Free Yourself From Cognitive Dissonance. ~ Shielagh Shusta-Hochberg, Ph.D.

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The Empathic Heart.

One of the most dangerous threats to human well-being is a conflict between our values and our way of life.

When we believe we ought to act and speak in one way but actually act and speak in contradiction to that belief, we create a mental, and often emotional, disharmony.

Psychology refers to this disharmony as cognitive dissonance. Generally this dissonance creates unease, sometimes in the form of extreme anxiety. Because of this, we tend to employ, at the unconscious level, strategies to distance ourselves from the source of the unease.

Our old and innovative friend Sigmund Freud, whatever else you may think of him, addressed this phenomenon and called this type of strategy the defense mechanisms. These include denial, repression, projection, dissociation, reaction formation, justification, rationalization, minimization and displacement. There are others but these are among the ones I see most often in the therapy hour.

When we see ourselves as compassionate, and feel truly moved by suffering when we encounter it, especially towards the weak and those dependent on human kindness, anything in our way of life that contradicts this raises defense mechanisms to attempt to help us resolve the disharmony, our cognitive dissonance.

Photo: Cropbot

So when we love animals, truly love them as if they were family as indeed many pets become, our sense of compassion for them is intense. We may anthropomorphize them and thus attribute human-level cognition and emotion to them by imagining ourselves in their place. We may or may not be correct in such projection, but it is a very common experience. Happy animals, or animals that appear to smile, or a purring cat, or a dog wagging its tail, can make us feel happy, too as we perceive this.

Where is the dissonance?

It might reside in the self-described dog lover who chains his dog out of doors without shelter in all weather extremes.

It might find a home in the steak-eater who distances herself from the source by limiting her conscious awareness of meat to the restaurant kitchen or supermarket meat case. She might even be able to see a hanging side of beef in a butcher shop without experiencing her dissonance. Her dissonance might first arise when she sees the whites of a frightened cow’s eyes as he is being urged into the chute of a slaughterhouse operation or if she hears his terrified bellows when the sounds and odors of what lies ahead confront his senses.

I will spare the reader more detail but if you wish to learn more and assault your own senses to the degree that your cognitive dissonance is shattered, leading you towards a more fully compassionate lifestyle, websites such as Mercy for Animals or Compassion Over Killing offer videos, text and still photos to accomplish that end.

It is from viewing such a video on the Mercy for Animals site that I instantly became vegetarian in 2008 and when I truly learned what the typical dairy cow and laying hen experience while enslaved in the factory farm, I completed the circle and gave up all animal-derived foods. In other words, I became vegan.

Vegan is a word coined by British activist Donald Watson in 1944 when he brought together a group of “non-dairy vegetarians” and founded the Vegan Society. Their website states:

Today, the Society remains as determined as ever to promote vegan lifestyles – that is, ways of living that seek to exclude, as far as is possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

Photo: Madprime

Note that their statement includes the qualifier, “as far as is possible and practical.”

Vegans are often viewed as kooks and extremists by their omnivore and lacto-ovo vegetarians and family members. There are usually exceptions when a vegan will eat something he or she would never buy or choose if a vegan option was available. That said, most self-described vegans do not knowingly eat animal-derived products to the best of their ability.

So the compassionate-minded meat eaters, and lacto-ovo or other non-vegan vegetarian variants, must employ defense mechanisms to distance themselves from the suffering they would experience if aware they were choosing to violate their sacred values. Perhaps you’ve heard or even said:

> “I only buy organic/kosher/free-range meats and/or eggs.” I won’t browbeat you for this because many consumers truly believe that meat thus labeled means a happy cow, pig or chicken, roaming in a grassy yard being fed by Auntie Em throwing grain from her apron or pouring tasty household table scraps into the trough. Everyone says they know a guy who raises his animals this way, but if you insist, he may tell you he also gets hamburger meat and hotdogs for his barbecue at the chain grocery store.

Google “free range” and you will learn that it is legal to use the term when there is a window or door that is open to the outdoors a few hours a day, even if the animals remain confined.

> “Animals don’t suffer the same way people do.” Sorry, but I can only call “bullshit” on this one. Visit a factory farm or slaughterhouse and let me know what you think then.

> “I only eat fish and other seafood and they lack the higher brain to perceive fear and suffering.” I used to shield myself from my cognitive dissonance in that way too. When I first went vegan I worried I wasn’t getting enough essential nutrients and asked my family doctor about this. “Should I go back to eating seafood or dairy?” I asked him. “Not if you don’t want to,” he replied and pointed out my high cholesterol from my nine months as a lacto-ovo vegetarian and all-cheese-all-the-time lifestyle. (And before that I used to eat a very high-protein diet (Atkins) of bacon, beef, eggs and heavy cream.) The only caution he gave me was to supplement my vegan diet with Vitamin B-12.

> “The only way we can produce enough food to feed our nation or the world is through factory farming.” If they believe unequivocably that they must eat animal sources of food to survive, this is probably true. The Judeo-Christian canon maintains, “As he thinketh in his heart, so is he,” Proverbs 23:7.

We must be aware and attuned to our beliefs and how they guide our actions. If we truly believe that compassion for all living things is the right belief but our actions speak otherwise, our belief may not be nearly as strong or as immutable as we think.

Your heart and your health deserve freedom from the disharmony you feed them when you contribute to animal suffering with your money and your mouth.

May your journey to relief from cognitive dissonance be a sweet one as you align your values and your voice with the life you live each and every day.

Shielagh Shusta-Hochberg, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan, New York slogging through life as we all do. I am vegan, happily married, the proud mother of one and grandmother of four, owned by a fine black cat named Daisy. I began my professional life in my forties. I bring a lot of varied life experience to my current professional practice. I studied and practiced TM in my 20s, and in 2011 I returned to my practice. I garden, cook, write, collect antique marbles, paint and draw a little, and generally love life. I have augmented my practice with the use of Tibetan bowls, guided imagery, and other contemplative interventions.



Editor: Elysha Anderson

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anonymous Dec 9, 2012 7:00am

[…] has been truly spectacular. What was also apparent to me is that there must be an awful lot of ‘cognitive dissonance’ going on in the minds of both Mac users and potential […]

anonymous Jun 14, 2012 4:21pm

Excellent post! Thanks for sharing with us- I will be sharing the link with others!

anonymous May 25, 2012 10:37am

Thanks for stopping by to read and comment on this article, Theresa. If you’d be interested in writing for elephant, let me know. They are welcoming new writers.
Hugs, Shielagh

anonymous May 25, 2012 9:44am

Thanks for this post, Shielagh. Using our blessed freedom to make choices that will reduce the dissonance in our personal universes certainly affects all. I've begun the often too slow trek in change and know that each step I take makes a change that resonates with life and growth in the larger Universe.

anonymous May 24, 2012 11:43pm

Thanks for your frank comment, Pat. Wherever we begin to resolve our personal cognitive dissonance, I believe it helps in all other such areas in ourselves. Progress, not perfection, right?

anonymous May 24, 2012 8:37pm

This is an excellent article! Inspirational! Thank you.

anonymous May 24, 2012 8:15pm

Thanks Shielagh – very nice article. I've toyed with the idea of going vegan, but have also settled for meat and other products that come from animals raised humanely. There are other areas of my life where I have experienced that dissonance where I have realized that I am not entirely practicing what I preach. Through that, I have learned to have more compassion for others as well as for myself as I have struggled to reduce/eliminate the cognitive dissonance and seeing that change is slow and not linear.

anonymous May 24, 2012 2:15pm

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Namskers. I can tell you’ve really given this issue a great deal of consideration, and I’m glad you posted it here where many people can read your words.

anonymous May 24, 2012 10:06am

For me there is empathic harmony in the millennial long connection between domesticated animals whose food and shelter was provided for and prey kept away by those who benefited from these animals produce.
I go to some length to get foods from animals who lived humanely (and I don't eat lamb or calf or any baby animal). This is partially due the relationship I had with animals-especially my goat; and partially my own physiology requiring animal protein. Vegan life would not be sustainable for me, and may not be for others. There are compassionate sources of animal foods and I support them exactly beacause the more 'mainstream ' way of obtaining animal products is so outrageuosly awful.
Personally I am at peace with my choices of how I provide my body with the nutrition it must have in ways that are okay with my feelings for living creatures. Luckily there are great farmers markets where some merchants raise animals in pasture and in compassionate ways. Hopefully more people will create a demand for more mindfully procured food.
Here's to empathy and keeping our hearts open and our choices conscious! N.

anonymous May 24, 2012 10:05am

Thank you for this heartfelt article and for living your truth. It is immensely important that we truly be able to listen to, and really hear another person's truth even if it challenges some of our own views or practice.
Personally, I may have a more intermediate view, possibly because I grew up with animals for whom we cared with compassion and allowed a good life for and did also use the milk from our goat and eggs from our chickens and ducks and geese and turkeys, who all had a place to roam outdoors and eat the food nature intended for them.
So for me there is the knowledge that there are still those farms where animals graze and are milked humanely only after their young nursed (as we did when our goat had kids) and where they are butchered with least anguish possible after a life spent outdoors. These foods cost more – but the expense is worth it exactly because I cannot stomach the commercialized mass production of meat and dairy and eggs.
(to be continued…)

anonymous May 24, 2012 8:10am

Thanks so much, Bob!

Bob Weisenberg May 23, 2012 10:25pm

Excellent article. Thank you!