BY: T. Franklin Murphy | October 2015 (edited October 2018)
We have internal conflicts between beliefs of who we are and our actions. Often we resolve these conflicts by justifying our actions rather than challenge faulty beliefs and work for change.
Reading an article or book to boost flourishing is easy, integrating the change is the challenge. We routinely happen upon insightful articles and feel good. They resonate with our lives and identify avenues to focus on for personal work. But recognition doesn’t create the change. We must transverse many dusty roads before the improvements take hold—ego protections, lack of discipline, missing knowledge and undeveloped skills (to name a few). Our brain—with meandering thoughts and misguided emotions—impede change, blurring realities and hampering implementation. The chasm between who we are and who we think we are can run wide and deep. Until we grasp the reality of self, we may never bridge the divide, forever stuck in a life that disappoints.
Social learning, ego defenses, and contrived explanations alter perceptions of self. These little pests infest and distort thinking. The undistorted view may not be pleasant, opening painful and unwelcomed realizations, forcing a journey into the vortex of our imperfections. We want to be wonderful, kind and funny. My generation was raised on a diet of “you are special”—we never took note that if everyone was special, the specialness no longer fits the definition. Maybe we should accept that most of us are simply ordinary humans, doing the best that we can.
When we—in all our specialness—act contradictory to glorified beliefs about ourselves, the contradiction creates discomfort. We may temporarily mitigate the discomfort by changing focus, and ignoring the evidence that is revealing the shortcomings, weaknesses or faults. The imperfections scare us; perhaps, a fear of ineptness while grasping to an illusion that survival requires perfection. With this hopeful vision to escape insecurity, the small cracks in our protective armor overwhelm. So, we neglect honest self-examinations, remain special, and blame the faulty others in our lives for any disappointments. While this course may boost confidence, it fails to detect defective habits disrupting intentions, and destroys hope of change.
By avoiding conscious self-examinations, instead of a consciously directed life, we live by impulses, disregarding errors and smoothing action with justifications. We avoid and blame—but stay the same. Our impulses are neither always ethically charged nor future directed; instead impulses dance to biological and social programming. We are driven to act in self-interest and self-protection. These drives are essential, often allowing genes to promulgate more effectively. But sometimes programming is misplaced, relying on misinterpretation of the past, the present or both.
Without careful self-reflection, we slip into deceptions to resolve cognitive dissonance between actions and beliefs. We justify or ignore our unhealthy behaviors even when those actions obviously conflict with self-perceptions. If we honestly and closely examined, we may discover we lack compassion, fairness, or honesty. Transformation of character insists we acknowledge conduct leading off course—and make corrections. Only with a clear view can we realign our trajectory with cherished intentions. As we act in accordance with the person we desire to be, we relieve the inner conflicts between beliefs and behaviors, freeing mental energy for more creative responses.
The cognitive dissonance (inner conflicts) sap energy. We can’t trust our unconscious mind to resolve these conflicts without resorting to mind games of protection. We need to focus our approach by first checking beliefs for correctness and virtues, then evaluating actions for effectiveness. Through a conscious effort, we become who we want to become.