Cognitive Dissonance in Everyday Life

photo credit Marcea Lancu

Credit: Marcea Lancu

Cognitive dissonance is often used to call attention to something we would really prefer to ignore.  Have you ever listened to someone prattle on about the partner who is “ever so loving” except when they are threatening your friend’s safety or emptying their bank account?  Or when they are belittling a friend?  To the point where you are ready to say “Well, you say this person loves you.  Is that behavior loving?”  And you of course hope this cognitive dissonance will get your friend thinking about whether this is truly a beneficial relationship.  It is definitely useful, and we need to pay close attention to it.

But there is another type of cognitive dissonance that we also find difficult to process, and that is when someone who may not be so close to you has such diametrically opposed qualities that you are unsure what to think.  I once had a young neighbor who was in trouble at school pretty much all the time.  His mother’s excuse-making didn’t make it likely that these problems would end any time soon.  And yet—one day this same young neighbor noticed fire coming from the exhaust of a school bus, and he was the one who raced to the front and banged on the door, hard, to get those kids out safely.  Not the kind of heroism we would expect from “Mr. I’m Always in Trouble at School,” right?  But the reality is, both can be true.

Famously, Oskar Schindler (of Schindler’s List fame) was a walking contradiction.  He initially brought Jewish people into his factory during World War II for the free labor, then wound up protecting those same people from being deported to extermination camps.  During this entire time, he was a member of the Nazi party.  His life after World War II was reportedly a mess.  All of these things are true, and for approximately 1,000 Jewish people and their descendants—these people would likely not even exist had it not been for Oskar Schindler’s virtues.

Realistically, none of us is as consistent as we would like to believe.  If we feel our past is shameful, we can decide on a better future as opposed to labeling ourselves and giving up.  The good we do need not be negated by whatever preceded it.  We might even devote significant time to making amends.

Most of us tend to seek a certain degree of consistency in our lives.  And part of that consistency can involve putting people in categories with the hope of knowing what to expect from them.  My own experience leads to me believe that few of us are that totally predictable.  There are some things we can count on:  People who go out of their way to be kind will continue to do so, chronic liars and thieves are unlikely to suddenly grow a conscience about their behavior.  And people and life will continue to surprise us.

Denial Does Have Its Place

Yes or No

Reality is an interesting thing. Some of it is great, some not so much, and someof it is downright awful. The awful parts are what lead to denial.
It’s true, we need to live in this world the way it is instead of the way we want it to be. And I am a big believer in facing problems head-on. But denial does have its place.
I know, I know, lots of people are constantly saying denial is awful. And sometimes it is. Sometimes people stay in dangerous situations, to the point where their denial of that reality winds up getting them killed. They stay in loveless relationships, whittling away the time they could have spent seeking joy, instead making excuses to avoid facing change or facing reality. They ignore overwhelming debt till they wind up with no resources whatever.
But there are times when denial is not so bad. When you first get a piece of awful news: a close friend has died, you have just been diagnosed with a serious illness, you are being sued…of course you need to deal with those realities. But you are likely to deny them first, and that is your mind’s way of protecting you from the initial horror.
Any major tragic news will have repercussions; there will be numerous aspects to confront. If your friend has died, there is the funeral service to deal with, as well as offering sympathy to others in his or her circle. Should you send flowers or a donation and if so, where? Can you face removing your friend’s phone number from your contacts? (I often take years to do that last bit. It feels so cold to just hit “delete.”) Who will you talk to when it’s your friend you really wanted? How many days will you wake up having to remind yourself that person is no longer a part of this world? How will you find comfort in the midst of the sorrow?
Initial denial, though it may be for as little as a few seconds, can buy you the time to start considering and dealing with the various aspects of your tragedy. Then you can take a deep breath, seek out your best support, and start facing whatever awful blow you have been dealt.