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

Finding Balance & Making Time For Self-care

Many of us have so many responsibilities in our lives that we need to forget to make time for ourselves. Sometimes our lives can be so full of things that need to be accomplished, never ending lists that get checked off and then more tasks are added. Does it ever end?

In a fast pace lifestyle it can be very challenging trying to find balance and manage stress. Balancing being a parent, spouse, daughter/son, colleague, student can be overwhelming and cause a wide range of emotions. When we begin feeling overwhelmed, some individuals may feel sad, anxious, angry or irritable.

Each day presents its own challenges and it is very important to take a step back and make time for self-care. Self-care is important for emotional health, feeling balanced, and stress management.

Think of something that you truly enjoy and make time each week to do that something that makes you feel relaxed and happy. Everyone needs time to shut off their crazy, hectic schedules and focus on themselves.

Some self-care strategies for overall stress reduction include:

Getting enough sleep. Turn off your television and computer and go to bed earlier. This can be challenging because technology may be your only relaxation time at the end of the day, but we all need sleep in order to function the next day.

Maintain Social Support. Social support can be helpful in lifting your spirits, feeling connected, and feeling a sense of belonging. Family and friends can be a good listeners and may be able to help you process your thoughts and feelings when you are facing personal challenges.

Finding a Hobby. Having a hobby that you enjoy can make you feel happy when you are facing challenges. It gives you a time-out so that you can focus on something enjoyable. Having hobbies has been helpful for individuals and families to find balance and reduce stress. If you are unsure of what hobby you should do, think back to when you were younger and think about the things you enjoyed, it may be sports, dance, collecting something, making jewelry, art, music. Take some time and explore your options. Look at your local community (park district, churches, etc) and see what classes are offered.

Exercise & Nutrition. It is important to maintain healthy nutrition. This can be a big challenge when you are on the go and convenance becomes essential. Make healthy snacks you can grab from your refrigerator or pantry. Exercise is also important because it helps reduce stress, anger, anxiety, and depression. Exercise is important for both your physical and mental health. Make time, even if it is a quick walk around the block.

Process your Emotions. Keeping your emotions bottled up and not effectively coping with them can lead to an emotional explosion. Learn how to process your thoughts and feelings and identify ways to help you cope with your feelings. If you are unsure of how to process your thoughts and feelings, seek a professional counselor that can help teach you how to process thoughts/feelings and provide you with useful coping skills to keep your emotional balance in check.

Coping With Your Child's Chronic Illness

When you have a child who has been diagnosed with a chronic illness it can feel like your family has been hit by a tornado.  From the initial moment of finding out your child has a chronic illness and throughout the process of learning about the condition and figuring out how to cope, parents go through various stages of emotions.  There are so many factors that impact the parents and child as they work together to get through the emotions and stages of grief (shock & denial, pain & guilt, anger & bargaining, depression & reflection, the upward turn, reconstruction & working through and acceptance & hope).  Some parents have a difficult time wrapping their heads around what they should do next? 

The first step is to become knowledgeable about your child's chronic illness:

  • Knowledge is Power: the first step to coping with your child's chronic illness is to become educated about the chronic condition.  The unknown can create fear, anxiety, sadness, loss of control and helplessness.  Knowledge is empowering!  Becoming educated can help you and your child feel more in control of the condition and enable the parent to advocate for their child.  

Once educated about your child's chronic illness, parent's need to be able to:

  • Advocate for your child: as a parent you are your child's voice at the doctor's office, hospital, school and with family and friends.  For example, if you are uncomfortable with your doctor putting an IV in your child's head, then step up and say "no."  At the end of the day, you know your child best and you are in control of the situation.  Don't let anyone make you feel like you are a bad parent because you are standing up for your child. 
  • Develop relationships with your child's health care team: ask your child's health care team as many questions about the chronic illness as you can.  You are a parent, not a doctor so you still need time to become the expert of your child's condition.  As your child develops additional questions will arise.  By developing a relationship with professionals you will feel more comfortable asking questions about your child's condition and you will also feel more at ease knowing you have someone you can call and count on.  Please note: if your child's health care team is not responsive or helpful in educating you about your child's condition keep looking until you find a professional that fits your families needs.  You do have options!  
  • Join support groups: gaining support from others going through similar experiences can be liberating.  At first you may feel alone and that no one understands what you are going through  because they do not have a child with a chronic illness.  By gaining support from others, one can become educated first hand by other parents, make you feel like you are not alone and can look at what worked and what did not work for other parents.  There is a list of benefits that support can offer parents.  There are also online groups you can join if there are no support groups in your area or if you prefer the convenance from your home.
  • Attend to your own needs: it can be easy to forget about ourselves when you are caring for a child but it is important to realize that you are human and you can only do so much.  You need to take care of your needs and take the time to exercise, meditate, hang out with friends and family or just do something you enjoy!    Having a family member with a chronic illness can be exhausting and stressful and it is important to do activities (art, music, sports, journaling, exercising) to help relieve your stress.  Learn how you and other family members can best cope with stress.
  • Accept Support: chronic illness can have an emotional impact on the entire family depending on the type of condition.  It may be challenging for you to be able to support each family member when trying to learn how to cope with your own anxiety, sadness and grief.  It is important to understand that you do not have to do this alone.  Reach out to other family members, friends, and support groups for help.  Whether it is asking a friend to drive another child to practice or asking a support group member to just listen to how you are feeling.  Asking for help does not mean you are weak, it shows how strong you are to be able to reach out and ask for assistance. 

"Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful."
       -Joshua J. Marine

Don't forget you are strong and can get through anything!