Cognitive Dissonance is a term used to describe the mental discomfort that you feel when you hold two conflicting beliefs or find your actions contradict your beliefs.
For example: Someone can acknowledge that their alcohol drinking has caused problems in their life. Such as missed work or strained relationships with loved ones. However, they continue to justify their drinking behaviour by telling themselves that they need alcohol to cope with stress or anxiety.
This creates a state of cognitive dissonance. The person holds two conflicting beliefs. That their drinking is causing them harm, but also that it’s necessary or helpful in some way.
Our brain can get conflicted because we have multiple beliefs, attitudes, and motivations that may be at odds with each other. Another example is that we may believe our alcohol intake is making us argumentative. Yet also have a strong desire to socialize with friends and enjoy the pleasant effects of alcohol. These conflicting beliefs and desires can create a state of cognitive dissonance, which can lead to confusion, anxiety, and discomfort.
Why Do We Still Do Things That Are Bad For Us?
The reason we may still engage in behaviours that we know are bad for us is because our brain is wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. When we engage in activities that provide immediate pleasure or relief, such as drinking alcohol. Our brain releases dopamine and other feel-good neurotransmitters, which reinforce the behaviour and make it more likely to be repeated.
In addition, our brains are also influenced by a variety of external factors, such as social norms, peer pressure, and environmental cues. Which, can override our rational thoughts and beliefs. For example. If we are surrounded by people who are drinking and having a good time, it can be difficult to resist the urge to join in. Even if we know it’s not in our best interest.
To reduce the discomfort of this dissonance, people may engage in denial or avoidance. Such as minimising the negative consequences of their drinking or refusing to acknowledge the impact it has on their life. Things like pointing out how someone else’s drinking is worse than theirs or drinking secretly so not to upset a loved one.
Over time, this pattern of cognitive dissonance can reinforce the person’s addiction and make it harder for them to seek help. They may continue to rationalise their drinking behaviour as above or they may feel guilty and ashamed for their inability to quit and they keep drinking to drown out their emotions.
Are you Suffering From Cognitive Dissonance?
If you think you are suffering from cognitive dissonance here is what you can do to help yourself.
Examine your beliefs and attitudes:
If you’re struggling with alcohol you may need to examine how your beliefs are contributing to your cognitive dissonance. For example, do you believe that alcohol is necessary to have a good time?
Identify the source of the conflict:
You might think alcohol is necessary to have a good time but where is the evidence? Do you usually pass out drunk? Argue with loved ones, miss work deadlines or hide away to drink alone? Is any of that fun?
If you struggle with your alcohol use try practicing self-compassion. Recognising that you’re doing the best you can in a difficult situation and avoid self-blame or criticism. Reduce any negative self-talk like “I can’t have fun without alcohol”. Instead challenge them with more positive or realistic thoughts like. “I can find other ways to have fun that don’t involve alcohol.”
If you believe that you need alcohol to be social you could challenge this assumption by considering other activities you enjoy that do not involve alcohol.
Engage in self-reflection and mindfulness:
Meditation or journaling can be really useful to become more aware of your emotions and have an outlet to reduce stress.
Seek out support:
If you want to reduce your alcohol consumption seek out information and support from Alcoholics Anonymous or other recovery programs. They will help you learn strategies to reduce your alcohol use and find a community.
Set goals and make a plan:
Set a goal to abstain from alcohol, seek out support and develop a plan to cope with triggers and cravings. Take a look at my getting sober guide here to get you started
Overall, cognitive dissonance and conflicting motivations can create a complex interplay between our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. It can take a conscious effort to overcome these internal conflicts and make positive changes in your life.
To break this cycle, you need to confront your conflicting beliefs about alcohol and its role in your life. By addressing cognitive dissonance and working towards a more accurate understanding of your addiction, you can take steps towards recovery and a brighter future.
How to Help Someone Confront Their Dissonance.
Here are some strategies that can be helpful if you are supporting someone to confront their dissonance:
Create a safe and non-judgmental space:
People are more likely to open up and confront their cognitive dissonance when they feel safe and supported. Avoid criticising, shaming, or blaming the person for their drinking behaviour. Instead, approach them with empathy and understanding and create a space where they feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings.
Help the person to reflect on their beliefs and behaviours related to alcohol. Ask open-ended questions that encourage them to explore their feelings, motivations, and attitudes towards drinking. For example you could ask, “How do you feel about your drinking? What do you think are the pros and cons of continuing to drink? Have you ever thought about the impact your drinking has on your life and relationships?”
Offer support and resources:
Let the person know that they are not alone. Show them that there are resources available to help them confront their dissonance and overcome their addiction. Offer to help them find a therapist or take them to a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery.
Use motivational interviewing techniques:
Motivational interviewing is a counselling approach that helps people explore their ambivalence towards behaviour change. It involves using open-ended questions, reflective listening, and empathy to help the person identify their own reasons for change. This can be a helpful approach in addressing cognitive dissonance around alcohol addiction. It encourages the person to explore their own reasons for change and take ownership of their recovery.
Practice patience and persistence:
Confronting cognitive dissonance is a process that takes time and effort. Be patient and persistent in your support, and don’t give up if the person is resistant or defensive at first. Keep the lines of communication open, and let them know that you are there to support them, no matter what.
Confronting cognitive dissonance around alcohol addiction can be a challenging and sensitive process. It is important to approach it with compassion, empathy and a willingness to listen.
How to Spot Cognitive Dissonance in Someone Else.
Spotting cognitive dissonance in a person can be challenging, as it often involves a person’s internal beliefs and attitudes, which may not be immediately visible to others. However, there are some signs and behaviours that can suggest that a person is experiencing cognitive dissonance. Look out for some or all of these behaviours.
Rationalising or justifying their behaviour:
They may engage in rationalisations or justifications to reduce the tension or discomfort caused by the conflict between their beliefs and their behaviour. For example, they may say, “I only drink on weekends” or “I need to drink to have fun with my friends.”
Minimizing the negative consequences of their behaviour:
The person may downplay or ignore the negative consequences of their drinking to reduce the discomfort caused by the conflict between their beliefs and their behaviour. For example, they may say, “I can handle my alcohol” or “I’ve never had a problem because of my drinking.”
Seeking out information that confirms existing beliefs:
The person may actively seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs about alcohol. They will ignore information that contradicts their beliefs. For example, they may only read articles that supports their belief that moderate amounts of alcohol is healthy. While ignoring evidence that excessive drinking is harmful.
Avoiding situations that challenge beliefs:
The person may avoid situations or people that challenge them about their alcohol use as it reduces the discomfort they feel. For example, they may avoid social situations where they know alcohol will be present, to avoid feeling conflicted about drinking.
It’s important to note that cognitive dissonance around alcohol use can be a normal and common experience for many people. It does not necessarily indicate a problem with alcohol use. However, if cognitive dissonance is causing you significant distress or interfering with your ability to function in your daily life, it may be helpful to seek support.
It is important to discuss how you are feeling with a friend, loved one or from a mental health professional.