Cognitive Dissonance

I was a psychology major. I didn’t particularly like my classes, and I often wish I would’ve switched to sociology or English or linguistics or really anything else, but I stuck with psychology. As a result, I find myself in this constant feedback loop between theory and practice. I apply psychological theories to my 7th grade students, to my 50-something year-old parents, to my 18 year-old brother, to my 20-and-30-something year old peers, and (if you know me, you saw this coming) to myself. I’m constantly trying to make sense of human behavior. I think understanding our psychological motivations gives me a little more hope for humanity. And somehow, it makes me feel like I have more control, too.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about cognitive dissonance. I remember learning about it freshman or sophomore year. Psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term in the early 1950s. Essentially, Festinger’s theory contends that conflicting ideas or opinions about our environment or ourselves leads to this icky feeling (paraphrasing) that challenges us to find a more comfortable mind-state. If we incorporate another theory, fight-or-flight response, we can think of it like this: we either rise to the occasion and fight until we feel zero dissonance, or we succumb to the pressure and book a flight away from whatever’s disturbing us (again, paraphrasing).

I’ve been using cognitive dissonance to think about my own mind-state a lot lately. I have days where I feel powerful. I have days where I feel defeated before I even begin. I’ve been trying to “sustain the work,” been trying so ardently to be a good student, teacher, friend, peer, daughter, sister, niece, cousin, granddaughter…and failing. Fairly miserably, I might add. The amount of work—both professional and personal—I’m expected to do feels insurmountable. So insurmountable, in fact, that, a few weeks ago, I had my first panic attack in over six months. And I really, really hate those.

I’ve given myself time to think about why they came back.

One, I do entirely too much. I’ve never met a workaholic with chronic anxiety and honestly I find myself a bit hilarious. What a conundrum I am!

Two, I don’t always treat my body the way I should. I drink too much coffee and don’t eat enough and then wonder why I don’t feel well. Again, I’m hilarious.

And three, I absolutely detest graduate school. Like really, really hate it.

When I first found out I was accepted into the program I’m in now, I was ecstatic. I felt like I’d “made it.” I felt like all my hard work had paid off. I felt like I deserved this. I’m approaching the half-year mark of my graduate school journey and all of these feelings have dissipated. Oppositely, the number of times I hear these kinds of remarks from those around me has increased exponentially. There’s something so off-putting about being celebrated endlessly for the very thing that frustrates you tirelessly. Graduate school is not at all what I expected and I’m slapped with that reality everyday. It is not warm. It is not inviting. It is not liberating. It is painfully isolating. And, as someone who came to graduate school to learn how to teach—to enter a profession where my literal job is to create warm, inviting, liberating spaces for kids—school feels like such a waste of time. And I have to grapple with this everyday.

I’m in a place of such immense power and privilege. I am told constantly that this is where I’m meant to be, that I deserve to be here, that this is such a grand opportunity. Simultaneously, I abhor the work that I came here to do and the spaces I enter daily. I hate that this place has made me resent what I love. And (let’s get into it!), I hate that I’ve allowed it to make me resent what I love.

I’ve worked so hard to practice gratitude, to choose joy, to prioritize growth daily…but all of that is so difficult to do when you don’t enjoy where you are.

I’m working through this one day at a time. I’ve got a few solid coping strategies under my belt. I write consistently. I go for walks and meditate. I’ve started reading (for fun!!!) again. I’ve begun curating playlists full of songs I know make me smile. I’m monitoring my news intake a lot more closely. I’ve been reading my Bible daily. I call people I love when I need encouragement or a good laugh.

I’m working on moving from dissonance —> peace. And I’m striving to be patient with myself as I do so.

I don’t expect graduate school to change much, especially before I leave in May, but I know I can change my own perceptions.

I am competent. I am capable. I am conscious.

I do deserve to be here. I put in the work to get here. Being where I am is a tremendous opportunity—one that I won’t squander. I refuse to block my own blessings.

I will keep going.