Carolee Coleman, LCPC
Living in Alignment and What “Cognitive Dissonance” Has to Do With It
Photo Credit: Mohamed Nohassi
“Align”, there are memes aplenty these days encouraging us to align, live in alignment, and so forth. What exactly does that mean? While there are always various interpretations of any given platitude, I would like to take a moment to discuss how it is related to the psychological theory of “cognitive dissonance”. According to SimplyPsychology.org, cognitive dissonance “refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors”.
Let’s see what that looks like through an example. Think about it this way: if you are engaging in a behavior that is not aligned with your values or beliefs, you may be in a situation where “cognitive dissonance” may develop. Example: To provide for your family, you spend the majority of your time working a demanding job supporting an organization whose primary goal is to create profit and does not value employees personal time (behavior), while one of your core values is to spend time with and nurture the relationships of your family and friends. A conflict arises. It is likely uncomfortable. This is cognitive dissonance that comes from the awareness that your action/behavior is not lined up with your value/belief.
This can happen in many areas of life, not just work/life balance. This could happen when we stay in a relationship (romantic/friendship) where you are being treated poorly (behavior) but your belief is that you deserve to be treated with respect. Another example could be that you continue to give your time to situations/organizations/friends (behavior) when you value your well-being and know your need to rest or put focus elsewhere in your life.
When we stay in cognitive dissonance, it can impact our mental health by increasing stress and anxiety. The size of the disparity between belief/value and behavior will impact how much discomfort one experiences.
When humans feel discomfort they seek to reduce it. This can be done by changing the belief/ value (providing for my family is more important than quality time) or changing the behavior (I will seek or create a job with a better work/life balance). Another option could be distracting or numbing, and this has potential to take the form of addictive behaviors. Granted, this is very simplified.
What’s the goal?
If we are able to align our values, beliefs, and behaviors discomfort will decrease (assuming basic needs of food, shelter, and safety are met). It is my belief that the first step in addressing any problem is awareness that it exists.
How to become aware:
1. Check in with your emotions/feelings - Are you experiencing discomfort/stress/ anxiety?
2. If yes, become aware of your thoughts – This can be done through thought check-ins over a period of time. Mindfulness activities may also be helpful with this step.
3. Is your brain working hard to justify your actions but can’t seem to settle or are you experiencing confusion? You MAY be experiencing cognitive dissonance.
It is important to be aware of what shift feels best for you. Does a change in belief need to take place or does a change in action need to take place? Therapy is the perfect place to explore these challenging questions.