3 Ways to Work Through Cognitive Dissonance

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary cognitive dissonance is a “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.” [1]  This term originally came from Leon Festinger in 1954 and was used to describe the feeling of psychological discomfort produced by the combined presence of two thoughts that are not in agreement with one another.  Further, A person will try to reduce the discomfort by alternating their belief system.  When the discomfort is reduced, consonance or agreement with oneself occurs.  According to Festinger, “the greater the dissonance, the greater will be the intensity of the action to reduce the dissonance and the greater the avoidance of the situations that would increase the dissonance.” [2]

For example, one may feel cognitive dissonance when they are deciding to make a food choice that they believe goes against their current eating habits.   Their decision making process may include over-thinking about the choice, observing the choices of others, and moving to a place of denial that the food choice may have any significant impact.  If they choose the food choice that goes against their eating habits, they may justify their choice by reminding themselves  that other people eat like this frequently, seeking support from people who eat this way, and denying that the choice matters to them.

All of us experience cognitive dissonance to some degree.  The bigger the dilemma for us, the greater the dissonance.  That dissonance can lead to feelings of mild to moderate discomfort, nervousness leading to anxiety, and sadness leading to depression.  In my clinical practice, I work with clients who present as feeling “stuck.”  After diving deeper I often discover that they are “stuck” in a place of cognitive dissonance with two divergent belief systems.

  1. A person can want to be in relationship because it appears socially acceptable, and feel a sense of shame because others around them are encouraging them to date.  After thinking about dating, they realize they have difficulty attaching to intimate partners.
  2.  A person can strive for connection with their family of origin, yet feel guilty because the connection doesn’t feel authentic.  They no longer have anything in common with their family of origin.  And they aren’t sure what to do about it.
  3. A person can commit to a certain faith or spiritual belief system, yet feel distrustful when other members of that faith don’t uphold the same values.  They are uncertain of what this means for them and if they will continue in the faith-based community.

All of these are examples of situations where dissonance can cause unpleasant feelings.  And the stakes are high enough that if left un-explored the feelings can result in stress, depression, and anxiety.  What do to?

  1. Increase self-awareness.  Talk with a therapist to explore your thoughts and the tension that you feel between the two divergent belief systems.
  2. Slow down in your decision making process.  “I don’t know how I feel about that.” Is an acceptable thought and way of being until you can make the decision that is most congruent with your belief system.
  3. Explore you core belief system.  Perhaps there are beliefs that you wish to modify.  Perhaps there are belief that you wish to strengthen.
  4. If you choose the choice that ends up being more disingenuous to what you believe, acknowledge that truth to yourself, take ownership of your choices, make apologies where necessary, and practice making decisions that are in alignment with what you believe.


  1. Cognitive Dissonance. 2019. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved December 20, 2019, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cognitivedissonance
  2. Festinger L. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press; 1957.

Published by Counseling With Leslie

Leslie Stevens, M.Ed., LCMHC is a North Carolina and Virginia board-certified licensed professional counselor. She co-owns a successful practice in Carrboro, North Carolina. Leslie specializes in helping adults navigate stress, depression, anxiety, and perfectionism. Additionally, she is a life strategist, spiritual coach, and writer.

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