Pretty little lies: Why I don't get involved in "Other people's psychodramas"
Updated: Jul 25
This is the phrase most of my students hear me use, practically every session. This is mainly because my university work is focused on learning to "be well", to "build resilience", to become
mentally and emotionally empowered...and other people's psychodramas are, to me, a real waste of time and energy.
But there's a theoretically based reason too.
The theory of cognitive dissonance
In the 50's Festinger proposed his theory of "cognitive dissonance" which states that as we try to hold our attitudes and behaviours in harmony, when there is a clash eg: A person who believes in a healthy outlook on life smokes, but knows smoking is harmful to health, this creates a state of "dissonance" which we manage in one of 3 ways eg (using the above example of smoking): we change our attitude ("I know it's harmful, but I'm a 'live fast, die young' kinda gal"; we seek evidence to support our behaviour ("Look, this research says that smoking is actually good for you" (note: I do not believe that research exists!); we change our behaviour to suit our attitude ("I realise that is my vice, and I'm giving up").
Through research findings, Festinger went on to explain that the key factors contributing to cognitive dissonance were:
- Forced behaviour (I didn't want to, but did it anyway)
- Having made a decision (Which I now need to stand by, despite any contrary evidence)
- Putting in a lot of effort with little extrinsic motivation (I guess I must have liked* it, to keep doing it)
*The actual phase that people tended to use was "interesting" - which I find interesting in itself. They still cannot commit to the real emotion eg. I loved it, I wanted to do it, I hated it, I was hurt by it and so on... In fact "interesting" as an adjective for a situation is something I always listen out for from clients as there is often something deeper to explore when something has been labelled in that way.
Cognitive Dissonance as Guilt
Aronson revised this approach, suggesting instead that "cognitive dissonance" was an "...inconsistency between a person's self-concept and a cognition (thought or perception) about their behaviour" suggesting instead, it was in fact a behaviour of guilt. For example, perhaps if you do something that hurts another person, you can either apologise and hopefully move on (change your behaviour); pretend it didn't happen (stand by it); or excuse it (X made me). It is clear here, that the healthiest outcome, especially if others are involved, is the first, but this doesn't always happen.
Further, this change to using the notion of guilt, extends cognitive dissonance as something which doesn't simply arise within our own personal behaviour choices - but something which can have an effect on others.
Why I don't get involved in "other people's psychodramas"
Take the following example - You find out that your friend is cheating on his partner. We may see ourselves as a moral person, and in this case it is not us committing the act, but as a friend of the perpetrator, we remain complicit.
Using cognitive dissonance, we may explain it away (He wanted me to lie for him) - this is a particularly sad state of affairs, because one must call into question your authentic decision making process. Or, we may decide "he is a closer friend than his partner" - this is understandable, but the act of "taking sides" is likely to cause a rift in future relationships. Or, we might decide we don't want anything to do with it and take action accordingly. (Again - this final approach would seem the healthiest. You may say, but these are friendships in the balance - perhaps there are questions to ask of what you want from friends).
Resolving cognitive dissonance takes up a lot of mental energy, and for me, I prefer not to have to waste mine - nor compromise potential friendships. Further to which I like to recall the words of Machiavelli "One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceives." Personally, I like my support network to be made up of people with integrity.
Dealing with dissonance
As a coach, I work to bring you to a state of acceptance of the behaviour (not necessarily excusing, condoning nor forgetting), but it is from that state - it happened and I feel bad about it - that it is easier to remind you that you always have a choice. Being able to hold emotions (both positive and negative) is important because the negative are a warning light that there is something we need to face, and the positive are energising and propel us forward in order to do so. We would then work together to change the behaviour (if the value belief is healthy), or sometimes the value belief which, if not so healthy may have caused the behaviour (as in the case of complicity in a lie as per the above example).
A self-coaching cognitive dissonance audit
With 2021 approaching, perhaps it's time to clear the cobwebs of this year and ask yourself:
1. Is there something I'm not being authentic over
2. Why? - you may have "very good reasons" - but if you've got this far into this article, consider if they fall within "dealing with dissonance 1 or 2"...and if 2, are you willing to stand by that belief to any conclusion?
3. What are your options?
Then, if you decide to take action to make changes:
- Work on your self awareness - journaling can be of great help here
- Question if any cognitive dissonance is serving you long term - being aware of your goals, your contribution to the world, and perhaps how you want to be perceived can help
- If you struggle with self reflection, before you jump into a psychodrama, look at how the cognitive dissonance may have played out in that situation and question if it will really serve you to create your own web of fabrication.
And always remember, no matter what you tell yourself, it doesn't remove the gravity your behaviour may have had on yourself - or on others. While we may think in complexity, sometimes our actions - and others perceptions of them are far more plain. (...and those who work to live without dissonance, will not find their actions difficult to take in response to deceit.) Perhaps something I should also add, which I have noted from my training sessions is that, for many, dealing with self-deceit is also exhausting!
Perhaps I am the only person to see Machiavelli in the positive, but they way I read it is - what sort of person do I want to BE?
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilienceFor coaching tips and tools including positive psychology: click WORK WITH ME or SKILL PILL and here for Media appearances or Psych Q&A. Twitter/IG @draudreyt