Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term that refers (in my words) to what happens psychologically when a person holds two opposing thoughts (beliefs) in their mind. Holding two conflicting beliefs causes a psychological discomfort, or dissonance, that is difficult for us to live with. The way we resolve this discomfort is to ignore or discount one of the beliefs.
The problem usually comes because you have a new belief that contradicts an older, unconscious belief. Since you’re not aware you hold this older belief, you can’t question it or decide not to believe it. Therefore, in order to feel better, you ignore the newer belief.
If you are a writer and you become a mother, or a full-time corporate employee, or a caregiver to a sick relative, you will continue to write—unless you have unexamined, unconscious thoughts that cause cognitive dissonance.
Thoughts like these:
- Mother’s don’t take time away from their families to write (or do anything for themselves),
- Nobody can write when they work full-time,
- Caregiving is more important than writing—every minute of every day.
If you hold one of these beliefs, you may find yourself getting to the end of every day with nothing written. You don’t do this intentionally, but the unconscious belief will cause you to behave in ways that sabotage your writing life.
I’ve been thinking about cognitive dissonance lately as I look forward to the fall, when my son starts kindergarten. This is yet another transition when I have to deal with my cognitive dissonance around my writing life and my life as a mother. The first time I bumped up against my unconscious belief that mothers couldn’t make room for their own passions was when I got married to a man with two children and became a stepmother. I’ve examined my beliefs about motherhood over and over in my life, and I imagine I will continue to work on them as my son grows up, and probably as my granddaughter grows up as well.
I came by my belief that mothers have no right to work on their own dreams and passions the way most of us do: I watched my mother and saw how she behaved in the world. My mom had 5 children in 3 ½ years while she also worked as a nurse anesthetist. She had many interests and passions, including her work, but it all took a backseat to raising her children. To extend that metaphor, her wants and needs weren’t in the backseat so much as stored in a shed on someone else’s property with no access to them without the property owner’s permission, which was rarely (if ever) given.
When I find my writing productivity going down hill, the first thing I do is examine my thoughts. I do this by doing a “thought download,” a technique first taught to me by Brooke Castillo. I write down all my thoughts, stream-of-consciousness style. Once I’ve run dry, I go back and examine my thoughts carefully.
Clues to unexamined thoughts and unquestioned beliefs are words like “everybody,” “all,” “none,” no one,” and “nobody.” Examples:
- No one likes a mother who puts herself before her children.
- Everybody who had kids puts them first.
- None of my family do the things I do.
Once I’m aware of my thoughts, I can recognize the connection between the thoughts, my feelings, my actions, and my results. One example is if I’m thinking a mother always cooks for her family (while at the same time I’m consciously thinking I need to cook less in order to get CampNaNo done,) I can then notice how I feel—pressured, frazzled, my actions—make a meat sauce from scratch in the two hours I have while my son is busy elsewhere—and my results: great dinner, no writing done.
In order to change that result, I need to change that thought.
Do I really believe I can’t be a writer and a mother? No, I don’t. I believe I’m the best mother I can be when I’m the best person I can be, and I can’t be my best if I ignore my passions and dreams. Would I want my son to ignore his passions and dreams? Never.
But if I ignore mine, he will grow up to ignore his. I cannot give him the ability to chase his own dreams, to know that his wants and needs matter, if I don’t believe it for myself.
I am a writer and a mother. For today, I believe both of these statements and I have no cognitive dissonance. I know that old, unwanted thought will creep in again sometime, as it has before, but I know how to recognize it and resolve it.
Cognitive dissonance is a sign. When you experience it, examine your thoughts and question them. Are your thoughts serving you?
Do you experience cognitive dissonance in relation to your writing life?