Did you know that any incongruence between what you believe and how you behave can send you crazy (or to be politically correct, make you unwell)?
Yep, that’s right, the disparities between what you hold dear (values) and how you act, can result in poor mental and emotional health, and that’s why its important that you shed light on them. Fast.
And gosh, do I know that all too well, as one example for me would be my long-standing battle with porn addiction. Yes, I said it. I’ve long struggled with an addiction to pornography in all it’s accessible prowess.
Wow, I feel so much better for sharing that, for just like the countless other males of all ages out there struggling, the vicelike grip of pornography addiction — no pun intended — is something I’ve hesitated to share within a public domain.
Why? Because of shame, guilt and, you guessed it, fear of being judged.
Now, fortunately for me, I’ve been able to share my struggles (in private) with my wife and close friends for some years now, all of which has been helpful during times of (possible) relapse.
Anyway, the point of me sharing that was to draw your attention to the importance of being true to yourself, because the reason I’ve struggled with watching porn, where others might not struggle to the same degree or even see it as being an issue, is strongly connected to my beliefs.
You see, watching porn, whilst holding to the belief that looking lustfully at other women is akin to adultery, highlights an internal conflict. And it’s this conflict, known as cognitive dissonance, that I want to focus on.
What is cognitive dissonance?
In its simplest form, cognitive dissonance can be defined as an inconsistency or contradiction.
Cognitive dissonance is where you hold two inconsistent thoughts, beliefs or behaviours at the same time and where this conflict causes you to become unsettled within yourself, which in turn results in some form of psychological strain.
Leon Festinger’s (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance suggests that we all desire to find a balance between what we think (cognition) and what we do (behaviour), and that failing to do so leads to discomfort.
It could, for example, be as simple as on the one hand thinking (cognition) that you want to lose weight, whilst at the same time eating a cream donut (behaviour) with your coffee each day at work.
I’m sure you’d agree that for obvious reasons, these two are inconsistent. They’re dissonant.
Similarly, the two opposing thoughts and behaviours in my earlier personal example could be; watching porn (behaviour) satisfies my sexual need vs. watching porn negatively impacts my most important relationships (thought). You get the gist.
What’s the big deal about cognitive dissonance?
Well, as mentioned earlier, the important thing about acknowledging issues of dissonance in your life is the fact that if left unaddressed, it’ll cause psychological strain and inner discomfort with neither being good for your health.
Allowing your dissonance to continue would be like continuing to wear a pair of shoes despite knowing that they’re rubbing against your toe and causing you pain. You wouldn’t would you? Of course not! You’d remove them at the first chance you got.
In the same way, if there’s an inconsistency in the way you think and behave that’s causing you inner tension, failure to change one or the other so there’s consonance (consistency), will lead to irrational behaviour.
What does this have to do with being true to yourself?
The answer to this question is simple; everything. If you’re behaving or living in a way that’s inconsistent with your core beliefs, then you’re going to cause yourself psychological harm. Knowing this, it’s important to deal with any areas in your life where there’s inner conflict.
And here’s the thing, according to cognitive dissonance theory, the only way to deal with your inner conflict is by doing one of three things; (1) changing your thoughts, attitudes or beliefs, (2) gathering new information, or (3) reducing the importance you place on your beliefs.
(1) Change your thoughts or beliefs
By changing one of your thoughts, attitudes or beliefs, you can adjust the relationship between them to find some consistency, making them consonant.
You have to be careful here though, as if it’s a behaviour you’re trying to adapt, it’s important to remember that habitual behaviours (especially where there’s an addiction) are notoriously hard to change.
(2) Gather new information
Another way to reduce an inner conflict is to gather new information that outweighs your existing inconsistent beliefs.
For example, if you believe that watching pornography could result in erectile dysfunction (ED), acquiring information that suggests that the evidence to support the link between frequent porn watching and ED is weak, could reduce dissonance.
(3) Decrease the importance of your thoughts or beliefs
Since it’s the thoughts and beliefs causing your inner conflict, another way to achieve harmony is to reduce the importance you place on one of your beliefs.
For example, you could convince yourself that sensual pleasures in the ‘here and now’ are more important than the discipline of self-control that is developed through delayed gratification.
Understanding that it’s the imbalances between your attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that are the cause of any inner conflict you experience in life is key to managing your wellbeing.
So, once you recognise where the tensions lie you can make the changes to either your thoughts or behaviour necessary to achieve greater peace. And in the process, be true to yourself.
Questions to consider
Where are you experiencing the inner conflict of cognitive dissonance in your life? Which of the steps might you need to consider taking? What other ideas would you add? Share your thoughts in the comments.
You can watch a helpful video that explains Cognitive Dissonance here.