20 August 2013

Learning from cognitive dissonance

Wait, what? you ask. Cognitive what?

Cognitive dissonance is that phenomenon in which, simply, what's in your head is not matching up with what is going on around you.

I'd say cognitive dissonance has had a presence throughout my life. It has made my life feel out of control and frightening. As a kid, I couldn't trust my thoughts and feelings because the people around me were counting on me to get all the good stuff and skate away past the bad, like Rollergirl in the old Dire Straits song. But really, it was tough to be me in a lot of ways. When they say kids are forced by circumstances to grow up fast, they're talking about kids like me who saw and did a lot of things kids shouldn't have to see and do at tender ages.

Only now becoming clear to me -- so surprising at my advanced age! -- is how much I have contributed to the amount of cognitive dissonance in my life as an adult. Time after time, I have chosen situations that challenged me and confused me at the same time, and I have taken it upon myself to bridge that gap.

To quiet that dissonance, I have had to learn to do some difficult things.

I had to stop riding in cars with anyone I thought might not have my best interests in mind.

I had to call myself a woman instead of a girl. (My blogger name is vanillagrrl for a reason. Grrrr. Tangent: I was so upset when I heard an NPR Science Friday segment last week about women studying STEM -- science, technology, engineering, and math -- and one of the callers talked about her experience in school, adding that she dropped out and had a baby. Then she called herself a girl, as in, "Lots of times I am the only girl in the room." If you've had a baby, surely you have earned the right to call yourself a woman.)

I had to stop doing things that hurt my own feelings, when I stopped and felt my own feelings. I had to stop laughing reflexively about the joke about women being bad drivers. I had to stop getting into an automobile I didn't really want to ride in because it was easier than making some kind of scene about it. Now I am incredulous that my own father told that "joke" with me standing there, not only a woman, but also his daughter! The moment I noticed that I have a father who tells jokes disparaging my half of the population in my presence was a moment I knew I couldn't have a relationship with him because he didn't see me as an equal, as a whole human being.

Now I'd make the scene and refuse the ride, or say something about women being good drivers (thank you, Danica Patrick).

I like to think that I also wouldn't put myself in any of those positions in the first place, but I am not convinced it would be so simple. For I still have things I have to stop doing, because the cognitive dissonance still costs me something very dear every time I experience it. It takes a lot of energy to think one way and act another.

That means I can't say, "I stopped doing those things," because it's an ongoing assignment. I have to keep stopping. When my daughter says, "I don't like riding the bus" and the bus ride is only three minutes long, plus the time they have to interact with the bus driver while the bus is loading, I can hear her cognitive dissonance loud and clear and help her do the right but uncomfortable thing. I can help her stand up for her feelings and figure out how to act on them. But truly, it's not always easy to know when to stand up for my own feelings.

Most recently I stopped eating meat -- well, I'm making an exception for fish, but I am not sure that is defensible given the reasons I stopped eating meat. And still there's more to do. More noise that necessitates adjusting the frequencies to something harmonious instead of the static that consumes my attention and, like kryptonite to Superman, robs me of my strength.

I hope you will wish me strength for this next phase of weeding out the dissonance and finding the sweet harmonies in my world.