Life Balance Counseling Blog

Training your brain to love your flaws: Using cognitive dissonance to your advantage

If you’ve ever taken a psychology class, the term “cognitive dissonance” might sound familiar. It is the discomfort an individual feels when they believe two concepts, values, or thoughts that directly contradict one another. This discomfort can also be felt if an individual does something that contradicts their own values. For example, if Suzy thinks she is a good person but she made fun of someone, then she might feel some sort of personal mental discomfort, because her action contradicted her belief about herself.

To cope with this sense of discomfort, many of us might try to rationalize our actions so as not to be out of line with how we think of ourselves. For example, Suzy might say that the person she was making fun of was being mean to her earlier, and therefore he “deserved it.” In thinking this way, Suzy might feel better about herself, despite having made fun of him.

It’s really a very interesting concept, if you think about it. Our brain tries to self-correct our own way of thinking so we can get back “in line” with our beliefs if we ever “fall out” of line.

Okay, psychology review/lesson over. Now, how can we use this to our advantage?

Whether you have low self-esteem in general or there’s just one, two, (or a handful) of things you don’t like about yourself, you might have the conscious or unconscious thought: “I really hate my ____.” Perhaps you even think this thought every time you see this feature on yourself, so the message is pretty engrained in your brain. The good news is, we have power to change our thoughts using thought stopping techniques, and thanks to cognitive dissonance, we have the power to change how we feel about things.

Here’s how: Let’s say Suzy has freckles and she hates them. Every day she looks in the mirror and thinks “I really hate my freckles.” One day Suzy wakes up an decides that she doesn’t want to hate her freckles anymore, so she employs some thought stopping techniques—anytime she has a negative thought about her freckles, she says “STOP” out loud, and instead, replaces that thought with a new one: “I really love my freckles.” She does this every day until she no longer has negative thoughts about her freckles, and when she sees them, she continues to think “I really love my freckles.” Eventually, the new thought is the one “burned” in her brain, and the old one is no more.

Right now you might be thinking, “okay, but where does cognitive dissonance come into play?” When Suzy first started the thought stopping and introducing the new thought, her brain had two conflicting messages: “I hate my freckles” and “I really love my freckles.” Because of cognitive dissonance, Suzy’s brain is really scrambling, because it can’t possibly believe the two contradictory thoughts at the same time. When Suzy continues to repeat the message “I really love my freckles” over and over again, her brain has to change its wiring to cope with the uncomfortable feelings it experiences by having the two contradictory thoughts. To put itself back “in line” with the new thoughts it is being bombarded with (“I really love my freckles”), Suzy’s brain starts to have more positive feelings about her freckles.

Perhaps the long explanation sounds confusing and makes the matter more complicated, but the basic message is this: If we introduce a new, positive message in our brain that contradicts an old, negative message we have, with enough repetition our brain will begin to believe the new message.

Be patient with yourself in trying this. Remember that repetition of the new and positive message is key. Eventually your brain will start to adjust to—and accept—the new message, while pushing the old one out. This is because the two conflicting messages can’t both be accepted by your brain at the same time, and your brain will be forced to start agreeing with the message you are repeating every day.

Happy brain rewiring!

 

By: Lauren Buetikofer, LPC