On Cognitive Dissonance

(Above: Untitled by Jean Michel Basquiat)

Routine is comfortable. Developing a consistent routine allows one to seemingly minimize unexpected events and safeguard against discomfort or problematic situations. This approach seems efficient, economical, and safe. The risks are mitigated as one is able to remain within one’s now well-established comfort zone.

The problem with this seemingly innocuous approach, however, is that is prohibits growth. By taking careful steps to minimize the potential for risk, one is minimizing the potential for the unexpected. The unexpected and risk are synonymous, where the only thing that distinguishes the two is one’s mindset. Risk possesses a negative connotation. It is associated with substantial loss–whether monetary, time-oriented, or otherwise–and is seen as a step backwards from one’s goal. The unexpected, while it can still be perceived as negative, should be regarded as quite the opposite. Unexpected events are spontaneous. Most of these events are nonfatal and can actually provide a wonderful opportunity to grow. It is important to remain open to such events rather than trying to mitigate the probability of them occurring, for this will most likely only lead to stagnation.

Routine can certainly be a positive thing. It becomes dangerous when one is unable to deviate from his or her routine when needed. There is certainly an important distinction to be highlighted here. Person A may develop a rather rigid routine but is able to stay consistent and significantly control the probability of any potentially unforeseen setbacks. This rigidity allows Person A to remain comfortable yet stagnant. Person B also has a consistent routine, but when he feels stagnation creeping in, he readily alters his routine, or briefly abandons it altogether, in order to keep life exciting and to preserve a healthy sense of spontaneity. When an unexpected event occurs, Person B celebrates it as an opportunity to learn and grow, whereas Person A is left feeling flustered and hopeless, as he is unable to deviate from his routine in the slightest. In this instance, as in regard to life as a whole, balance is key.

Perhaps it is rather confusing that I have not yet mentioned cognitive dissonance, but I promise that this is all connected.

I believe that a rigid routine is a breeding ground for the limitations of cognitive dissonance. This mental state of mind occurs when one wants to do something that another part of herself feels is abnormal or not okay. There is an internal battle that results. Usually, such a feeling occurs when an urge or behavior contradicts one’s previous beliefs or actions. This is where routine becomes dangerous. When one possesses a strict routine, any unexpected event or other occurrence that may require a deviation from this routine is a major stressor. One will likely lack the necessary mental strength to deal with such events because of the extreme discomfort felt as a result of novelty.

I have certainly struggled with this concept. Routine need not be work or action-related. One can just as easily develop a mental routine. This is arguably more common. Humans are social creatures. We possess an evolutionary urge to find a tribe and thus tend to compartmentalize ourselves in order to fit in these certain specific tribes. In high school, for instance, there tends to be those enjoy band and theatre, those who enjoy sports, those who enjoy drugs on the weekends, and those who are primarily focused on their studies. This is certainly an over-generalization, and now more than ever before, it is increasingly acceptable to straddle different groups, not having to define oneself according to a single stereotype. Nevertheless, high school provides an easy example of the modern tribalistic mentality.

I always wanted to identify with the group of school-oriented students. Thus, I experienced strong cognitive dissonance whenever I was presented with an opportunity that contradicted this rather rigid self-identity. Any party or kickback or social event was off-limits because I considered these as unexpected events–ones which did not align with my self-designated compartment. I had developed a strict mental routine that prohibited me from growing and learning in ways that did involve grades and assignments. Cognitive dissonance prevented me from exploring the other parts of myself. It was simply too uncomfortable and even guilt-provoking to do something that deviated from the “bookworm mentality.” Such a deviation would threaten my very comfortable routine and force me to step outside of my well-established comfort zone.

Well, after maturing a little and after lots and lots of therapy, it became easier to accept the multiple facets of my personality and to appreciates the diversity in other individuals as well. It is important to remember the phrase: both can be true. One can appreciate Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and J. Cole. One can admire the beauty in the art of Caravaggio and Basquiat. One can smoke the occasional joint while also maintaining impeccable grades. One can be the valedictorian but still allow himself to enjoy South Park whenever he feels like it. You can be a good student and attend parties. Both can be true. 

Things are often not mutually exclusive. It took me quite a while to realize this. While I still certainly experience cognitive dissonance on occasion, it is not nearly as crippling nor prohibitive as it once was. A rigid routine enables cognitive dissonance to prevent learning opportunities. It can certainly be a good thing indeed (both can be true)! But more often than not, this universal fear of challenging the traditional perception of oneself is really what is holding back any potential advancements.

So, while routine can be beneficial, please don’t hesitate to deviate from it every now and then. Please don’t fear novelty or the unfamiliar, for this is where growth occurs. And most importantly, please don’t limit yourself to a single rigid perception. Instead, embrace the multifaceted being that you are. No matter how bizarre your conglomeration of beliefs, interests, and values may seem, I assure you that it is the primary source of your impeccable beauty.

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