Cognitive Dissonance

I have wanted to write this post for a long time. It has been tumbling around in the back of my head, but when I sit down to write, this post is never what comes out. It doesn’t really want to now either, but unlike most other days, I can’t think of anything else. Plus, I can tell that if I don’t write it soon, it will never get written. So I shall attempt to get it down, and hopefully, in the end, it will make sense.

I was reading a memoir, at the beginning of my maternity leave, about a woman who has a baby girl (her fourth biological child) just a few short weeks after the death of her sister (whose two children she gains custody of). At one point in the book she talks about cognitive dissonance and, in the really difficult, blissful first weeks of my son’s life, the concept really struck a cord with me. This is what she writes:

Human brains don’t do so well with paradoxes, though. When faced with two contradicting beliefs, feelings, or behaviors, the brain tends to feel stressed, unable to handle the tension of the opposing forces. Psychologists call this “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance is usually relieved by changing by changing a belief or behavior. For example, if I believe I am a good person but I do a bad thing, I either have to change my behavior and not do that thing again, to remain a good person, or I have to change my belief of what a good person does by telling myself, “I’m good in most ways, but I do have my devilish side” (then grin and laugh, evilly). By making devilish seem good, I relieve the cognitive dissonance and feel at ease again. However, although cognitive dissonance has its upside, often prompting positive change, it also has a distinct downside. When under the influence of cognitive dissonance, our magnificent brains have a heck of a time comprehending that we may not need to change a behavior or belief, and that in fact, both my be true.

– Christina Hibbert, This is How We Grow

The concept of cognitive dissonance really struck me in those first weeks and months after my second child was born, when I was struggling to reconcile how I felt both entirely content and utterly overwhelmed. How was it that I could be both sublimely happy and utterly distraught? The paradox sent my brain into overload. As I tried to understand how both extremes could exist inside me at the same time, my brain’s neural connections threatened to short circuit.

The way I managed these two contrasting states was to experience them separately. Alone, at night, gazing at my son in the soft light of the dimmed corner lamp, I was whole, fulfilled, brimming with gratitude. I couldn’t believe my good fortune; my life felt like a dream come true.

And yet, in the midst of one of my daughters seemingly constant meltdowns I was overwhelmed, angry, distraught, mired in confusion and verging on regret. I couldn’t believe that everything had gone so wrong; my life felt like a nightmare from which I would never escape.

And so I existed in these two places–along with the third plane of mind-numbing exhaustion that straddled them both–during the first months of my life as a mother of two. At the time I didn’t question it much, there wasn’t really time for that. It was after I reemerged into the world, when people starting asking me how I was doing, that I realized I didn’t know how to reconcile the two. Did I tell them I was drunk off the intoxicating love I felt for my son, that I felt whole after the birth of my second child, who I had given up the hope of ever welcoming into the world? Or did I tell them that our family had been ravaged by his arrival, that our daughter was so stressed that she was making herself sick, and that as parents we felt ineffectual in the face of the immense tidal waves of her unregulated emotions? Both were true, but how could they be true simultaneously?

Usually I just opted to relate my existence in the third place, that realm of aching tiredness, which dulled our days. People expected that and swallowed it easily enough. They told me it would get better, and part of me wanted to say that it couldn’t because it was already so wonderful. And another part of me wanted to say it had to, because it was impossibly hard.

Now, three and a half months after my son’s birth, things have evened out a bit. My drunken love for my son has settled into a nice, sustainable, buzz. I’m still high on his presence in my life, but I can function well enough under its influence. My daughter also seems to have accepted our new family of four, and the storms of her transition have calmed considerably. For now the cognitive dissonance has resolved: the enormity of the good doesn’t feel at odds with the intensity of the bad. Life feels manageable once again.

I wonder, thought, how I will process those first few months. I may never be able to reconcile how they were both some of the best, and some of the worst, weeks of my journey through motherhood. And maybe that is okay.

I have lived through periods of cognitive dissonance before, and I find them just as difficult to understand. My junior year abroad, when I was studying in Spain, was a time I can’t really seem to categorize. It was an enlightening experience; a period of intense self-discovery and incredible opportunities for travel. I visited so many different places and became familiar with so many intimate parts of my self. It was also a year mired in almost debilitating anxiety and depression, which I sought to control through disordered eating (basically anorexia) and extreme exercise. When I attempt to categorize that year as “amazing” or “awful” I’m at a loss. Neither adjective captures the experience; it was both. Every single day was unforgettable for both the incredible things I learned and saw, and the mental anguish I endured.

One of my favorite memories of that trip was a morning run I took in Paris. During my week there, when I should have been savoring the delicious cuisine (which, to be fair, I did), I also forced myself to run almost every morning. One of those mornings I pulled myself out of bed at some ungodly hour, threw on my thermal running clothes and set out into the frigid winter air. It was barely light outside and an inch or snow had fallen the night before (a very rare occurrence inside the city–I believe it hadn’t happened in seven years or so). The entire city was glowing in the ethereal light of the early winter morning as it reflected off the untouched snow. I ran up the Seine from the Musee D’orsay to the Eiffel Tower and never say another living soul. It was this pristine moment, created by both the unforgettable opportunities I had to travel Europe and study in Spain, and the lengths to which I had to push myself in order to manage my anxiety and fear. I wouldn’t give up that year of my life for anything, even though it was one of the hardest I ever lived. And to this day, when people ask me about my experience studying abroad, I’m not sure how to describe it.

I suppose it will be the same when I’m asked about our transition to a family of four. It held both the best, and the worst, moments of my early life as a mother. I will never be able to explain that time with a simple response. And I suppose that is okay.

Have you ever experienced cognitive dissonance? Were you able to resolve it?

5 responses

  1. I think it all depends on your definition of “resolve.” I’m starting to figure out that my expectations of how I’ll feel when I’ve resolved my emotions is the *real* issue for me. Like I expect that in a situation where I have strong and conflicting emotions, I’ll be able to tie it all together like the perfect conclusion of a book.

    Except I don’t think that’s how it works. I think it’s totally okay for you to tell a person, when they ask you how you’re doing, to say that you are blissfully happy and incredibly stressed and that your family of four is wonderfully awful most days and that you’re just mucking along.

    And same with your time abroad, too. Your truth is that it was wonderful AND awful, all at once.

    My therapist keeps telling me that it’s okay to have two feelings at once, even if they conflict. And if you think about it, two feelings at once makes sense – the yin and the yang, the space between breaths and the breathing, the action and reaction. There’s nothing in this life that is one or the other. It’s both. And I don’t know that we need to resolve it as much as figure out how to exist within it.

  2. Wow. Karen’s comment is great!

    I was going to say I can relate to this. I spent a year on exchange, living with a local family, when I was in Thailand. It was the hardest year of my life, and the year I cried the most (until I encountered pregnancy lost), and yet it was wonderful too, with amazing highs and lows. It changed my life, and has given me lifelong friends, a career, etc etc. But it was really hard.

    Highs and lows – sometimes following each other within seconds – are, to me at least, a normal part of life, and perhaps reflect those times we learn the most about ourselves.

  3. Yes, Karen said it well. And I agree…like you, I want to be able to define things, label them, put them in neat buckets of “wonderful” and “awful” but life just doesn’t work that way. The dark and the light co-mingle and its impossible to separate them, and in fact, the dark makes the light brighter, so maybe its best to leave them together. I’m rambling, but what I mean is that I GET THIS, and its nice to know I’m not alone in this wonderfully terrible delightfully infuriating life.

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