Cognitive Dissonance and Writing

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?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, life coach, and family physician. You can more blog posts by her at


42 thoughts on “Cognitive Dissonance and Writing

    • Hi Desiree Eve,
      Dr. Festinger is well known for his work on cognitive dissonance, yes!

      Thanks for reading!


  1. Pingback: Cognitive Dissonance and Writing | JCU // Creative Writing Workshop

  2. Thank you, Diane! I will share this with my Mama Doc friends–my mama friends!! I learned a whole ago that balance is a dynamic state. Sometimes I can get carried away with my hobbies, just as easily as I can ignore them. My kids are good at calling me out of the former, and now you have given me a practice to extract myself from the latter. Have a great weekend!

    • Hi Catherine,
      Thanks so much for reading and for commenting–and sharing the post with your mama friends! I’ve used this concept for years now and it’s always worth revisiting!


    • Hi sara,
      Thank you! And I think everyone suffers from this disability at one time or another. 🙂

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


  3. Such a timely post for me – this EXACT topic something I have battled with in the last year! My husband was diagnosed with cancer (completely unexpected) and I struggled to maintain myself as a full time writer, a caregiver. To make matters worse, his employer laid him off, and that added the responsibility of having to resume a full time job to help carry us through several months of expensive Cobra payments in addition to living expenses. It’s been rough. At first, I thought my life as a writer was over. There was soooo little time to write. I thought “How can I possibly claim the title of writer when I’m lucky if most weeks I can only manage an hour or two of writing?” (And that done often bleary eyed from little sleep, too much stress and a to-do list filled with ridiculous tasks like dealing with insurance companies, running my husband back and forth to radiation and chemo sessions, etc.).
    I felt sorry for myself and wallowed. For awhile, I convinced myself that my life as a writer was over and boy-oh-boy was there cognitive dissonance, because the writer in me was PISSED that I tried to shove her in a closet! She’d already taken a back seat to raising a family and running a business and she came out fighting! My thought process was similar to what you describe.
    Guess what? Life happens to EVERYBODY. My husband will continue to struggle with cancer and eventually lose that battle. So I asked myself a hard question: “Will you allow yourself to be a writer when your husband dies? And if so, why can’t you be a writer when he’s alive?”
    Yessiree! I’M still alive. Who said I needed to sacrifice my life because cancer stepped into it?
    My writing is part of my identity. Caregiving, working — life interruptions — can’t change that, even if my writing is a very SLOW process these days! One writing moment at a time!
    Wonderful topic, Diane! Great post!

    • Hi Laura,
      I’m so sorry to hear about your husband’s diagnosis and the changes that have impacted your life–as a human being and as a writer. I’m glad you found the post helpful. I actually wrote a third blog post on cognitive dissonance (the second one is here on Live to Write) and it’s on my blog, Healing Choices.

      When my son was an infant and my dad was critically ill, I’d journal in my dad’s hospital room or at 4 am after putting the baby to bed. That was all I could do at the time and it was enough. Nothing stays the same forerver. Just do what you can when you can, and know that everything changes.

      Sending you and your husband healing and postiive energy.


  4. As mentioned in the other posts, this is a great piece, very timely and hits very close to home! Your article and Laura Bobroff’s comment have encouraged me to not put my interest and desire to write in a shed on the neighbors farm somewhere! Thank you!

    • Hi warmsio2,
      Thank you for reading and commenting. If you can, get to that shed! If you can’t, keep a journal or your laptop next to your bed.

      Happy writing!


  5. Great topic here. Beyond just writing, I think cognitive dissonance is a HUGE issue, like globally huge dangerous issue. When we look at it so many evils of the world we will find a thick web of cognitive dissonance. This is what people mean when they talk about “waking up”. Waking up is about examining and deconstructing cognitive dissonance. I think its great you connect this to writing, because I think as you establish here, writing is a way to wake ourselves up. This element of writing makes it almost a moral imperative when you really think about it. Thanks for the post.

    • Hi amcmulin914,
      Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comments. I agree, cognitive dissonance affects every area of life. It’s when we don’t accept parts of ourselves that we “act out,” which can be anything from not writing when we have the time, to treating people who are living the life we wish we could (but don’t believe we can) badly.

      In order to see the cognitive dissonance in our lives, we have to look for it. We have to take the time to reflect and question our thoughts. Resolving our cognitive dissonance leads us to thinking more clearly and behaving in ways that are in line with our thoughts. In other words, we are awake.

      Thanks again!


  6. cognitive dissonance, I can’t write and teach because there’s nothing left. I give all my good stuff away to students…and examining the thought process…excellent idea…

    • Hi codecalla,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. What did you discover when you examined your thought process?


      • My students actually inspire me. I’ve been more inspired in the past few weeks, just making time to write down these thoughts is the next step. Be forgiving of myself, and attempt the November challenge…or not. Just write and let it flow.

  7. great… so much lies in the unconscious, sometimes we let it out and some times we just suppress it afraid of what others may think of us, and that is where the contradictions arise from, trying to live in line with moral principles and values at the same time having to control the id which in most cases is so rapturous. at this point conflict within ones self is inevitable.

    • Hi omariod,
      I agree! Therefore I try to examine my thoughts and see where they are in conflict and resolve the conflict…until another one crops up!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


  8. I grapple with whether I’ve earned the right to write or “deserve to write” all the time. I, too, am a writer AND a mother – plus maintain a day job – and deep down I know that I will be a happier, calmer me if I take time for myself to work on my writing. It’s all about being aware of my everyday denial of self – great post!

    • Hi Ann Hall,
      I agree. It’s so easy to let the things that are “only” for you slide, but we can only do it so long before the well runs dry and we start to get resentful. I’m a much happier mom when I’m doing the things that feed my soul, even if I only take 15 minutes to do it today. I’m getting to a point now where I can spend more time writing and I have to be careful or I can give all that time away to my business and my family–and I don’t mean the fun parts, I mean I could spend all day cleaning and doing laundry rather than write. So I’m trying to be really conscious of my thoughts because if I clean up my thinking my feelings and my behaviours change for the better.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Keep writing!


  9. Pingback: Cognitive Dissonance and Writing II | Live to Write – Write to Live

  10. Fantastic article. I’m another writer who struggles with this, as I already have a “day job”. Thank you for shedding some light on the subject! I hope you don’t mind that I’m reflagging this article.

    • Hi Dr. Meg Sorick,
      Thanks for reading and commenting, and for the pingback. I take it as a compliment.

      Glad you liked the post!


  11. I read this re-blogged on Alex’s blog and I found it absolutely fascinating! Thank you for explaining this. As a writer who often feels that they do not have time to write I am going to examine my feelings about this more… and certainly will come back here – what a great blog!

  12. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 01-07-2016 | The Author Chronicles

  13. Pingback: Cognitive Dissonance and Writing – writeandthrive

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