Report Abuse


Skip to main content

Finding Some Relief

By John McNeil

There is no doubt that we need to stop and prevent bullying. But here's an interesting question, "What do you do if you are the one bullying yourself?" Growing up, I remember being tormented by this nagging, sometimes incessant, self-vilifying, debilitating assault that was going on in my head. These weren't just thoughts of acting like a fool or failing. These were thoughts of already being a fool and a failure. If my father told me that I was being irresponsible, the conversation in my head became, "I am irresponsible!"

For me, being the youngest of four boys (by three years) was accompanied by thoughts of never measuring up. I am not saying that all my thoughts were berating. But there were a significant and sufficient number of them, and they were ugly.
I attended a Catholic elementary school, where my knowledge of having these thoughts turned the conversation within me into that of being a sinner standing on Hell's doorstep. On the outside, I think I did a pretty good job of faking that everything was just fine in my life. But that inner voice would just sit and wait until something bad, unpleasant or unwanted happened. Then it would speak up and say things like, "See. I told you so. Who are you trying to fool?"

Other kids I talked with would confess to having similar thoughts, and I found a slight comfort in that. After all, misery loves company. But that didn't bring an end to my quiet self-harassment. I would keep myself busy, doing any activity, just to avoid spending time with myself.

My first real glimmer of hope of being able to live in harmony with myself came my freshman year of high school. During my health class, I was assigned to sit and watch some videos about Cognitive Psychology that featured a former teacher from my high school who had gone on to share these principles all over the world. Ironically, this teacher was also my godfather, Lou Tice. As I listened, it was as though he had been camping out in my head. He said the first thing a person needed to do, to improve their life, was to become aware of their self-talk. Now, at the ripe old age of 14, I figured I had already attained the equivalent of a doctorate on that particular subject. I was hungry to get started using the tools!
In 1980, Lou asked me to go to work with him and wow, I was fully in! Work with Lou gave me the opportunity to meet some of the world's most renowned psychologists, people like Dr. Martin Seligman, Dr. Gary Latham and Dr. Albert Bandura. But the single greatest insight I received, for changing my internal circuitry, came from the work of Dr. Leon Festinger and his theory of cognitive dissonance. Roughly defined, cognitive dissonance is a tension you feel when you become aware of two conflicting thoughts.

An easy way of understanding cognitive dissonance is to envision walking into a room and noticing a picture hanging crooked on the wall. Would that bother any of you? Yes! It seems that many of us feel a little stress associated with pictures not being in balance or not being "hung correctly." That tension leads to a desire to straighten the picture. The tension stops and the straightening ends when the picture reaches a level of congruence with the mental image that I hold of how the picture is "suppose to be!" This was a life-changer! The key in it being the words "the image I hold in my mind of how things are suppose to be."
"Suppose to be." Suppose to be is not an objective truth. It is a subjective truth. By that I mean what is "supposed to be" is not the same for everyone. It is my learned opinion of how things are. By way of extension, I have learned how things are suppose to be in many areas of my life. All my "truths" hang as the pictures that I balance my life against. If I am supposed to act shy, it is because this is the type of person I have come to know myself to be. If I am not supposed to have money at the end of the month, it is because this too is what I have learned as a "truth" about myself. Every self-image I have, from how good I am as an athlete in a general sense, to how I am in a particular sport, from whether I can speak in public or even how I speak to myself in private, have come from learning "a truth". Notice I said "a truth" and not "the truth". That's because my truth is subjective. It would probably sound a heck of a lot easier to change if I actually called it by what it is: my current opinion.

Regardless of my opinion, cognitive dissonance is all about reducing stress when things don't look or feel right to me. People who win the lottery, when they have been relatively poor up to that point their life, quickly feel the stress of having too much money. They begin straightening the picture on the outside to match the picture they have on the inside, by getting rid of or spending the money. What is fascinating is that it doesn't matter to my subconscious whether the picture I hold is good or bad. Stress comes when I observe the outside simply not matching the current picture that I hold in my mind. For me, this became one of the best explanations for self-sabotage.
It's like I have an infinite number of pictures hanging on the walls of my mind. If I look closely within their frames, I will find that some of these frames seem to contain mirrors. So, I maintain a tremendous number of pictures of the way the world outside is suppose to look, as well as many pictures of the way I am suppose to look in the world. When confronted by an opposing "truth" I tend to correct the outside reality to match the picture hanging on the walls of my mind.

This understanding of psychology, as it pertains to cognitive dissonance, provided me with another possible option for eliminating stress. Not only can I adjust the picture on the outside to match the inside, I can also adjust the picture held in my mind to match the outside and also get rid of any uncomfortable or stressful feeling. Let me illustrate by how this normally happens. Did you ever buy a new "anything"? It could have been a car, a bicycle or anything. Let's say it was a car. The first scratch or ding on the car tends to bother you so much so that you fix it immediately. The fourth, fifth and sixth ding probably didn't even get noticed. Why? Through natural assimilation, we can get use to just about anything. This assimilation usually happens through unconscious repetition of observations. You see things don't bother me until I become consciously aware of a difference.

That is precisely why, without knowing it I can be playing my best round of golf ever, and have a friend say, "Do you know how good you're playing?" I say, "No. I knew I was doing pretty well." Then I ask the awareness question, "How good am I doing?" In that moment, with the new realization, I can rest assured I will self-correct my behavior by doing something like hitting my next shot in the water or out of bounds.
It may sound bleak, that I am somehow enslaved to all my pre-existing pictures. But, I can actually use all these pictures to help me to grow! There is also a way to use cognitive dissonance to help bring about brand-new pictures of what I want. We have all done this at times throughout our lives. Let's take the case of John Herrington. The first Native American Astronaut. Without any similar other role model to have traversed the path of becoming an astronaut before him, young John imagined himself soaring through space. He did this with such regularity that he conditioned his mind and assimilated this to be the "truth." When in reality he saw no evidence to support his mental picture, he reduced the stress of the conflicting pictures by learning, training and becoming what he had first framed in his mind.

Today, I know that none of the pictures that I hold in my mind are cast in stone. They are changeable, and I can add completely new pictures to the inventory that already exists. If you want to use cognitive dissonance to construct the future you want, there is an actual formula and process for generating and changing pictures. The formula is "(I +V)R = A". Imagination + Vividness x Repetition = Actuality to the subconscious mind.
Let me demonstrate this with something most of us will only need to repeat one time in order to see what I am talking about. Relax and take a couple of deep breaths as I describe this next scene for you. If you are listening to this, go ahead and close your eyes. Imagine a long day of work where you didn't have time to refuel by eating. You arrive home to an empty house and the lights off. You manage to find your way into the kitchen and you open the refrigerator door. A light comes on and you discover your refrigerator is empty. But, your stomach is empty too, so you keep hunting. In the fruit drawer your search is rewarded with the discovery of an absolutely perfect lemon. It's big. It's bright. It's chilled. It's firm, but not too firm. It is perfect! And, it is the only thing available to quench your hunger. You take this perfect lemon to the cutting board and grab an extremely sharp knife. Like cutting paper, you cut this perfect lemon in half. You then slice one half in half and right before your eyes is the most perfect quarter slice of lemon that you have ever seen. You grab the slice, holding it with just your thumb and index finger and give it a slight squish. Droplets of juice bead up on the succulent surface of the lemon. You bring it to your mouth, ready to experience the tart sensation as you bite. You suck all of the lemons sour contents right into your month. OK, that's enough! You probably detect a little saliva pouring into your mouth, yes?

OK, I think we can conclude from this experiment that the formula works. Your subconscious even sent saliva to help you digest your imaginary lemon. In this case we only repeated the "I + V" one time. For more significant pictures, the formula requires a few more repetitions. The number of reps is determined by the amount of emotion that you attach to the imagery. Science has proven that you can create the pictures you desire by imagining them. Now you have some experiential evidence to support that. It's probably time to hang some new pictures.
Let's begin with developing a picture from some of those old negatives you have hanging around. I'll use one of mine to show you how. Let's see... oh, here's one. "I lose my temper when people disagree with my opinion." Now, those are merely the words I use to describe the picture, but what are the behaviors I see when I use those words?

> I raise my voice.
> I stop listening to what the other person is saying.
> I interrupt when the other person is talking.
> My eyes squint.
> I tend to roll my eyes.
> In a variety of ways I defend my opinion by making the other person feel stupid because they don't have all the facts.
> My body shows aggression.
> I carry my aggression into the next unrelated topic.
> I bring our conversation to an abrupt end.
> I go into a withholding quiet.

Obviously, this is not the most wonderful picture I have hanging around. In fact, it makes me feel embarrassed, dumb and mad.
The good news, for me, is I now have all the ingredients to develop the picture that I want. I have words, which trigger pictures that produce feelings. All I need to do is imagine myself being exactly the opposite. So, let's just flip everything I just talked about. Instead of telling myself, "I lose my temper when people disagree with my opinion," I just say, "I stay calm, cool and poised when people disagree with my opinion."

What behaviors do these words trigger?

> My voice lowers.
> With interest I listen to what the other person is saying.
> I let the other person complete their thought and ask questions.
> My eyes and my mind stay wide open.
> I maintain eye contact and seek understanding.
> I make the other person feel smart by adding more information and by asking. "what if" questions for their consideration.
> My body shows interest and openness.
> My calm carries over into the next topic.
> The conversation comes to an end with grace and appreciation.
> I stay in a sharing frame of mind.

This response makes me feel at ease, more knowledgeable and sensible.
Now, it's time to use the formula (I + V)R = A. I find a quiet place to relax and rehearse. I see myself being calm, cool and poised when people disagree with my opinion. I find myself really interested in what the other person is saying and I feel at ease and sensible gathering more knowledge and wisdom. I repeat this visualization morning and night, and anytime I encounter someone in opposition with my opinion. In a couple weeks, I have a new picture framed and hanging on the wall of my mind. Cognitive dissonance will now ensure that I correct to this new picture.
You can deepen and develop a greater sophistication for the use of this tool, but fundamentally, this is what helped me to find relief. Perhaps it has even helped me find joy! I hope you find this tool helpful too. Let me know.

John McNeil, CEO of The Pacific Institute Community, Previously Vice President of The Pacific Institute.

Hi! I research topics such as self-development achievement and mental health. I have a passion to use my life experiences and research to help others reach their full potential.