Cognitive dissonance saved my life — twice

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As I read this story from independent journalist Sharyl Attkisson, I kept nodding at every point.

“Yep, I know that person. That one, too,” I found myself repeating.

Although I have been posting a lot of virus-related material in recent weeks, I added this story to the stack because it applies pretty much to every major situation we face.

Sharyl outlines 17 distinct personality types and how that influences the way people may respond to the COVID-19 panic, but those same personalities come in to play in situations we face every day.

“When it comes to handling a crisis — or any pressure — a lot of an individual’s response has to do with personality type,” wrote Attkisson. “An alarmist personality will not be able to convince a fatalist to see things their way, and vice versa. The process of trying can create conflict and frustration.”

I often waiver between The Inquisitor and The Analyst, although The Skeptic often raises its ugly voice before The Realist gets a chance to speak.

She’s right in that many strained relationships are based on the fact that one person is trying desperately to convince another to see a situation from a certain perspective, but the other person is simply incapable of doing so.

Seek neutral

It can be done, but it is rare that someone’s point of view changes 180 degrees in an instant, regardless of how strong the argument was presented. The best you can hope for is to get the person to adopt a neutral approach first.

In psychology, it is called “cognitive dissonance,” which is defined as “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.”

The mind is a jumble of mixed emotions, thoughts or feelings. And we don’t like being in that state, so that’s the point in which our minds can be changed.

For example, an overweight person knows that his food choices are slowly killing him. He doesn’t need lectures or books on the topic. He doesn’t need stories about people who got sick or died. The food makes him feel good and nothing will change that.

What works is to show him how a healthy alternative tastes just as good and works to help him lose weight. When he is treated to some delicious, healthy meals, and discovers how much energy he has as well as how clearly his mind works after such a meal, he is more apt to adopt that diet rather than curling up for a nap after a carbs-induced food coma.

He learns dropping 70 pounds from his frame while eating delicious food makes him feel far better in the long run than he feels after eating a whole package of Oreos in one sitting.

Nothing could change his mind until he was ready to change it. That was me in 2017 before I lost 70 pounds one summer.

Moving 180 degrees on faith

Using religion as an example, if someone grew up abused and ignored in a church, it is very hard for him to see people of faith as genuine and truly caring. He sees God as distant and, if he exists at all, as being either powerless or unloving.

Before he can even consider accepting God as a loving being, let alone accept Jesus as his savior, he has to realize that he needs help that only God can provide.

In cognitive dissonance, the goal is to nudge a person from 0 to 15 degrees. Over time, if he moves to 90 degrees, which is neutral, then he experiences true mental conflict. He starts questioning his own long-held beliefs and seeks more information to resolve the mental tension.

Once he is neutral, then he is open to considering more information. In fact, he seeks it. He either wants to get back to zero or move to the 180-degree position.

Nobody’s mind likes to be neutral on anything, especially important topics. It will always seek to decide a matter one way or the other, and then consider it to be proven truth.

That was my case.

I went from growing up in a faith-dead church to becoming vehemently anti-Christian to meeting some very nice people of faith who shared their own stories. How could I argue with their stories? Faith apparently worked for them.

The “good” Christians were different

I discovered that not all Christians were the hideous, stupid and weak people I thought they were. I met a few “good ones.” And because they were different, I was enticed to find out why.

THAT opened the door to receiving the gospel message.

I didn’t need someone else pointing out my every mistake and where I fell short — again — of God’s or someone else’s expectations. I didn’t need someone to tell me I was going to hell if I didn’t change because, in my mind, that had to be a better option than the hell I was living at the moment.

I didn’t like who I had become and knew I had to change. I just didn’t know how.

I felt badly about some things I had done and said to hurt others. I needed forgiveness.

I needed to forgive others for the bad things they did and said to me as well.

The more I looked at this different type of Christianity focused on a friendship with God through Jesus Christ, the more I desired that type of relationship. I wanted what my new Christian friends already possessed.

When the student was ready, teachers began to appear — patient instructors who weren’t offended by my many ridiculous or argumentative questions.

After playing mental gymnastics for months, I could no longer justify holding on to any of my old beliefs. I went on a walk around the neighborhood and gave my life to Jesus. I told him I was tired of living a fruitless life and asked him to fix the mess I had made of it.

God started the process of restoration

I bought a Bible and started reading it at lunch. Words popped off the pages and cut right to my soul.

Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

I didn’t need someone pointing out my faults. The Bible showed me where I fell short of God’s ideal. He was in the process of rebuilding me into a new creation.

2 Corinthians 5:17-19a notes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.”

God didn’t like my sin and, to tell the truth, neither did I. But, when I read the Bible, I didn’t feel condemned. Rather, I began to see there was an even better way to live.

God was true to his word. In Ezekiel 36: 25b-27, he promised “I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”

Prior to that, the Bible made little sense to me. Like 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

That’s because I didn’t have “The Helper” — God’s Holy Spirit — which arrived as soon as I asked Jesus to be Lord of my life.

Slowly and steadily, God began a good work in me which he promises to never stop. He is constantly restoring me until it’s time for me to meet him in heaven (Philippians 1:6).

All that all started April 12, 1995 — 25 years ago today.

This Easter, I’d like to thank those people who thought enough of me to patiently keep planting seeds in my heart, rather than throwing harpoons. I’d also like to thank Jesus for never stopping his pursuit of me or giving up on me even when I gave up on myself.

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Greg Gerber

A native of Wisconsin who moved to Arizona in 2009, Greg Gerber is a DODO -- Dad of Daughters Only -- to three grown daughters. He worked as a journalist for many years before pursuing a career as a faith-based writer, author, coach and speaker. Greg is the author of Pornocide: How Lust is Killing Your Faith, Stealing Your Joy and Destroying Your Life.

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