You know you should work out and even contemplate the benefits. But you choose not to go to the gym and rationalize how you are healthy – yet you still feel guilty. While this seems like an innocent scenario, it’s actually an everyday example of cognitive dissonance that can lead to anxiety and self-criticism. And unfortunately, we all experience cognitive dissonance in some way or another. That’s why this article will teach you how to reduce cognitive dissonance and improve your overall mental health.
What Is Cognitive Dissonance?
Similar to the example in the introduction, cognitive dissonance is mental discomfort that results from believing two conflicting ideas, values, or attitudes. For example, you love the taste of meat and eat it regularly, but you still love animals and feel guilty every time you go against this belief. As humans, we try to relieve the pain we feel by rejecting it, learning new ways around it, explaining it through different behaviors, or even avoiding new information. In a sense, we try to avoid feeling pain when our behaviors contradict a long-standing belief we have. Therefore, cognitive dissonance can feel challenging until we find a solution to eliminate the back and forth we mentally feel.
5 Examples of Cognitive Dissonance
So, what does this back and forth look like in our everyday lives? Here are a few examples to help you understand this psychological theory.
- You have a long list of responsibilities, but instead of working on them, you decide to watch TV all day. When your roommate gets home, you make it look like you’ve been productive.
- You adopt a new healthy diet but feel compelled to eat McDonalds. Yet after eating it, you rationalize by telling yourself you’ll skip dinner or workout longer the next day to feel better about the calories.
- You smoke cigarettes knowing it is harmful to your health. But to relieve this guilt, you tell yourself smoking helps lower your anxiety, which makes it okay.
- You describe yourself as an honest person, but occasionally you lie to protect yourself from situations that may embarrass you or make you feel inferior. For example, you lie to avoid going out with a friend. Later, you feel guilty, believing you should have told the truth, but choose not to.
- You’re aware of the harmful effects of fast fashion on the environment. But you support stores that engage in these practices and rationalize it by saying it was an impulse purchase due to stress levels.
How to Reduce Cognitive Dissonance
1. Increase self-awareness
We often go through life experiencing contradictions without becoming aware of their negative effects on our lives. For example, we may skip a workout, not realizing that a contradiction is responsible for our low mood. So, the first step is to become aware of these inconsistencies in your thoughts. You can do this through mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us notice when we’re stuck in a cycle between two contradicting beliefs and creates space between self-criticism and acceptance. Over time, we learn to accept we’re experiencing cognitive dissonance rather than resorting to judgement.
2. Challenge current beliefs
One of the best ways to learn how to reduce cognitive dissonance is to challenge your current beliefs. But it’s also one of the most difficult. For example, long-standing beliefs associated with religion or politics can be distressing if embedded in one’s identity. When this occurs, ask yourself, “Is this my belief, or did I adopt this belief from someone else?” If the latter, question whether this belief is important to you separate from your culture or loved ones.
3. Add new beliefs
Adding new information to a cognitive dissonance can help you reduce contradicting beliefs. For example, if you use smoking to destress but feel guilty when you smoke because of its harmful effects, seek out new information that overrides the belief that it helps you destress. Learning that smoking may actually contribute to heightened levels of anxiety and tension may be the belief you need to eliminate the dissonance and the behavior.
4. Reduce the importance
At first glance, a belief may seem really important. But after deeper reflection, we can recognize how seemingly unimportant it is. For example, you may fear failure and rationalize all the reasons why not going after a new career opportunity is bad for you. But after reflecting and diminishing the importance of the rejected alternative, you learn that failure can lead to growth and success. So, you no longer fear it and instead learn to embrace it.
When you find yourself distressed from cognitive dissonance, take a moment and investigate. Ask yourself, “What are the two thoughts that aren’t aligning with your beliefs?”. Then ask questions that prompt future change. For example, “What actions can I take to reduce that dissonance?” and “Do I need to change any behaviors or beliefs?”. Becoming an investigator of the problem will help you better understand what’s important to you. Even if you’re not ready to reduce the dissonance.
6. Recognize that it’s not always bad
While it may feel horrible, cognitive dissonance isn’t always bad. In fact, it can motivate you to make positive changes in your life when you notice you hold two contradicting beliefs. For example, if you want to quit drinking and know it’s harmful, but still do it anyways because of your anxiety, recognizing this contradiction can serve as a motivator to quit. So, instead of punishing yourself, confront the contradiction and use it to motivate positive action.
When to Seek Help
Cognitive dissonance can be severely problematic if it causes you to rationalize behaviors that are harmful to yourself or to others. It can also become a problem if justifying the behavior results in stress or anxiety that affects your general functioning. Therefore if this occurs, it’s important to speak to a mental health professional. They will teach you how to reduce cognitive dissonance and help you challenge beliefs or thoughts creating distress.
Remember, we all experience cognitive dissonance in some form. But becoming aware of its impact on your life can lead to positive change and allow you to develop new perspectives that enhance how you see your life and the world around you.