs.
#3 is the apparently the most effective way of reducing cognitive dissonance, but it’s also the hardest. Deeply held beliefs can be excruciating to change. But if you’re willing to open your mind and take a few steps of bravery in moments of “I’m so scared I could die” situations, you may find a much more enjoyable light at the end of the tunnel.
“How we go about dealing with our inconsistency can be rather ingenious. But, in Festinger’s view, there is little question that it will be done.” (Cooper, 2007)
No one enjoys mental agony or crippling fear. We’ll do almost anything to avoid it for as long as we can. Weeks can turn into months of heart-wrenching confusion and hopefulness can turn to dejection—with occasional moments of peace and clarity, of course—before acceptance finally comes. Once you’ve dared to open your mind up just enough to entertain new and probably frightening possibilities, that is. Happiness can then ensue—initially a euphoric type of happiness. And then the world feels opened, and perhaps to your great surprise, much more wonderful than you imagined.
I’m no psychology expert. But we all have brains that are a.) Able to feel and experience things, and b.) Recognize patterns in the way others appear to be feeling and experiencing things. Cognitive dissonance is everywhere. I see humans trying to resolve it almost every day—because none of us are 100% honest with others or ourselves.
People have been asking me the question, “What now?” a lot recently. What I want to say them is: “Now I can be honest with myself and others. Now I can explore things and choose whether or not to toss them away or keep them, without fear that one option may somehow shatter my belief box, or require too much contorting to fit inside of it. Now I get to live as deliberately as I’m able to, and enjoy the truth that’s all around me every day. Now I can enjoy and honestly process truth rather than fear it.”
“I never knew that it could happen til it happened to me. I didn’t know it before but now it’s easy to see,” said Plato. And by Plato I mean the writers of High School Musical. Who are probably more real than Socrates.
Oh, and the good thing is, it turns out your world can change and you still get to be you. Sometimes even MORE you. A you that you like more. Maybe one who’s a bit less bigoted and judgmental—because you aren’t desperately holding onto thin threads to feel safe anymore, and don’t fear others losing grip on them either. You can be free to love without limits. Dance like no one’s watching. Just kidding, that phrase is gross.
Experiences change us, that’s for sure. But there are things about us that are more intrinsic than we realize, whatever may have been the original catalyst for their development. Kindness and love of mankind aren’t flimsy enough qualities to just disappear when life gets rearranged.
When you discover Santa’s not real, you discover the extent to which your parents are willing to go to make you feel happy. Isn’t that kind of wonderful?