How To Stop Cognitive Dissonance From Holding You Back From Your Full Potential

Photo: LL_studio / Shutterstock
worried woman
Self

Do you keep second-guessing your decisions after you’ve made them?  Immobilizing yourself?  Berating yourself when you finally decide on something? This can be a normal albeit painful way to make decisions.

But the moment we’re talking about here is different.  It is once you’ve decided, taken action, and then say “Oh no.  What have I done?” as you immediately regret your decision and the following action. 

This is called Cognitive Dissonance. You may have heard of it. 

But what is cognitive dissonance and how does it affect someone's life? 

RELATED: 14 Common Types Of Bias And How They Affect You & Your Relationships

What is cognitive dissonance?

This psychological concept has been around for a while, and as a result, there are many definitions. 

I’ll share the one I like best because it describes the common situation most of my patients have faced.  

Cognitive dissonance is the anxiety, tension, and conflict you may find yourself in when you have weighed, and now decided between two very different options, taken the appropriate action, and then feel you’ve made a big mistake. 

For example, you have an important meeting where you’re going to ask for a raise. You decide to wear the red top, a power color. 

As you leave your home, already later than you wanted to be due to trying on half of your wardrobe, you begin thinking the blue one is better, a calmer color. Blue says confidence.  

But you don’t have time to go back and change. You hurry to your meeting feeling less attractive than you wanted to be, feeling defeated as you berate yourself for making such a stupid decision.  

Or you’re shopping for a car.  You’ve done your research, made your decision to buy the less fancy, less expensive one.  You purchase the practical car.  But you pick it up with a sinking feeling in your gut.  

After all, this is your splurge birthday gift to yourself.  This year you vowed to begin to treat yourself right.

As you drive off the lot, you know that you should have gotten the other one, the more extravagant car that would have been a real treat. You feel you’ve let yourself down, again.

Do these examples of cognitive dissonance, the mental health stress caused by holding two different opinions, acting on one, and immediately regretting it, sound familiar?

3 psychological causes of cognitive dissonance

Here are some of the reasons why you may do to yourself what feels like torture — berating yourself after you’ve acted on your carefully thought-through decision.

Yes, the experience of cognitive dissonance is painful.

Understanding these causes can help you identify when you are heading into your personal danger zone.

1. Free-floating anxiety

Anxiety is a normal part of life.  Most of the time you might not even be aware that you are anxious. 

You literally hum along, riding on top of your anxious thoughts.  Sometimes you may even use your anxiety to energize yourself, much like actors do when they walk on stage.

However, when you’re in a situation that is important to you, or very important, your anxiety can attach to something and may noticeably heighten. 

2. Displacing your nervousness on something manageable

When you are in a stressful situation it is sometimes easier to be anxious about something much less important.

You displace your anxiety about asking for a raise on something you have more control over, the color of your top. But this is a mental health trap.

3. Having unrealistic expectations about how you make decisions

You may have the naïve expectation that you can make a big decision without feeling any stress—the “no sweat” process.

But for most of us, the bigger the decision, the more stressful it is likely to be. 

RELATED: 4 Psychological Reasons We Stay In Unhealthy Relationships (And How To Finally Get Yourself Out)

7 tips to prevent and resolve your cognitive dissonance

The reality is that cognitive dissonance isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can motivate you to improve your overall decision-making.

1. Consider what is actually making you anxious

Is it really the color of your top, or the fact that you have arranged a meeting to make a case for you to be fairly compensated for your accomplishments?

This is a big moment in your life. Being clear on what has you nervous can help you focus and not misdirect your energy, wasting it on berating yourself, when you need to concentrate on developing a game plan.  

2. Understand that making a big decision is inherently scary  

This is an attitude adjustment that can help you normalize your anxiety. Use this realization to energize you, to help you apply yourself. 

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Join now for YourTango's trending articles, top expert advice and personal horoscopes delivered straight to your inbox each morning.

3, Accept that fear of cognitive dissonance is a normal part of your decision-making

The bigger the decision, the more likely you are going to be pulled in different directions weighing most pros and cons. 

But how about if you decide your fear of making the wrong choice and acting on it, as a gift. 

This attitude change will help reduce your mental conflict by directing your mental energy toward ensuring that you will consider each aspect of this opportunity and not go sideways in your thinking or acting.

4. Congratulate yourself for taking this risk in your life  

This is empowering.  You’ve decided to take a major step. Relish it.

5. Realize that sometimes you need to make a choice and let it go  

Red top, blue top? Take a deep breath and say to yourself, “I’ve decided, now I need to let it go and focus on how to present my accomplishments to get that raise.” 

6. Be curious — Learn from how you made this decision

You’ll be making major decisions as you go through life.  Consciously developing your game plan for how to proceed when faced with life’s myriad choices is vital to your ongoing success, and mental health.

Take every opportunity to learn to refine your strategies and expectations on how to succeed. 

7. Celebrate

You deserve to gift yourself to underscore your accomplishment. After all, this has been a stressful process and you’ve succeeded. 

Rewards can be as simple as having your favorite candy bar in your pocket to enjoy after the meeting, or as inexpensive as taking a walk.  Both allow you to say: “Well done.”  

When your goal is met, you can breathe deeply and enjoy the moment. Then focus on following the steps going forward and reducing your stress about making decisions. 

When someone else asks "What is cognitive dissonance?" You can tell them, and maybe even help them fix it. 

RELATED: Why Do People Cheat? A Look Into Reddit's Adultery Forum

Patricia A O'Gorman, Ph.D. is a trauma and addiction psychologist, speaker, and author of 9 books on resiliency, women, and self-parenting. Learn more on her website.