Under normal circumstances, people behave in certain ways based upon their thoughts and beliefs. For example, you, as a parent, might believe that your kids must eat vegetables in order to be healthy, so you require them to eat vegetables every night with dinner.
But what happens when some event or circumstance comes along that conflicts with those thoughts, beliefs, or behaviors?
There’s a term in psychology called “cognitive dissonance.” You’ve probably heard it floated every now and again. In case you’re unfamiliar with its definition, here it is:
“Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.”–Saul McLeod, Simply Psychology
In other words, your brain doesn’t like to contradict itself. If you have two conflicting thoughts or beliefs, or your own behavior conflicts with your own beliefs, you will either change one of your beliefs or change your behavior.
Let’s look at our vegetable example again. We’ve already established that you believe that vegetables are essential to your kids’ health. They have to eat the vegetables, or they won’t be healthy. But what if your kid hates vegetables and refuses to eat them? Perhaps they throw a tantrum every time you serve vegetables, and you can’t get them to eat them no matter how hard you try. You might stop insisting that they eat vegetables.
Now you’ve got a behavior that conflicts with your beliefs. This creates a problem. If you believe that your kids can’t be healthy if they don’t eat their vegetables, but you’re not serving them vegetables, what does that mean? That you’re making your kids unhealthy? That’s not something any parent wants to think! It would probably make you feel pretty guilty.
Our brains protect us from these uncomfortable feelings by changing either the behavior or the belief. In this case, your brain would probably change your beliefs about vegetables.
Changing your beliefs about the necessity of vegetables sounds relatively harmless. Sure, nutrition is important. But lots of children hate vegetables and still grow up healthy. They probably even grow to like vegetables eventually. So what’s the harm in changing our beliefs about vegetables, right?
The thing is, cognitive dissonance causes us to change our beliefs about all sorts of things, and sometimes it is harmful. For example, we might believe that we are pretty good parents. But if we go through a particularly stressful period and end up yelling at our kids a lot, we feel guilty about that and start telling ourselves that we’re terrible parents.
Kids do this too.
- A 7-year-old girl gets a few math problems wrong and starts telling herself that she’s terrible at math.
- A 9-year-old boy has difficulty controlling his emotions and tells himself that it’s impossible because he’s a bad person.
- An 11-year-old girl has trouble making friends and tells herself that she’s unlikeable.
- A 16-year-old boy can’t find a date to the school dance and tells himself that he’s too ugly for girls to like him.
The Lies We Tell Ourselves
In cognitive behavioral therapy, we call these statements “the lies we tell ourselves.” You can probably see that they are harmful. They affect what we call “the cognitive triangle.” As you can see from the chart below, our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all connected.
Let’s take a look at our examples from above one more time, and examine how those negative thoughts might affect the kids’ feelings and behaviors.
|“I’m terrible at math.”||Ashamed, unmotivated to try.||Refuses to do math homework.|
|“I’m a bad person and it’s impossible to control my emotions.”||Angry, sad, guilty||Raging tantrums, refusal to try calming techniques|
|“I’m unlikeable.”||Sad, angry||Sits alone at recess, doesn’t play with other kids.|
|“I’m too ugly for girls to like me.”||Sad, embarrassed||Says and does cruel things to girls to avoid rejection.|
The good news is, we can change the feelings and behaviors by changing the thoughts. The way that we change these thoughts is by challenging these lies that we tell ourselves. A good CBT therapist can help.
Here is a list of some of the most common lies we tell ourselves.
- Black and white thinking: For example, I can only be a good person or a bad person. I can’t be a good person who sometimes makes mistakes.
- Making unfair comparisons, usually in the negative: For example, Sarah got a higher score on her math test, so I’m dumber than her.
- Filtering – focusing on the negative, forgetting the positive: For example, a parent forgets all of the times she was patient with her kids and only thinks about the few times she lost her temper.
- Personalizing, or blaming yourself for things that aren’t your fault: For example, a child thinks her best friend hates her because she had to move away to another town.
- Mind reading: This happens when we assume that we know what others are thinking, and that they are thinking negative things about us.
- Catastrophizing: This means that you imagine the worst case scenario. For example, a child misses a homework assignment and imagines that it will cause him to fail all of third grade.
- Overgeneralizing: When you say you always mess up, or you never get something right, you are overgeneralizing.
- Confusing fact with feeling: For example, you might feel frustrated with a task and assume that means that the task is impossible.
- Labelling: Children might label themselves as all sorts of negative things when they’ve simply made a mistake, like “dumb” or “a loser.”
- ‘Can’t Standitis’: This is what we call it when you are being unnecessarily intolerant. For example, you might hate a particular exercise and determine that you’re just never going to exercise at all, rather than trying to find some other exercise that you can enjoy. (Or practicing the original exercise until it’s not so hard anymore.)
Do you tell yourself any of these lies? Do your kids? If so, try to challenge the lies and change your thinking. And if you can’t do it on your own, don’t worry. Find a CBT therapist who can help.