People generally broadcast the best version of their self and their life for the world to see. Just look at the little blips we all choose to highlight in an instagram post or talk about daily conversations, etc… Of course, this makes sense. It’s totally understandable to want to talk about the things that make you happy, or to share the best picture your phone can muster on instagram from a far off exotic location. I don’t judge you. I’m right there with you.
What I want to talk about today is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive Dissonance is a term I was first introduced to in my communication studies classes. Psychology Today puts it simply as “If you have ever told a lie and felt uncomfortable about it because you see yourself as scrupulously honest, then you have likely experienced cognitive dissonance.” To me, it’s a certain sense of guilt, like I’m an imposter or fake. The feeling that comes with doing something we don’t believe in. On a super basic level, it’s like selling a daily special that you hate the flavor of. On a more complex internal level, it can come with telling someone everything is fine, when you know full well inside it’s not.
We’re quick to provide optimistic status updates in response to the endless stream of daily “Hey, how’s it goings” and “What’s ups”. As a bartender, I surely do this a lot. Sure, this might just be a polite component of human interaction, but I can’t help but feel weird about replying with a “good, and you?” every time when I’m clearly not good inside. This sense of always putting up a more positive front for others and feeling guilty for not truly living up to it is a bad habit to form. The brain excels at forming habits, good or bad.
I think of the principle of Neuropalsticity - to oversimplify, it’s our brain’s ability to adapt and become better at performing tasks that are often repeated. The extent to how plastic and malleable a brain might be is of course correlated with “a myriad of factors, including both pre- and postnatal experience, drugs, hormones, maturation, aging, diet, disease, and stress” (source). So think about it, we spend ## hours per day browsing social media, assuming our friends all have such [insert desirable adjective here] lifestyles, it’s no wonder it’s easy to slip into a jealous, entitled, wanting mindset. Rinse and repeat… Daily.
Jealousy is toxic and for someone prone to self esteem issues in the first place, Social media is a great place to find reason to be envious or jealous.
I’m starting to feel like there’s a connection between this social media style inflated self appraisal and the way we interact in the small-talk, transactional kind of way… The feeling that I need to live up to the level of happiness or excitement that was reflected in recent social media posts. Those posts were snippets, snapshots of a blissful moment. Real life is messy, chaotic, random.
So, considering what we know about the brain and Neuroplasticity, what might happen in a setting where we’re constantly suppressing real, present feelings to emphasize something good? And worse, what if that sense of guilt or being an imposter becomes second nature.
I’m not saying don’t talk to your fellow humans, or that small talk is bad. Fact is, when we find ourselves coexisting with another human in a shared space, it’s the nice thing to do. When we need something from someone, it’s the nice thing to do in proximity to making a request. When we awkwardly make eye contact with someone, it’s the nice thing to do.
But, speaking from personal experience at least, the frequency of these “Hey, how’s it goings” can desensitize the responder’s assessment and appraisal. So much so, that over time, we might even start to feel a little cognitive dissonance when we tell others when we reply “all good”, knowing full well inside that that’s not the whole truth. There’s a sense of shame associated in this. “Why is it that everyone else is fine and dandy, but I’m not?”
Constantly leaning on these quick, half hearted responses creates bad habits for the mind and serve as a roadblock to genuine interaction.
At the end of the day, we’ve still gotta make time to realistically and accurately assess our mental health state.
So here’s what I’ve been thinking as a mantra to keep: Be genuine and know yourself.
I’m not advocating for spilling your guts to everyone you meet. But, if you’re like me and have ever found yourself wondering why tinges of shame and confusion bubble up inside from time to time when the "“Hey, how’s it goings” start to feel annoyingly small-talky and shallow… It’s probably time to take a quick mental pulse check, non-judgmentally and benevolently accept whatever it is that you’re feeling as a normal human experience, and reconsider how you’re interpreting these exchanges. (more on this below)
A few major points pop out to me to me while pondering this:
You won’t let people down if you tell them you’re just having a so-so day
I’ve often felt the need to protect those around me, to not “bring down the mood” or “bum others out”. This barely works, only some of the times. Holding in, trying to suppress, or ignore negative energy and maladaptive mental patterns is flat-out unhealthy and usually dooms the situation.
Let your friends surprise you with how supportive, loving, and relatable they can be. You’re not the only one who’s ever felt this way, and you don’t have to hold it in.
Having a bad day isn’t a personal shortcoming, it’s human
“Strikes and gutters, ups and downs” - one of my favorite Big Lebowski references to make in daily conversation. And, ain’t it the truth. We all have good days and bad days.
I used to think a noble goal was to strive for was to have more good days and less bad days. Now, I find it more important to become really good at navigating the bad days. Bad days are not a personal mistake or shortcoming. Sure, lifestyle choices like limiting alcohol, minding food intake, and incorporating regular exercise are helpful in mitigating the negative mental energy… But, up's and downs are entirely inevitable and no body should ever feel like a failure for having them. Easier said than done, right?
Everybody has ups and downs
In summer 2016, I was in an inpatient psychiatric care facility for 4 nights. Since then, I started blogging about this stuff and I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with countless friends who have unfortunately had similar struggles. Successful, mature, happy, friendly people, who felt the same depressive, worthless, purposeless feels I’d felt in private for most of my life.
In Winter/Spring 2019, I somehow thought it was a good idea to phase out my meds rather than navigate the health insurance system to find a new practitioner. This had a negative effect on many aspects of my life and motivated me to get back on track. Ups and down, strikes and gutters.
The world and everyone isn’t out to get you - that’s paranoia
I was picked on as a kid, through elementary and high school. At a certain point, I told myself I didn’t want to inconvenience or worry anyone, or cause any metaphorical waves, so I kept my head down, put up my defenses, tried to man-up and ignored the dissonance. Turns out, this taught my brain to assume ill intent of others… Thinking their motives are solely against my interest and well-being.
31-year old me, with 10 years of beer industry experience under my belt and a work ethic I’m not afraid to tout… I still spend some days in a negative spiral thinking I’ll lose my job some days because a I let myself believe a manager doesn’t like me, or because I have some difficult customers and I fear they’ll lodge a complaint. Paranoia man…
Do a pulse check, self appraisal.
Earlier I mentioned a “quick mental pulse check”. Probably not surprisingly, these tips are firmly rooted in my appreciation for meditation. Simply sitting, eyes closed, watching the breath, scanning your body and mind can work wonders on a worried mind. This is the “mental pulse check” I’m talking about. Simply sitting, listening and observing.
Sometimes I like to imagine a cranky old man with a Scorsese sounding cranky New Yorker voice ridiculing me for letting trivial shit get me down, “Come on, you’re mad because of this drunk schmuck at the bar?!” or “Oh yeah, they’re DEFINITELY crunching their food extra loud just to annoy you, because they care THAT much about your unhappiness”
I used to write a lot more frequently. For the last year or so, I’d been trying to focus my attention moreso on school, but I do miss blogging and do plan on getting back into a regular publishing habit. So, take this as a conversation starter for now.