A Christmas argument… and cognitive dissonance

As some of you already know, as an HSP I’m slow to react to stuff. Which is why I’m not writing a new year’s resolutions post in January; I’m still thinking about stuff that happened in December.

Our Christmas was rather fraught and we’ll probably always remember it as the one where our youngest was ill (although, thankfully, it was only a bug that affected him mildly); it was also the Christmas where the veg was undercooked and the Christmas where my husband and I had an argument about wrapping paper on the 23rd December. Wrapping paper! I mean, for goodness sake!

Only it wasn’t really an argument about wrapping paper. It was an argument about parenting, our definitions of generosity and our own attitudes towards Christmas and our views on being environmentally-friendly. (And for clarity, I must elaborate: I am fed up of the amount of waste produced at Christmas – wrapping paper making up a large part of that – and so I wanted to use second-hand gift bags and pillows and old bits of ribbon etc. to wrap our presents with instead, to cut down on the waste and the time I spend peeling off bits of sellotape from the wrapping paper torn off the presents in an instant so that I can put it into the paper recycling rather than landfill. My husband found it difficult to see where I was coming from and we didn’t take the time to listen or try to understand each other’s position. There, I hope that clarifies things!)

It was a horrible argument – both of us were shouty (very unlike us!) and then very very quiet and withdrawn afterwards (both of us are HSPs so it took us a long time to merely process what was said in the heat of the argument). Anyway, thankfully, the next day, on Christmas Eve, we had the chance to talk it through and to apologise to each other. And thank goodness! Otherwise Christmas Day would have consisted of a poorly boy and undercooked veg as well as two very unhappy and sulky parents. 🙁

Anyway… what this post is really about is the difficulty in admitting when one is wrong. When you have made a mistake and you know you have to own up to it. Because, boy is that challenging!

It is as though one’s own sense of self, one’s own sense of oneself as a “good” person will shatter and crumble under the admission of a mistake. And saying sorry is the thing that collapses oneself. It is a horrible, uncomfortable, shaky feeling to have. And it is something that can’t be experienced for long. Ego, that coward (who, I guess, is only trying to relieve us of that horrible, uncomfortable feeling) would prefer to rationalize away our mistakes and, through self-deceit, turn them into something far more palatable, like mere trifles caused by the stupidity of others.

But this feeling… it has a proper name. It is known as cognitive dissonance.

“Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways.”

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts by Carol Tarvis and Elliot Aronson (Pinter & Martin 2013)

Mistakes were made, but not by me. By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
Mistakes were made, but not by me. By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

The difficulty both my husband and I felt in saying sorry after our argument reminded me of various instances in my life when I’d been in the wrong and found it difficult to say sorry. One particular instance was when I’d had a minor argument with my father (I can’t remember what the argument was about) and I knew that I was in the wrong. I was a teenager and probably hormonal, but I forced myself to go and say sorry.*

In this situation, my heightened conscience was a good thing. (It is not always – it usually causes me a lot of anguish because I can tie myself up in knots about what the “right” thing to do is, whether it be a small thing or big thing.)

Anyway, in this situation, it was a good thing. Because a few days later, my father died. I know that with my heightened sense of guilt, if I hadn’t said sorry, I would still be experiencing guilt today. (Although I do have to add that saying sorry solely to put off a future guilt isn’t probably the most healthy thing either – but more on that for another post, perhaps.)

This post isn’t really about saying sorry when it isn’t appropriate (I know that I can also fall into the trap of saying sorry when really I haven’t done anything wrong – and I’m not sure that’s very good for a healthy sense of self either), but I do want to highlight the uncomfortable feeling that cognitive dissonance can produce. It reminds me of this beautiful painting, by one of my favourite artists, Agnes-Cecile, which both discomforts and delights me:


I have a hypothesis that perhaps HSPs feel cognitive dissonance a little more keenly than others. I don’t know. And I’m not even sure that one is necessarily holding two very contradictory points of view; it’s just that there is one part of me that knows I acted meanly/without thinking/made a mistake and that doesn’t resonate with the image of myself that I have (as being generous, thoughtful, impervious to making mistakes etc.) and so that is why there is this horrible clash inside me. And it is this clash that thunders in my chest so noisily, so uncomfortably, that I wish for it to go away – by any means. My ego says: Wasn’t your fault. It was so and so’s fault. They’re an idiot. Don’t say sorry. (It wants to give me a quick-fix solution.) Thankfully, my heroic (but sometimes plain annoying) conscience comes along and says: Hey! I see that there’s a little noisy cognitive dissonance around here. Give it a while to quiet down and then go and do the right thing. It won’t break you. I promise. You’re still a good person. Just human. Just human.

So to acknowledge cognitive dissonance, and to name it for what it is, perhaps makes it that bit easier to act humbly if we are brave enough to do so. We then have the power to say sorry, knowing that it will not shatter us or make us any less worthwhile as humans, and it is then that we can move forwards with humility and grace and love.


*I think I probably mumbled something like: Sorry. Got a bit of PMT at the moment. I’m not entirely sure if I was experiencing PMT, but hey, I was fifteen and any apology was better than none. (See how that heightened sense of guilt would like me to keep worrying about this? Well I won’t let it! I’m only human for goodness sake!)


And… I did also want to say thank you to all the people who read and/or comment on my blog. I wish you a healthy and happy and creative 2016. 🙂

Writing Bubble

14 thoughts on “A Christmas argument… and cognitive dissonance”

  1. Another thought-provoking post, and it resonated deeply with me.
    A few years ago I apologised to an ex, someone I dated for a long time in my teens, for something that I’d done back then. I considered it to be dreadful, and it had haunted me for years. His response: that he understood, and that he thought that he had been to blame too, and that what I’d done was actually entirely understandable given the circumstances. Such a cloud lifted! If only I’d done it decades earlier! There are two adult skills that I cherish in myself (when I manage them!) and in others: apologising appropriately (none of the nonpology “I’m sorry if you feel – “), and the ability to say, even in a crowded room, “I didn’t understand that completely, I’m afraid. Would you mind explaining X?” – especially when X is something that everyone else seemed to understand straight away. Of course afterwards someone always comes up and says, “I’m so glad that you asked that – I had no idea either!”

    1. Cathy, I’m so glad that you found the closure you needed. It must have felt like a huge weight off your shoulders. I have to admit, though, that this desire for closure is something that I still personally struggle with. I know there is a school of thought that says there are 2 simple options to remove the mental burden of guilt/regret: 1) if the person is still alive, to seek them out and apologise and (hopefully) have the burden lifted and 2) if the person is no longer alive, accept that one can do nothing about it and let go of the burden.

      But life is never as straightforward as that, is it? Each *wrongdoing* situation is unique, and sometimes (particularly if the person wronged has no further part in one’s own life) it may be better to leave well enough alone. And sometimes, I think, one’s own desire to have the burden of guilt/regret lifted may be a primarily selfish impulse, that may cause unnecessary upset/distress in the other person. So I think each individual case must be considered carefully… (Yours though, sounds like it had a positive outcome for all.) Anyway, as you can imagine, it’s something that I think about probably too much. I wrote a story about it, actually, but it hasn’t seen the light of day as yet. Maybe one day it will. Thank you, again, so much for your kind comment.

  2. Very interesting post, Marija, food for thought!
    Sorry to hear you had a fraught Christmas (if it makes you feel better, I am with you on the wrapping paper waste and re-use and recycle as much as I can!). xx

  3. Yes, to admit your wrong and apologise is not something many people are comfortable with or find easy. I often say it to my kids though. They are at the age where they pull me up for being unreasonable and most of the time they are right and I have to admit that and apologise. It’s something new for me and very humbling. My kids have definitely made me a better person in many ways.

    1. Yep, I totally agree. My children have helped me a lot and made me a much better (and stronger) person in many ways. Or perhaps the strength was always there, but they drew it out of me…

  4. maddy@writingbubble

    Such an interesting and thought-provoking post and I’ve now got so many thoughts flying around in my head I’m not sure how to comment at all. I do think apologies are so important though even if they’re hard. Probably especially if they’re hard. It can totally turn a situation and relationship around. I apologise to my kids as, like you say, it’s so important to recognise we’re all human and ALL make mistakes. Thanks for linking to #whatImWriting. Lots to mull over now… xx

  5. Really interesting post. Since I’ve shaken off (most) of the mental health issues that plagued me as a teenager and in my twenties, I’ve been making a real effort I think to reduce my own cognitive dissonance and act in the way I know is right. It’s easier said than done – particularly when it comes to self-care – but it does shut down a lot of the internal conflict. It has also left me wanting to go back and apologise to some of the people I left in my wake when I was at my most turbulent. I’ve succeeded with some, but not others – and it is so hard to shake off the guilt! Reading this back now and I have no idea if it makes any sense… But you’ve definitely made me think, so thank you! 🙂 xx

  6. Thought-provoking as always, which is why it’s taken me so long to comment!. I know I struggle when I find myself acting or talking in a way that doesn’t fit with my idea of myself, and this quite often gives me a crisis about what my idea of myself actually is. I feel that so much has changed since having children and I hardly know anything any more.
    (If I had a time turner I would buy up a load of beautiful bargain Christmas fabric now and make a big pile of reusable bags)

  7. Pingback: On Darkness and the Age of Enlightenment « Marija Smits

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