You’ve probably heard of Cognitive Dissonance which is the discomfort we feel when we have two conflicting thoughts or a conflict between beliefs and actions. For example, you care about the environment, but you use plastic bags. You may have a general feeling of discomfort or may even feel angry with yourself, but do it anyway because it’s convenient.
Similarly, you can have Emotional Dissonance where you express different emotions than what you are feeling. Like if you are at a gathering and someone says something that brings up a negative emotion in you, you may choose to continue to smile and be jovial to “keep the peace” or not disturb the celebration.
I would like to introduce my own take on dissonance, which is about identity. I call it Personal Dissonance. This is where we have a strong attachment to an identity in which we cannot fully be our authentic selves. It happens a lot. It’s come up with my clients as part of an attachment to a role like being a parent, or an identity in the workplace, or in relationships.
Let’s explore the idea a little more. I encourage people, often challenge them, to be more authentic in their relationships. What this means is behaving more often in alignment with your core values. This creates dissonance because they are actively pursuing personal authenticity which asks them to show up for others in ways that they actually WANT and VALUE despite having conflicting expectations of themselves. However, those expectations of your behaviour are often linked to an IDENTITY you want to present and preserve. For example, say you would normally attend the birthday party of a family member even though you don’t like them, find them to be difficult to be around and they often are hurtful or rude to you. You go because you think you SHOULD. Why?
What drives our inauthentic behaviours? The answer I found was: IDENTITY. When our identity is more important than what we feel, we are in a state of Personal Dissonance.
If I identify as someone who is family- oriented, supportive, positive, resilient and I value commitment, I might feel that I have all the tools to be able to attend the birthday party for my family member that I dislike and therefore I SHOULD go. After all – if I actually AM all of those things and I want to be SEEN as that person, then I WANT to go. My personal identity becomes more important to me than my own true feelings. I value the identity and the perpetuation of the identity more than I want to avoid an uncomfortable experience.
This is akin to MASKING where we create a “mask” to be able to present to the world in a certain way and hide our truth. We do this to conform to societal norms, to fit in, to make connections with others, and to avoid abuse or other hurtful outcomes. This is a coping mechanism and a survival strategy because humans are communal creatures. In the same way, Personal Dissonance is also a very necessary part of being human.
Personal Dissonance can be a CHOICE and I think the key to a healthy mindset is actively deciding to engage in valuing an identity and recognizing that it serves a purpose when it’s helpful to do so. Parents cannot always be authentic in front of children, or the children may find it difficult to rely on their parent or perceive them as stable. If the parent is having challenges financially, but wants to engage with their children in a way that provides them with a sense of security (even while the parent is feeling insecure) setting aside their authentic emotional reaction and CHOOSING to identify more with the role of “secure parent” during that time can be useful to both the parent and child. The parent may decide to be honest to a degree, but not fully transparent with their child. They might say “money is tight, so we can’t afford to go to the zoo, but let’s check out some wildlife shows on TV okay?” The identity of themselves as a stable and reliable parent remains intact. Whereas had they broke down emotionally and told the child, “The zoo? Those tickets cost too much. We’re so broke I don’t know how we can afford to keep this house,” the identity of the stable, reliable parent would have disintegrated. The parent shows up feeling scared, incapable and dysregulated and the child may, as a result, feel insecure and frightened about their future.
The difficulty comes when Personal Dissonance isn’t something we are choosing, but a default. Let’s use the example of an intimate relationship. If I identify as an affectionate, sexually free person, (and I do) and I told my date that I was interested in them sexually, and things become physical, I could quickly DEFAULT into a state of Personal Dissonance. I may not feel connected to the act (I might even dissociate) but because I value my IDENTITY so much, it automatically overrides those authentic feelings, and my actions are no longer in alignment with my values/needs/wants or desires, so I feel awful afterwards. I may feel that I had no choice because I said that I was attracted to them, and they knew I’m a sex positive person, so to preserve that IDENTITY I had an obligation to follow through. Has this happened to me? Yes.
Another way to look at that same scenario where I’m CHOOSING Personal Dissonance may be that I am on a date with someone who has sexual experience that I don’t have, and as a sexually positive and experimental person, I may choose to override my discomfort in order to indulge in the new sexual experience with them even though I’m uncertain but curious. I may even experience some challenging moments and emotions, but decide to continue despite them, in order to receive the benefit of what I can learn about myself. Has this happened FOR me? Also yes. You can apply this same curious but uncertain need to engage consciously in dissonance to many areas of life.
Dissonance of any kind, when we are NOT actively mindfully choosing as a way to navigate complex circumstances, often leads to depression. We feel angry with ourselves for doing the things we didn’t want to do and we feel abandoned and betrayed by ourselves.
Being honest with yourself about the act of choosing Personal Dissonance means understanding that the identity itself, and the behaviours that result from it, actually benefit us and so we want and value it. Let’s be more MINDFUL about when it’s appropriate to invite the dissonance in. For example, the identity of the loyal, team playing worker is an important one to perpetuate even if we have plans to find a new job; sometimes BECAUSE we have plans to find a new job and need a good reference. Knowing we are making this decision and inviting personal dissonance puts us back in control of our choices, validates our autonomy and acknowledges that this is a role that we are utilizing for the benefits it provides.
We are all capable of showing up in many different ways in the world; of having many different identities. No one identity fully describes who you are, yet you are ALL of them.
Dissonance and masking are not “BAD” for us. In fact, if we weren’t able to operate in a dissonant state, the world would be in CHAOS. We simply can’t be authentic all of the time. Can you imagine? Just because we want to say or do something and it’s in alignment with our values doesn’t mean that would be good for us. We’d all be yelling, crying, walking out of our jobs, saying whatever we please without regard for others or considering consequences.
Dissonance of all kinds is at the heart of self-discipline, restraint, compassion and self-regulation. Feeling differently than how we behave or what we present is an intrinsic part of being a functional human. This super power prevents conflict, protects ourselves and others, and serves the communal good. When we intentionally utilize dissonance and masking as tools rather than default to them unconsciously they become important instruments that help us show up at our best when we need to.
#dissonance #healthyrelationships #relationshipcoaching #identity #mindfulness #consciousrelationships