The Emotional Life and Cognitive Dissonance



“Emotional life can be influenced, but it cannot be commanded.”[i]




In 1986, Dr. Robert Ornstein, then professor at the University Of California Medical Center in San Francisco as well as at Stanford University, conducted extensive research on the human brain; he concluded that “our illusion is that each of us is somehow unified, with a single coherent purpose and action …But that our mind is really a coalition made up of competing entities, we do not always, even often, know what we think or believe … when these different pieces of the mind are not in harmony, a condition called cognitive dissonance results. …”[ii]

Cognitive dissonance resembles a component of the Internal Family System Model, referred to as polarization.[iii] A common internal situation created when two aspects of oneself are in conflict. For example, let us say that you longed to go on a vacation but cannot bear to part with the money that would afford the vacation. Or you long for a new adventure but are unable to break out of your familiar comfort zone. Or you have a particular sexual desire but that desire is in conflict with your religious belief.

These are all examples of cognitive dissonance-inconsistencies between attitudes and beliefs and internal aspects of oneself that are incompatible parts.  These parts are then considered polarized.

Because of the various, albeit often unrecognized, competing aspects of one’s internal realities, individuals often have great difficulty choosing, deciding, discovering, and/or unpacking the deepest yearnings of their heart. These internal realities are sometimes referred to as parts, archetypes, shadow sides, dis-owned-selves, sub-personalities or ego states.

However one chooses to identify their constructed reality, many of these parts are competing for recognition, or at the very least, to be heard and to be acknowledged. We have just seen how current research on the human brain supports the insight of the multiplicity of a human being.

“Even in cognitive science, the mind is considered as having many distinct “parts” responsible for a wide array of activities, from feeding and reproduction to affiliation and reading other people’s minds.

As intelligent beings with desires and beliefs, we attempt to achieve our goals by assessing our situations and applying our internal rules to interactions with the environment. Our many layers of information processing have unique sets of rules, as well as specialized problems they are attempting to solve. Dividing these information-processing modules is necessary to carry out efficient interactions with other in the world. We have multiple and varied “selves” which are needed to carry out the many and diverse activities of our lives”.[iv]

To further complicate the picture, among the numerous ways that contribute to the development of the functioning self is the taking on of roles whether imposed or chosen. For instance a young boy growing up in an agricultural setting with parents of Eastern European culture was expected to remain on the farm and insure the secure future of the parents. “Stay home and marry a nice bohemian girl and raise a family” was the advice and wishes of the parents.

After high school graduation the young man, counter to his parents’ wishes and under great psychic stress left home to seek the role of a professional. He attended college and became a dentist.  Since his choice was not culturally induced, was his choosing a result of some unknown Attractor from his limbic library or some subtle social or environmental influence?

Perhaps exploring the power and effect of roles on who we are and their meaning in our lives will shed light to these questions.    To be continued….

[i] (Lewis, p. 33)

[ii] MultimindA New Way of Looking at Human Behavior. (Anchor Books: New York, N.Y. 1986), ( p. 86)

[iii] R. Schwartz

[iv] Siegel (p.229)


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The Complexity of our lifelong “self-states” (part two)