Saturday, April 05, 2008

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term describing the uncomfortable tension that may result from:

- Having two conflicting thoughts at the same time
- Engaging in behavior that conflicts with one’s beliefs and self-concept
- Experiencing something that conflicts with everything the person previously “knew” about the world

Cognitive dissonance can be defined as “an internal contradiction.”

We all want to believe that we are good people. So if we do something harmful to another person, we feel that prick of our conscience. Since we cannot live in a state of “cognitive dissonance” for an extended period of time, we have to somehow make it right in our heads.

Our choice is:
- To tell ourselves that what we did wasn’t wrong (denial)
- To tell ourselves that they deserved it (excuses)
- To confess and admit responsibility (best option)

Cognitive dissonance can occur in the minds of neglectful and abusive parents. I can’t tell you how many foster care alumni have come to me and told me about this type of experience.

After being reunited with a parent, a young person might try to tell mom or dad what happened during their time in foster care. Or a young person might say, “Remember that guy you were dating before I left home? Did I ever tell you that he touched me when you weren’t around?”

More often than not, the biological parent will respond, “I don’t want to hear about it.”

Why? Because hearing what happened to their child when that parent was unable or unwilling to care for them sounds like an indictment. They don’t want to look at it. They don’t want to face up to their responsibility in abdicating care for their child.

My father is the perfect example. I rarely saw him during my time in foster care - but when I did, I was always mystified by the fact that he could never look me in the eyes. He always looked away. Later, when I came to him as an adult, to try to tell him some of the things that happened during and after my time in care, including the fact that I experienced rape and homelessness, he didn’t want to hear about it.

He even went so far as to say, “Lisa, we have no way of knowing whether or not those things ever happened to you.”

I had to raise my eyebrows at that comment.

Being the person who experienced those things and survived them, I found it mind-boggling that another person might think that by his denial, he could edit my entire life history, and make those painful experiences no longer exist.

I made up my mind at that moment that I wanted to be a person who could face reality, in all its beauty and all its ugliness, and take full responsibility for my actions.

As a stepmother, if I feel that my reaction to something was wrong, I will go to my husband and stepdaughters and apologize. I will not make excuses for myself — I will just call it what it is: “I have a big mouth sometimes,” and strive to do better.

Sadly, cognitive dissonance can occur in the minds of abuse victims as well. When a parent is the perpetrator, rather than the protector, that clashes with everything that a child instinctively knows.

So, might a child be tempted to do?
- Tell themselves that what the parent is doing isn’t wrong (denial)
- Tell themselves that they deserved it (make excuses for the parent)
- Tell themselves that a parent should be protector, and that the fact that theirs is not, is due that parent’s choice and not a reflection of the child’s worth (best option, but it often takes years for an abused child to recognize this)

The first two reactions can lead to both current and future emotional damage: A child experiencing sexual abuse might try to make sense of the experience by equating the act with love. Later, that same child might grow into an adult who expects abuse from his or her partner.

Now that I advocate for young people in and from foster care, it is so easy for me to see that their parents’ actions are not a reflection of their worth. But, back when I was still in college, it was hardest of all to see that value in myself.

I still remember the moment when I realized that my father’s rejection did not make me unworthy of love. I was reading the quote, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child and I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I left childish ways behind me.”

It occured to me in that moment that if I were ever to grow up, I needed to assert my own worth and not judge myself as unloveable based upon my father’s reaction.

Good Will Hunting
Similarly, one scene from the movie “Good Will Hunting“ has resonated with many foster care/child abuse survivors. Robin Williams (playing Sean, a psychiatrist) is counseling Matt Damon (playing Will Hunting) an abused child.

After holding up pictures of Will Hunting, covered in bruises, the script continues:

Sean: Will, you see this, all this ****?
[Holds up the file, and drops it on his desk]
Sean: It’s not your fault.
Will: [Softly, still staring off] I know…
Sean: No you don’t. It’s not your fault.
Will: [Serious] I know.
Sean: No. Listen to me son. It’s not your fault.
Will: I know that.
Sean: It’s not your fault.
[Will is silent, eyes closed]
Sean: It’s not your fault.
Will: [eyes misty with tears] Don’t **** with me Sean. Not you.
Sean: It’s not your fault.
[Will shoves Sean back, and then, hands trembling, buries his face in his hands. Will begins sobbing. Sean puts his hands on Will’s shoulders, and Will grabs him and holds him close, crying]
Will: Oh my God! I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry Sean!
[Will continues sobbing in Sean’s arms]

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Good post. How are you?? I started a new blog..a professional one. Check it out when you have the time. I blog rolled your site..


Your post made me cry. My daughter lives in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. Several of them do, actually.

It's so impressive that you have made the choices you have.
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