A Refugee from Cognitive Dissonance

Yesterday, I started telling the story of my journey from where I was last year to where I am now, by way of a detour through Las Vegas and Louisa Mae Alcott.

(I am now having one of those weird writer moments when I realize that “Las Vegas and Louisa Mae Alcott” would have been a better title for that post. Ah well.)

So now, I feel like I need to continue the story by talking about running away.

"woman jogging blur" courtesy sxc

Running and hiding is what I do. When stress hits, and I don’t know how to deal with a situation, my instinctive response is to run.

But it doesn’t always look like running away from home. In the case of last year, it looked like a lot of business travel.

The upside to running away from home via business travel is that you can say, quite truthfully, that it’s not your fault you’re gone all the time. It makes the denial extremely plausible and convenient.

The problem was, I never really came home in between trips. Even when I was at home, I was never really there. I retreated into my head, or a book, or a television show, and only came out when it was necessary. That’s the upside to being an introvert—you can run away without ever leaving the room. You just run deep inside your own head and heart. Again, it comes down to plausible deniability, I guess.

So why run away? I had a great job, a loving husband, amazing kids. What’s to run away from in all that?

I think I was running from the cognitive dissonance.

“Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying. It is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology.

Experience can clash with expectations, as, for example, with buyer’s remorse following the purchase of a new car. In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. People are biased to think of their choices as correct, despite any contrary evidence.”

I was stuck in the no-man’s land between “what I don’t think I believe anymore” and “what I’m not sure I can start believing.” I was stuck in the purgatory of questioning my previously-unquestioned choices.

It pretty much sucked, as you can probably imagine.

Here’s the thing.  I was running because I finally woke up.  The cognitive dissonance was another form of productive depression. Somewhere between 2006 and 2008, my give-a-damn got busted.  I stopped caring about nearly everything I thought I cared about. (Insert thematically-relevant-if-not-literally-applicable Jodee Messina video)..

I stopped actively working on my marriage in 2004.  Somewhere between 2006 and 2008, somewhere deep in my head, I became detached. Ironically, right about the time my husband had a major, lasting change of heart and behavior, I lost the ability to believe that he would. And really, it took a good three or four years of consistency for him to create the cognitive dissonance between what I believed (that he wouldn’t change) and what I had observed (that he actually had changed).

I got completely and utterly burned out on church about 2006.  We started attending another church. We received some beautiful love and care there, but I was just sort of floating along, detached.  I believed God didn’t need my help because He’s omnipotent.  I believed the church didn’t want my help, because I’m a woman.  Plus, between work and family commitments, an ongoing service commitment would have genuinely been too much.  But even if I’d had the available time, I’m not sure it would have mattered.  We attended community group at first sporadically, then not at all. I couldn’t connect.  I wouldn’t connect.

I let my friendships, which I’d worked so hard against my own introversion and self-centeredness to develop, languish.  I disappeared. I detached.

At work, both at LeapFrog and Doe, I kept to myself and refused to really engage and invest myself in anyone.  I did my work.  I kept my distance.  It wasn’t you, guys. It was me. It was always me.

From around 2006 to 2009, I was only marginally present in my own life.  But I was really good at pretending otherwise.

Last year I woke up to the cost of being absent. I woke up to what I was losing by refusing to emotionally invest in anybody or anything.  What I believed and what I observed were in conflict, and the cognitive dissonance was killing me. So I ran from it.

But you can’t run from the truth. If you won’t stand and face it, it will generally hunt you down and find you, where ever you might be.

In my case, “where I might be” was Las Vegas.  At the Paris casino, in a steak frites restaurant overlooking the fountains at the Bellagio, truth caught up with me in the form of a friend from my church community group.

There’s probably at least one more significant chapter in this tale.  This post explains why I was running from my life, and yesterday’s explains why I ran the direction I did, and what a dead-end that was.  Probably the most interesting part (to me, anyway) is the part about what happened when I stopped running, and what’s happened on the journey since.

But that one will have to wait a little longer.

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