The unlikely comforts of cognitive dissonance

  • By Ileana Stoica
  • 29 Sep, 2017

Reconciling opposing views can be healthy for our mind

I believe myself to be lucky in that I tend to experience very little envy. When emotions are invited at my table, Envy just doesn’t find much room – her seat is usually taken by Gratitude. The only times I feel envious is when I’m in the presence of self-assured people. I’m mesmerised by them – people who know their mind, have strong opinions (which they won’t change for anyone), know exactly what it is they want and how to go about it.

I, on the other hand, was born a self-doubter and second-guesser. In my professional life, this may have counted for a few missed opportunities – for instance, great academic mentors that would have been there for me … if only I had made up my mind to approach them.

I’m by no means alone in my predicament – more of us than we’d care to admit do not have it all ‘figured out’. So, what are we to do – envy ‘the others’ forever? Try to emulate them perhaps?

For my part, I have to confess to a certain stubbornness in enjoying to swim against the current. So, instead of assertiveness classes and other training programmes du jour , I decided to make the most of what I naturally had. One thing I discovered was that I was pretty good at living with cognitive dissonance – never being too assured of things, I could hold together contradictory beliefs with relative ease. I also developed my capacity to accept that people’s (and my) internal realities don’t always match their behaviours or the image they project – and I’ve become adept at seeing through that image. Entire working cultures are built on projections – how much we are buying into the image, as opposed to the core of truth, depends on our capacity to understand, and live with, cognitive dissonance.

Those who live in an ‘either/or’, ‘good/bad’, ‘right/wrong’ or ‘us/them’ mindset may be more inclined to take things at face value and find great comfort in picking a side and developing a whole-hearted affiliation to a culture – or its image. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about this, but I would argue that it is the easier way – more automatic, if you will. When we strive towards finding ways to reconcile opposing views, we’re building our very own cognitive dialectics. Accepting that ‘different’ need not be a threat to our psyche, and moving beyond that to take it in and blend it within our value system, can bring about new perspectives on old issues, and an exhilarating sense of discovery.

And here’s the funny thing: while doing that, we may find we experience less inner tension, and – dare I say it? – more self-assuredness …

Meanwhile – what is happening to our strong-minded counterparts, those we admire and envy? As we’re all moving into middle age, those who are ageing well are becoming more questioning themselves. It feels like we’re tracing complementary paths. One day, like stars orbiting each other in closer and closer circles, we’re bound to converge – however, having become too comfortable with cognitive dissonance to let go of it, I’d rather that we don’t …

By Ileana Stoica 29 Sep, 2017

As a scientist and writer, I’ve spent the better part of my working life studying and writing about illnesses. In fact, these days we’re all well informed about physical ailments, and have made great strides in understanding and treating diseases of the mind too. However, I believe we are now being faced with yet another form of illness: societal disease. This has been around for centuries, on and off, and it’s seeing a major recurrence – only this time we have the chance to bring it out in the open.

I live in Britain but I can see how societal disease is globally infectious.

When xenophobia and intolerance become the institutionalised government stance, two bad things happen: one, the powers that be are diverting away attention from the complex issues they’re facing, which could be tractable if they used their reason and put in some good old-fashioned work – something the British nation used to be proud of. Two, scapegoating is becoming part of the public mindset and a way of life – looking inwards to find solutions is just not the ‘done thing’ anymore. This gives free rein to people to express their baser instincts with no guilty conscience.

The much-maligned migrants to Britain will eventually find another destination. Those who are naïve or misguided and keep coming will have to face the reality of living in a society infected with hostility. Their numbers will eventually dwindle and the public eye will register this as achieving the desired trend in statistics, while private dramas will remain private as ‘befits’ minorities.

Those in power, on the other hand, are hard at work creating consequences for their very own British people – for they will be the eventual loser of this battle. As a result of the decisions made now, an entire generation of young Brits will grow up in an increasingly anachronic, truly insular, unhealthy society. Who knows, they may even become re-acquainted with the term ‘eugenics’ – which, although originated in America, was well received in Europe at the time.

I, like everyone else, have witnessed how the society has turned its values against itself, waging war from the inside. With no Cold War to keep the fear levels up, and the wounds of the recent Depression finally healed, it seems politicians are keen to let no good crisis go to waste …

Essentially, the current political climate is feeding a societal auto-immune reaction – but those in power may not have the clarity of mind to see it for what it is. As medics know, these illnesses have a fast progression and a poor prognosis. We need people who have trained their minds and kept their hearts in the right place to start calling things by their true name – not casting judgment but seeking to understand and heal. With rational thinking and well thought-out plans, there are ways to minimise the damage. But if, instead, we choose to look at the patient’s accent, we may just start to feel okay about letting them suffer, and turn our impotence into a virtue.

 

By Ileana Stoica 29 Sep, 2017

You never thought there could be anything remotely cool about being an immigrant, and most people would agree with you – some more loudly than others.

But when you come across an article on immigration in Financial Times , linking, of all people, Philip Roth and Zlatan Ibrahimović , and managing to hit the right notes in the process, you know you’re on to something.

 Yes, you’re an immigrant. You have a past you’d like to talk about but soon after arrival in your new home country you realise it doesn’t make for easy conversation, so you keep it to yourself. In fact, you learn to keep most things to yourself as you decide to steer clear of the gloomy stories the West has come to expect from immigrants just so they feel better about themselves.

 You’re grateful to feel cocooned in the lofty world of academia while you’re working towards your degree. You meet many immigrants and you become a collector of life stories. Your get-togethers are full of life and ‘the locals’ are just about the most open-minded, interested and interesting bunch you’re ever going to meet. In fact, you soon forget the ‘us vs. them’ mindset and quickly relate to the human side of us all. It’s still not easy to make emotional connections though, and you find yourself gravitating towards people with a similar past – wounds and all – and replaying the familiar scripts from your culture and family of origin.

 You get your degree and immigrate a few more times, from contract position to contract position. You’re a high-flying academic footballer – a hybrid between Philip Roth and Zlatan. Finding your bearings gets easier each time as you start to see past cultural differences. ‘I could get used to this’, you think to yourself.

 But life happens, you settle down and get your first job in the ‘real world’. Things quickly change. The empathy quotient drops abruptly and you’re quickly being reminded of the ‘us vs. them’ paradigm – and judged through this reductionist but convenient lens. You find that, in most circumstances, underneath the value and hard work, there’s a game to be played. You try playing the first moves and you get labelled ‘amoral’; you stop playing and you get labelled ‘asocial’, ‘awkward’. And that’s just the letter ‘a’. In time – years after you’ve pushed yourself past your endgame – you learn which parts of the game you’re good at and which you should stop caring about. That’s when a few timid voices start calling you ‘cool’. You go from idealising ‘the locals’ – we’re back to ‘us vs. them’, remember? – to seeing the cracks in the façade, the limitations, character flaws, bigotry.

 As an immigrant, you also swallow the bitter pill of having lost the most fundamental connection of all – the one with your family. You see them from a distance, with foreign eyes. You also get the sinking feeling they vaguely resent you and all your complications. You’ve come too far to be called ‘a failure’ but then you’re not exactly a success story either. You’re not Zlatan or Philip Roth. So how are they supposed to be thinking and talking about you?

 You learn to look beyond your personal experience but when you lift your eyes the bigger picture is even scarier. You see big historical mistakes being made right in front of you. ‘No!’, you think, ‘this is precisely what I’ve been running away from all these years! I don’t want my children to have to be immigrants, too!’. You’ve worked so hard at letting go of the past – must you let go of the future, too? Why – when everyone knows future-proofing is what keeps immigrants sane?

 But an immigrant’s resourcefulness is seemingly endless and you learn to stop worrying and love the word. You ponder: ‘Could it be that being an immigrant over and over again has given me a depth of perspective and a chance to break away with those parts of me that were stuck playing unhelpful scripts? Could it be that, with every step, I’ve come closer to who I really am? A privilege that locals simply do not have?’ You look at the cards you’ve been dealt – those cards you’ve carefully kept close to your chest all your life – pick the one called ‘freedom’ and throw it on the table, face up, for everyone to see.

 Now that you’re not stuck in the past anymore, nor in the future, you start to live more for the present. Funny thing is, your children pick up on your new vibe as only children are apt to do, and feel more relaxed themselves. ‘I’ve avoided the trap of the immigrant’, you muse, ‘I am actually bringing up my children to be at ease with themselves …’. You become smug: ‘I’ve also escaped the trap of the locals! I’m bringing up children who are not pressured to conform!’ Little do you realise that human nature is inescapable, and, in the process of survival, you’ve created some powerful, custom-made traps of your own to fall into. Nobody’s perfect – not even an immigrant …

 You observe children more closely and something short of a miracle happens: the long-forgotten child in yourself finds her way to the surface. ‘Hey, little girl’ – you greet her – ‘you’ve been through some things children are not supposed to experience, and yet you’ve stayed a happy child. What was your secret?’

 And then you do something no self-respecting immigrant ever does: you pat yourself on the back and give yourself permission to be happy again.

By Ileana Stoica 29 Sep, 2017

I believe myself to be lucky in that I tend to experience very little envy. When emotions are invited at my table, Envy just doesn’t find much room – her seat is usually taken by Gratitude. The only times I feel envious is when I’m in the presence of self-assured people. I’m mesmerised by them – people who know their mind, have strong opinions (which they won’t change for anyone), know exactly what it is they want and how to go about it.

I, on the other hand, was born a self-doubter and second-guesser. In my professional life, this may have counted for a few missed opportunities – for instance, great academic mentors that would have been there for me … if only I had made up my mind to approach them.

I’m by no means alone in my predicament – more of us than we’d care to admit do not have it all ‘figured out’. So, what are we to do – envy ‘the others’ forever? Try to emulate them perhaps?

For my part, I have to confess to a certain stubbornness in enjoying to swim against the current. So, instead of assertiveness classes and other training programmes du jour , I decided to make the most of what I naturally had. One thing I discovered was that I was pretty good at living with cognitive dissonance – never being too assured of things, I could hold together contradictory beliefs with relative ease. I also developed my capacity to accept that people’s (and my) internal realities don’t always match their behaviours or the image they project – and I’ve become adept at seeing through that image. Entire working cultures are built on projections – how much we are buying into the image, as opposed to the core of truth, depends on our capacity to understand, and live with, cognitive dissonance.

Those who live in an ‘either/or’, ‘good/bad’, ‘right/wrong’ or ‘us/them’ mindset may be more inclined to take things at face value and find great comfort in picking a side and developing a whole-hearted affiliation to a culture – or its image. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about this, but I would argue that it is the easier way – more automatic, if you will. When we strive towards finding ways to reconcile opposing views, we’re building our very own cognitive dialectics. Accepting that ‘different’ need not be a threat to our psyche, and moving beyond that to take it in and blend it within our value system, can bring about new perspectives on old issues, and an exhilarating sense of discovery.

And here’s the funny thing: while doing that, we may find we experience less inner tension, and – dare I say it? – more self-assuredness …

Meanwhile – what is happening to our strong-minded counterparts, those we admire and envy? As we’re all moving into middle age, those who are ageing well are becoming more questioning themselves. It feels like we’re tracing complementary paths. One day, like stars orbiting each other in closer and closer circles, we’re bound to converge – however, having become too comfortable with cognitive dissonance to let go of it, I’d rather that we don’t …

By Ileana Stoica 29 Sep, 2017

Twenty years ago, I came to the US as a graduate student. I vividly recall feeling overwhelmed by a barrage of psycho-jargon – and no, I was not studying Psychology.

Having grown up in the post-Communist Eastern bloc, most of the concepts espoused in those ‘training programmes’ were foreign to me. Not only that, but, as a scientist by training, I was inherently sceptical – surely all those young students and their graduate teaching assistants (myself included) were being over-psychologised?

This was, of course, a young person’s ignorance. Life has since taught me that, if anything, we don’t engage in sufficient self-analysis – examining our workplace behaviours, the patterns of dysfunction in our personal lives, and, maybe most importantly – examining what we do right, when, and how, and celebrating and cultivating our inner soundness.

These thoughts were mostly random – but there is nothing like the experience of parenthood to bring our own beliefs under a lens, and then bring it all in focus through the way we raise your children. I have spent a large portion of the past ten years in the company of children – working with some of them, or just hanging out.

Trying to understand a child’s psyche, with my rudimentary, non-specialist techniques, but definitely with a full heart, helped me get rid of my scepticism about psychologising the young. It was a complicated journey for me, and also a private one. Suffice to say I now feel that, if we learn to spot the root of a problem at the right time and address it sensitively, from a place of compassion and firmness, we can go a long way in decreasing the chance of full-blown behavioural malfunction later on.

Why is this important? Because it is tomorrow’s generation that will pick up the pieces of the largely fragmented, empathy-challenged society their parents are now cultivating – one merely needs to look at the current political climate to know that is true – and make it into a world that fits them better. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’ve got a clear sense their generation will be more focused on both inner growth and global consciousness. As personal and professional lives will be merging even more in future, they’ll want to bring some of this growth into their working lives. Which is a good thing, as it may help heal some of the sociopathy we now see in the corporate world, and not only.

Last year many of us parents have taken our families to watch ‘Inside Out’, a quirky little movie that gives children a roadmap, and some simple navigating tools, into the world of emotions – identifying, understanding, and managing them. It teaches them that anger and sadness are not only valid, but necessary, and that putting on a happy face at all times is fake and can backfire. A lesson many adults I know would do well to learn – yes, even in the office …

Last night we stayed way past my son’s bedtime to watch ‘Ender’s Game’ – an older film, and a controversial one. Somewhat stereotypically, Ender is the middle ground between his excessively empathetic sister and his borderline psychopathic elder brother. He is gifted with incredible emotional and social intelligence and knows when to forge alliances and friendships, when to identify and label injustice, when to act on his feelings and when to strategise a response, when to hold on to his views and when to go with the flow. And – here’s the ‘risky’ bit – when to punish.

Yes, alongside with empathy – which, if defective, lies at the core of most personality disorders – I too feel we need to teach our children to develop appropriate responses that are in line with their values yet calibrated to external situations. Ever the peacemakers, they should still be able to call out unfairness and act to correct it. Awareness of emotions helps inform a course of action, and empathy helps form a rounded view of a situation – but it is ultimately children’s innate sense of right and wrong that should be cultivated, and their courage to act on their beliefs.

Most of us are going to retire in our late 60s – if we’re lucky. That means that, in 15–20 years from now, we’ll share the workplace with our children. As comedies would have it (what’s up with me and pop culture today?), they may even be our bosses.

If we’ve done the right thing as parents now, this may actually be a positive development for our generation. I for one am looking forward to it.

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