Cognitive Dissonance and Writing II

I recently wrote about Cognitive Dissonance and Writing. One of the ways I’ve dealt with my own cognitive dissonance (in many areas of my life) is to find small ways to “prove” both of my conflicting beliefs true. One way I do this is to use a concrete exercise I learned from Martha Beck[i]. I call this exercise the And/Or Exercise, but Martha calls it by its more correct psychological name:

Unifying False Dichotomies

To shake yourself free of falsely dichotomous thinking, try making a list of either/ors in your life. These could be any pairs of opposites, contradictory things that you could be, have, or do.

My Dichotomous Life

I can either be __________________________ or ______________________________.

I can either have ________________________ or ______________________________.

I can either do __________________________ or ______________________________.

Now, rewrite those very same things in the spaces below.

My Creative Life

I intend to be both __________________________ and __________________________.

I intend to have both ________________________ and __________________________.

I intend to do both __________________________ and __________________________.

The more resistance you feel to rewriting these either/or statements into “and” statements, the more likely you are holding onto false beliefs.

Here are some statements I’ve worked with over the years:

  • I can either be a doctor or a mother.
  • I can either have a family or a career.
  • I can either write novels or practice medicine.

Rewritten, these statements become:

  • I intend to be both a doctor and a mother.
  • I intend to have both a family and a career.
  • I intend to write novels and practice medicine.

These days, I can rewrite all those statements with an “of course I can!” feeling, but back in the day, I had a hard time believing them. Seeing the statements written out made them easier to believe.

I continue to do this exercise every once in a while, as a way to see what I’m thinking and to discover where I might be experiencing cognitive dissonance in my own life.

At one point I came across this dichotomous belief: I can be either an artist or a productive member of society.

How’s that for a creativity blocker? Pretty good, it turns out.

I intend to be both an artist and a productive member of society is a statement that works much better for me, and allows me to see the creativity I bring to every part of my life, from my writing to my parenting to my cooking. It’s a shift in perspective that allows me to see myself as the creative being I am.

Do you think you can either be a writer or something else? How about both?

[i] Adapted from The Joy Diet: 10 Daily Practices for a Happier Life, by Martha Beck. Used with her permission.

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, master life coach, and family physician. You can find her at

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