Cognitive Dissonance: The Jekyll & Hyde Effect
Updated: Feb 25, 2021
Ending the Mental Tug of War: When you want to quit drinking and keep drinking at the same time
I wrote in my journal y e a r s ago, "If there is a spectrum for alcoholism, I'm on it." I was wrestling cognitive dissonance way before I had ever heard the term.
If there is a spectrum for alcoholism, I'm on it.
Cognitive dissonance is psychology-speak that means you have competing beliefs about something. These beliefs sit on a see-saw and alternate which thought will outweigh the other.
Simply, this is a love/hate relationship. I want it, I love it; It causes me pain, I hate
it. Round and round we go. Where we stop? Nobody knows.
This is how we feel about booze.
The merry-go-round of thoughts, choices, consequences followed by the desire to change.
The Way You Rationalize Your Drinking
In our young life, we say: I love wine. I will drink as much and as often as I want. In our young professional life or our new life of marriage and motherhood, we say, I deserve wine. I work hard and always put myself last. In mid-life, we say, I need wine. It relaxes me and helps me sleep.
It’s fine until it’s not fine. Begin see-saw.
I love wine, but I hate feeling so tired. I love wine, but I hate the weight I’ve gained. I love wine, but I hate hurting my people.
This back and forth pattern causes internal anguish and anxiety. You should see my insides – looks like the squiggle mess that follows Pig Pen in the Charlie Brown cartoons.
You'll like it. It tastes like candy.
I Didn't Always Drink
My parents didn’t drink. I had a healthy fear of addiction. I remember being talked into a vodka cranberry at a lake house party when I was a new high school grad. I didn’t even like parties.
You'll like it. It tastes like candy.
It wasn’t the taste I was concerned about. It was the skip-a-generation alcoholism in my family that I knew instinctively would tap me on the shoulder. I was right. My number was up. This began a 20-year slow dance with alcohol. I am so basic. Turns out I did like it. It made me less awkward and self-conscious and more fun-loving and free-spirited
The Progression of Drinking & Its Slippery Slope
In my late teens, early 20s, I was a perfect storm of introverted, conflict-avoidant and insecure. I was the proverbial plump, juicy apple ripe for plucking right off the anxiety tree. Belonging nowhere and nowhere to belong. Drinking fit the bill for every occasion in public or not. Sometimes I was able to moderate, but bottom-line, the wine that I was putting on a pedestal, was causing suffering in me.
So, did I start drinking to ease anxiety? Or did drinking cause my anxiety? Like the chicken vs egg paradox, the lines are blurred. But the answer for me is a resounding Yes! and Yes!
The Squirrel Analogy
Ever see a squirrel in the street? The plight of the squirrel is relatable AF. He is the living embodiment of cognitive dissonance.
One moment he is bushy-tailed and twitching along, enjoying his tree home and nutty snacks, when he notices a lush grove of trees on the other side of the road.
As his tiny squirrel toes hit the pavement, quite suddenly, to his horror, his beady eyes lock with yours, the driver of a 3,000-lb vehicle barreling toward him at 35 MPH.
Now, the squirrel is on the see-saw. His competing beliefs are that he should: 1. cross the road and 2. stay put in the very same moment. This duality causes him massive anxiety.
He starts and stops, starts and stops. His little squirrel heart beating straight out of his furry little chest.
We are on the same cognitive dissonance see-saw as our squirrel friend. We want to drink and not drink in the same moment. These moments are agonizing.
It occurred to me recently that cognitive dissonance is not exclusive to our struggle with alcohol. We may have other competing beliefs that cause stress and anxiety and discomfort.
I feel anxious when I am not living an authentic life – when my outside appearance does not match up with my inside thoughts. My job, for example. This introverted, wannabe blogger, is in sales. Are you laughing? Not. Authentic.
At my core, I crave comfort, rest and quiet. My job wants me to be larger than life, talkative and high achieving. Whole lotta nope. My list of things that I would rather do than make a phone call includes removing all of my toenails one by one.
Right now, I am seven months AF and it shocks me when the old temptation to drink wine slips into my thoughts. I was naïve to think that if I could navigate the 12-month cycle of holidays, birthdays and BBQs I would be home free.
Be aware. There will be sneaky moments when your guard is down. Like coming home after a long road trip and your brain reminds you that you used to pour wine and relax on the couch after that drive. Thanks, brain.
Seriously, our brains are freaking amazing. Our brains store memories for us in songs, scents, aromas and tastes. Our brain reminds us of our drinking past the same way it reminds us that the taste of molasses gingerbread cookies at Christmastime holds memories of Grandma.
So be aware, it’s not just the big moments that we can prepare for: date night, girls’ trip, weddings. Routine moments from the past will wake up from their slumber and slap you in the face. It takes a lot of practice to build new muscle memories. Stay vigilant.
The other day I was feeling aimless, and a random thought popped to mind: I want wine.
Where did that come from?
No, Janelle, you're just bored.
So, my brain stored that pattern for me. Months ago, if I felt bored, I’d mindlessly start to drink. Reach, pour, delete. I was deleting myself? On purpose?
The mind-numbing, momentary I-can't-feel-a-thing comes with a price. The price is just your body, your soul and your family.
But it wasn't just myself I was deleting; it was my family. Alcohol does not distinguish happy from sad times. It erases the whole photo album.
It’s Rumpel-effing-Stiltskin. Read the fine print, ladies. The mind-numbing, momentary I-can't-feel-a-thing comes with a price. The price is just your body, your soul and your family. Why did we all sign that contract?