Or How the Effects of Disbelieving Your Reality Actually Affect Your Brain.
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While I was married to my ex-husband, I couldn’t do basic math.
When a server returned with a credit card receipt for $15.91 and I had to calculate the addition of a $3.00 tip, I was at a loss. I’d try and then slide the receipt over to my ex-husband to check. He’d shake his head ‘no’ and tell me the correct answer.
“How did you even graduate high school?” he’d often ask in disbelief.
“I don’t know why it’s so hard for me now!” I’d laugh, feeling my face turn hot.
I graduated from a large public high school in the top 10% of my class. I scored in the top 88th percentile on the ACT. I graduated Cum Laude from a prestigious private liberal arts college with a degree in English and lots of coursework in Classical Languages. I have a Master’s in Poetry and have taught Latin and English for nine years.
Yet I couldn’t, for nine years straight, reliably add calculations as simple as 3.00 plus 15.91.
I felt embarrassed every time. Wasn’t I a highly intelligent and educated woman? What was wrong with me?
After a devastating discovery and nine months of one terrible thing after another, I finally left my ex-husband in 2018.
A few months later, I started grading a stack of tests that were out of seventy points. On the first test I graded, the student missed thirteen points and, instead of reaching for a calculator, I wrote at the top of the test, “57/70.”
I stared at the number, surprised. I even re-did the math a couple of times in my head to make sure it was correct. It was of course. I realized then, for the first time in a long time, that I hadn’t needed to use a calculator to do some basic math. I thought it was a fluke at first, that I was just having a “good” day.
But I have had no problem any day after that.
When a server brings me the credit card receipt, I no longer feel a flood of embarrassment that I can’t add it up myself.
I had no explanation for this until a therapist told me about “Cognitive Dissonance,” a term coined by Leon Festinger in 1954, and learned what happens to your brain long-term if you live with it.
Cognitive Dissonance is described as the feeling of acute mental distress produced by holding two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time, or by believing one thing and doing another. Festinger proposed that “the greater the discomfort, the greater the desire to reduce the dissonance of the two cognitive elements.”
When someone smokes (behavior) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition), they are in a state of cognitive dissonance.
There are three ways that a smoker may work to reduce their dissonance:
1. “Change one or more of the attitudes, behavior, beliefs, etc., to make the relationship between the two elements a consonant one.”
As in, the smoker quits smoking.
2. “Acquire new information that outweighs the dissonant beliefs.”
As in, the smoker focuses on research that says things like, “research has not proved definitively that smoking causes lung cancer” or the story of the 73-year-old man who is a heavy smoker with miraculously no health problems.
3. “Reduce the importance of the cognitions (i.e., beliefs, attitudes).”
As in, the smoker could tell herself, “YOLO!,” that a short life filled with the pleasure of smoking is far better than a long life without. In this way, she would be decreasing the importance of the dissonant cognition (smoking is bad for one’s health).
Brain MRI scans show that when we’re confronted with dissonant information and use rationalization to compensate, the reasoning areas of our brains shut down while the emotion circuits of the brain light up with activity. Essentially, key brain functions, like my ability to do math computations, shut down to be able to rationalize dissonant thoughts and/or behaviors.
Sandra Brown, former psychotherapist and author, has worked with women who have lived with Cognitive Dissonance for years.
These women “describe not only anxiety and depression but also brain fog and the inability to make decisions or trust themselves…[these women], who excel in every other area of life, develop executive function disorders and lose the ability to think straight.” The work of rationalizing their insane environment was so much that it overpowered their other functions.
A year out, I am still learning how traumatizing and damaging my marriage was, how hard my brain had to work to rationalize he loves me unconditionally with the myriad of conflicting and abusive behaviors I saw from an active drug addict who hid his use and criminal activity from me while we were married.
I knew things were off. I’d always felt that way, but I had never been able to put my finger on exactly what was wrong.
Other people sensed it too. At an annual optometry appointment, I remember telling my doctor I’d recently gotten married. “Congratulations!” he’d said. “Marriage is wonderful!” Some look must have passed over my face because he immediately dropped his voice, touched my arm, and said, “The first year is always the hardest, honey.”
And friends, too many, kept saying things like, “Have you thought about leaving?” or recommending books for me to read like Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay when I’d discuss with them some of the shady things that were going on within my own home.
But I joined the “No Matter What” club when we exchanged vows. We would NEVER divorce, I believed. When times were tough (which was often), I put the work in: reading books, suggesting we go to couples therapy, following popular advice.
When nothing felt any different after doing that for years, I started to believe that it was because I was the problem, so I prayed, I journaled, I went to plenty of individual therapy.
When I found drugs in my ex-husband’s truck, it meant more than just that he’d been lying to me. It meant my brain finally had permission to stop lying to itself.
The key to preventing Cognitive Dissonance? Practicing mindfulness.
“It’s important to be in touch with your own value system and know when your thinking is being driven by emotions,” said Corrine Leikam, PsyD, an associate director at Sober College in Los Angeles.
Here are ways to bring mindfulness into your own life:
Talking to a friend
Exercising, which sometimes gives us the opportunity to be alone with our thoughts, rather than distracted by emails, text messages, TV, or chatty coworkers
Attending a meditation or yoga class
Engaging in therapy
Consulting with a spiritual adviser
I value the importance of practicing self-honesty today, of investigating my feelings, and whether what I’m seeing and feeling are aligning with my own values.
I value it so much today because I know what it was like to walk around in a fog, to be unsure of everything, to feel like there must be something terribly terribly wrong with me, and I won’t go back there for even one second again.