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Cognitive Dissonance    

Cognitive Dissonance

BY MICAELA CUNNINGHAM

Artwork by John Akira Harrold

I talk A LOT about cognitive dissonance and how it keeps me constantly analyzing my inconsistent beliefs and actions. 

As I’m sure most people don't really know what cognitive dissonance is, let's start at the beginning. 

What is cognitive dissonance? 

Cognitive dissonance is having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes, as it relates to your behaviors and actions. 

How do we know when we are experiencing it?

CD is something that we all feel. When someone experiences cognitive dissonance, they have an uneasy feeling because of what they’re doing and what they believe isn’t balanced. Everyone has an inner drive that pushes us to balance our actions and beliefs, and when things become imbalanced, people take steps to eliminate that dissonance.

Despite using those words almost weekly, I have never really researched the word in a psychological sense.

I am someone who is truly passionate about the mental health space and continues to dedicate myself to being an advocate for the cause. There’s a lot of roads that can lead someone to do mental health advocacy as a career choice, and for me, it was a lived experience. 

I first started noticing symptoms of my mental illness when I was in third grade. It took me five years to get a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Even after getting a diagnosis, I still wasn’t getting appropriate treatment and struggled with maladaptive coping skills. From 13 to 18, I developed a drug addiction, which I struggle with to this day despite being clean for three years.

Everyone’s experience with addiction is different. Mine was very insidious. DARE taught us that weed was a gateway drug, and I believed that with my whole being. I was that girl in middle and high school who stopped talking to kids who were once my friends because they smoked weed in the canyon by the school’s soccer fields. I promised I would never use it myself. And then I did hard drugs.

Looking back at the cognitive dissonance I had astounds me to this day. Here I was, stigmatizing cannabis while developing a prescription pill and street drug addiction. Anyone who has had an addiction can tell you there’s a lot of shame and stigma that comes with it; I put myself in situations where I’m still ashamed by the things I did. If we look back at the theory of cognitive dissonance and my story, I should’ve been taking steps to try rebalancing my beliefs and actions and to correct that dissonance, but I wasn’t. The barriers that prevented me from gaining cognitive consistency and getting the treatment I needed were wrapped up in a lot of insecurities the teenagers and young adults I work with now experience themselves.

Through transitional periods of a person’s life, there’s a lot of questions and self-doubt that come to the surface. Fresh starts are an opportunity to discover more of who you are and what you want to do, but I think they’re only great if you already have a solid sense of self. Looking back at my transition into high school when my substance abuse issues started I had switched schools four times in those last four years, I had no solid friendships and overwhelming anxiety over another new start. When I felt the uneasy feelings of CD, I did the only thing I knew how to: pivot. I adjusted my beliefs to meet my actions. I was a compass constantly spinning, searching for anything to tell me that I was doing something right. When I couldn’t get that validation, I would readjust my beliefs (again) to meet my increasingly shittier actions.

At the age of 18, I finally had to face the realities of my situation. My parents were divorcing, I wasn’t going to graduate, and there was a solid chance I would end up in jail or on the streets. I knew at this point, something had to give, and this time it couldn’t be my beliefs. I had to challenge myself to change my actions. My recovery started the day I did that. 

Growing up, I never thought I would be addicted to drugs, but addiction is so powerful that it became a central part of my identity. I was an addict. The first step towards resolving that uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. Who was I beyond addiction? Building a solid support system of new friends who didn’t use helped me find that. I set boundaries with my toxic home environment. I was able to find things I genuinely enjoyed, like going to the skatepark with my boyfriend, and had friends who  encouraged me to go back to school. I started volunteering in the mental health field and started working to support myself. At this point I changed the language I was using to identify myself to be more person first and descriptive. I was a student who enjoyed being active and hanging out with friends. I was a person who contributed to her community and supported causes she believed in. 

Taking those steps and changing the language I used to identify myself gave me the confidence I needed to continue to choose recovery. I was able to tackle the barriers that prevented me from overcoming cognitive dissonance. 

Recovery isn’t linear. It’s something you’re constantly working at and having to choose. There’s some days where choosing recovery is a lot easier than others. I’m almost 3.5 years sober now. I have a dog and a cat, I’m still in school. I’ve been working at a mental health non-profit for almost 2 years. I still struggle with cognitive dissonance sometimes, and thankfully it’s usually over menial things like believing in low-waste and sustainability but also spending a stupid amount of money on Amazon. The difference now is that when I do experience cognitive dissonance over things a little more drastic to my mental health I have a solid support system in place between my friends and therapist that helps me restore that balance between my actions and beliefs.