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Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance is: a theory in social psychology. It refers to the mental conflict that occurs when a person's behaviours and beliefs do not align. Cognitive dissonance causes feelings of unease and tension, and people attempt to relieve this discomfort in different ways. A wonderful example of Cognitive Dissonance is: “I want to quit drinking” and then continuing to drink again that night. The belief vs the action causes inner discomfort and often the result is that people drink to “relieve the discomfort,” which actually only adds to it. Another example would be saying “I’ll never turn out like my ‘alcoholic’ parent” but continuing to drink despite the feeling that you may be heading in the same direction. Ego plays a large role in this. Of course many people don’t take their first drink and expect to become addicted, if that were the case, I’m sure many people would stay away from alcohol from the beginning. Ego says “it won’t happen to me” but our brains response to alcohol and the amount we consume may decide otherwise. I remember it plain as day, “I’ll never drink like my mom,” “I wouldn’t do that to my kids” or “honestly.. I’m going to quit drinking and drugs after next weekend (after the next birthday, after the next holiday)” and my actions never matched my words. By doing that, I was experiencing cognitive dissonance on a constant basis. Not to mention, alcohol is a depressant, so continuing to lie to myself on a daily basis and break the very loose “goals” I was setting just kept me stuck in a pattern on the ‘scary-go-round.’ I say “loose goals” because never once did I dig my heels in and set a hard date, it was all up in the air and there was nothing to hold me accountable. All of this inner conflict created severe discomfort and anxiety, and at the time I had no tools to use, so I continued to drink, which is like throwing gasoline on a fire and expecting it not to get out of control. When you consider how it feels when someone lies to you (your partner, parent, loved one, child) it breaks trust in the dynamic and hurts. We never stop to consider that every time we make these “promises” to ourselves and continue to break them - we are hurting ourselves and losing our own inner trust. The “belief” we have in ourselves disappears while our self doubt grows exponentially. Eventually over continued repetition it becomes a cycle that can be very difficult to break. What do we do when we feel awful and don’t want to face what we are feeling? We drink. And thus the pattern continues. So perhaps instead of trying to regain your inner trust by immediately quitting drinking, you set small goals. Like, I’m going to drink 5-6 glasses of water everyday this week. I’m going to listen to 3 podcasts this week, and next week I’ll make it 4. I’m going to journal twice a week for a month, next month I will increase it to 3x. By setting these small goals and accomplishing them, you can start to believe in yourself again. I often encourage people to set goals within the SMART frame (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely - different places may use different terms but they all mean the same thing). If I’m a daily drinker and I declare “I will never drink again,” I don’t think that goal fits the framework. While it is specific, and may give a time measurement, it is not necessarily attainable or realistic. Giving up any addictive substance is typically not an overnight decision, and that is perfectly okay. There are many beliefs that need to be turned around and every single person has different circumstances and reasons for making this decision. So instead of setting a goal that may set you up to be discouraged, perhaps start off by reducing the amount you are drinking. If you normally drink 7 nights a week, maybe your first goal is to only drink for 6 of them. And continue to reduce as you build confidence in yourself. Once you accomplish that goal, you may think to yourself “if I was able to reduce one night, I can definitely eliminate 2.” Your entire mindset shifts from a state of disempowered to empowered. The journey is far from linear, but when it comes to relieving cognitive dissonance, I think it is important to focus on small attainable goals that you feel confident you can accomplish. Work on increasing your confidence in yourself and then start to apply that to alcohol or whatever destructive habit you are battling. Small steps change the big picture. It isn’t an overnight process but when we dig into our conscious and subconscious thoughts, we become much more aware of the power of our thoughts. Then we can start taking action to become the version of ourselves we’d like to be.

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