What is Cognitive Dissonance? As I understand it, cognitive dissonance is the feeling of discomfort or anxiety we feel when we face a reality not fitting our beliefs. For instance when I was young, growing up a faithful Mormon girl, I had a very rigid and strong belief system. I knew nothing about ‘gay people’ except that it was wrong and immoral. Being gay meant someone was absolutely abhorrent and sinful; the scourge of the earth causing empires to fail. So at the age of ten when I found myself attracted to the girl up the street rather than the boy I climbed trees with I had to find a way to push those feelings aside because I knew being gay was sinful. I got rid of the dissonance by believing that I was a good person and this outweighed the feeling of being gay. I knew I was good and gay was bad; therefore, there was no possibility I was gay. Problem solved; until next time.
Feelings for the ‘fairer sex’ continued throughout my life; over and over again, getting stronger and more difficult to deny as I grew older. I dated boys but at the same time I secretly entertained thoughts of being with girls. These thoughts scared me so I would immediately try to find an explanation fitting my belief system. The explanation I came up with was that these girls and, later in life, women I found myself so drawn to were ‘soul mates’; women I knew in pre-existing life where we had been very close and had a spiritual connection so strong and unbreakable that it crossed into this life. My life was filled with soul mates, so many beautiful soul mates.
Finally at the age of 24 I met and fell seriously in love with a college roommate. For me it was intense; feelings so strong that they consumed my thoughts and emotions 24/7. I sought professional help in the LDS community of counselors. When I told my counselor that I thought I might be gay he gently reassured me that what I was feeling was not an attraction to women but a distrust and dislike of men because of the previous bad experiences with men in my life. Well, this was true; I had a distrust and dislike of men and I had several bad experiences to draw upon. This explanation ‘fit’ my belief system and was enough to eliminate the cognitive dissonance I was feeling. I was able to go forward with my engagement and subsequent marriage to a man. A man I knew was kind and good; not resembling the men I had previously had bad experiences with. Was it difficult to be with him? Yes; but I knew it was because I had to overcome these feelings created by my previous bad experiences with men. It was comforting and reassuring to have an explanation that ‘fit’ and released me, once again, from the idea that I was gay; which would mean I was bad, sinful and abhorrent.
At age 36 the dissonance became bigger than the belief. I had finally experienced enough life and knew enough to decide for myself that ‘gay’ did not equal ‘bad’. I had bumped up against too many gay people that were not bad. The Mormon Church took steps to minimize the dissonance for the entire membership by reminding the membership that gays are not bad people; they simply have bad luck and need our help to bear the cross they’ve been given in life. “Love the sinner/hate the sin”, “We need to reach out and help friends and family members who ‘struggle’ with same sex attraction”; you know the story. I think the introduction of this belief was enough for many; however, it wasn’t a good enough explanation to make me feel any better.
I had spent ten years questioning many of the teachings and tenants of the Mormon Church this led to me constantly bumping into ‘cognitive dissonance’. I became a ‘cafeteria Mormon’; someone who selected only the principals of the gospel not creating dissonance. One tenant at a time was put to the test and it either passed or failed. Meaning I either put it on my plate or I left it on the buffet. Over the course of ten years; selecting the morsels of comfort food that looked good to me I found I was basically starving. The morsels had become crumbs and the crumbs were not worth consuming anymore.
I finally left the lunch line altogether; realizing if I didn’t turn to a more authentic life the anxiety and depression, the dissonance was causing me, would result in my making some very bad choices. Walking away was not easy; there were times when my psyche seemed to burst into a million shards of glass cutting and puncturing my very soul. Over time, and with love and support from many, I was able to release the control my Mormon beliefs and focus on more supportive beliefs.
18 years later I find I am in the best place I’ve ever been. Does this mean my Mormon friends and family are in a bad place? No, I think I’m coming to understand how we create a bubble protecting ourselves from the realities not matching up to our beliefs. We defend our lives against those things causing us dissonance. We’re humans; it’s what we do.
The Mormon Church, as much as I disagree with what they stand for, is neither true nor untrue. It simply is what it is; a belief system giving comfort to some and discomfort to others. Until I came to a place of accepting this I was unhappy because I was trying to make something right or wrong. I was trying to change what others believed by proving it was not true or good. I was, and I still do without trying, creating dissonance for my friends and family who are staunch believers in the Mormon faith. Everyone deals with dissonance in their own way; sometimes in harmful or destructive ways by placing belief before all else.
I’ve recently been reading about an individual who left the church over intellectual and historical differences and in spite of the dissonance the facts created for him; he returned. Choosing to set aside the things he no longer believes in to eat at the Mormon buffet. The only reasonable explanation I find for myself is that he finds enough good food to put on his plate; keeping him satisfied and nourished. There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as I am allowed to fill my own plate with healthy, delicious food that nourishes me I support his decision. As long as I can pass on the green jello with shredded carrots; I’m happy.
I've read of people choosing to be in ‘mixed orientation’ marriages. Is this right or wrong; good or bad? My initial reaction is yes it is wrong and bad; but, I have friends who feel as strongly as I do that this right and good. If a person has a belief that being gay is okay but living gay is not okay then they make choices eliminating the feeling of cognitive dissonance that is their life. If it gives them comfort and they find happiness then I guess it is good and right for them but not for me.
Perhaps this is what we all do. We go along whistling a happy tune until we bump up to something causing cognitive dissonance. Then we do one of three things:
Focus on more supportive beliefs that outweigh the dissonant belief or behavior
Reduce the importance of the conflicting belief
Change the conflicting belief so that it is consistent with other beliefs or behaviors
I apologize to those of you who have understood this concept longer than I have. I think I’ve known and felt this for a long time but didn’t have a way of explaining it to myself. I like having explanations; still small voices aren’t enough for me anymore. Overwhelming emotional experiences require intellectual support these days. This is probably the thing that has changed the most for me over the years is I still enjoy emotional confirmations and things that touch me and cause strong emotional reactions. But I require more than that these days in order to allow the ‘belief’ to enter my bubble.
I’ve learned to get excited instead of anxious when something pops my bubble. I’m open to the idea that I don’t know everything; in fact I know only what I know today and this is different than what I will know tomorrow. Ever learning means we need to be open to the things causing dissonance. By allowing cognitive dissonance to be a part of our lives we release the anxiety and discomfort it causes. Let it be a signal that there is something to learn. Something new, or old, is being introduced, or re-introduced, to us. It’s exciting and fun to have a discussion with someone who sees things completely different from me.
I may get defensive when something penetrates not only my bubble but my heart; but I get past it or I drop it for the time being. I’ll return to it after a bit of self-reflection and discussion with supportive friends who share my beliefs.
Feel free to leave comments and tell me what you think.