Is your mind playing tricks on you?

Barbara is having a bad day.  She is in a grumpy mood, and when Gloria asks her a question, Barbara snaps at her “It’s not my problem, figure it out yourself”.  Later, someone accuses Barbara of ‘biting Gloria’s head off’ for no reason.  This upsets Barbara even more.  Barbara thinks of herself as a nice person and she is most definitely NOT the kind of person who snaps at someone without a good reason.  (Only, this morning, Barbara really didn’t have a good reason, other than that she was in a bad mood.)  So how does Barbara deal with this contradiction between her self-image and her behaviour?  She comes up with a reason (some might call it an excuse) for her behaviour.  She doesn’t exactly lie, but her mind plays a little trick on her.  It helps her to find something that Gloria did wrong that justifies Barbara’s response. For example, Barbara’s mind might exaggerate a little, convincing herself that:  Gloria is alwaysasking questions and should learn how to do things herself.  This might be something that Barbara had never actually thought before, but it comes to mind now as something that would explain her behavior in some kind of logical way, and it sounds rather convincing.

The problem with this kind of ‘excuse’ is that it leads to another contradiction – Barbara has made this statement without very much evidence.  In order to feel confident that she is not the kind of person to make accusations about others without evidence, Barbara now (probably unconsciously) goes on a little mission to find other evidence that supports her statement that Gloria doesn’t know what she’s doing and is always asking for assistance.  Suddenly, Barbara notices anything Gloria does that might support this view, and ignores anything that seems inconsistent.  This kind of filtering of information leads to a further problem. Barbara begins to really dislike Gloria. She starts to honestly believe that not only is Gloria incompetent, but she is also a bad person.  Again, this justifies her focus on the negative aspects of Gloria.  The conflict escalates and before we know it there is a full-scale workplace war going on. Poor Gloria probably has no idea what hit her!

The real problem is that poor Barbara probably has no idea either!  She is probably not conscious of the little tricks her mind has played on her in order to make her feel secure and consistent. She has probably forgotten that this all started one day when she was in a bit of a grumpy mood and behaved in a way that she would not be proud of.  She has probably not noticed the slow but steady escalation of the situation, and she is now so deeply entrenched in it that simply pointing it out to her is not going to help – she is going to be even more defensive and become even more entrenched.

This kind of situation is caused by a phenomenon known as “cognitive dissonance”: when we are faced with two contradictory phenomenon and our mind tries to reconcile them so that we don’t have internal conflict.  The problem is that in ‘fixing’ our internal conflict, we can often create and escalate ‘external’ conflict.

Part of the solution to the problem is to recognize (early!) that nobody (including ourselves) is ever perfect.  That Barbara is a nice person, and that she sometimes has bad days and behaves in a less-than-perfect way.  That Barbara likes to make informed decisions, and sometimes still jumps to a conclusion too quickly.  It’s also useful to occasionally ask ourselves whether we really have the whole picture in relation to a particular situation.   To slow down and actively check for information that might contradict what we feel is obvious.  This is particularly important whenever we find ourselves feeling defensive – this is typically when cognitive dissonance is likely to kick in – and this is the time when we have to be especially careful to control our mind, rather than let it control us!