When I was a young occupational therapy student studying psychology, I was delighted by the word cognitive dissonance and it’s meaning. In simple terms, it’s when you are not sure that you are doing the right thing and so you balance reasoning in favour of the action you have taken. Like convincing yourself that the dress you bought was a good buy because although it doesn’t fit right now, it will when you lose that additional weight, and it was half price in the sale. It’s human nature that we always want to be right. In our quest to be right, our brains work overtime coming up with all the reasons that we are doing the right thing, even when our gut says we aren’t.
Head or heart
In my blog Meditation challenge part two, I was working with a leading literary agent to get my novel ready for submission to publishers. There are other times in my life where I have been led by my thoughts and not my heart, but I am going to use this example as I have learned something from the experience, that I would like to share.
I can put my finger on the date when I should have paused and taken stock. It was my birthday and I was out having lunch with a girlfriend when the email I had been waiting for showed up on my phone. Two weeks prior to this, I had submitted my edited manuscript to my agent. I was excited, as I believed I had responded to all of the points raised, and I was really pleased with what I had accomplished. This email was going to be BIG. She would love it! What if she didn’t? My hands trembled as I opened the message. It was a holding email; my agent was busy and would get back to me in a month. In fact, it was four months before I got a response.
Thoughts are just thoughts
Our thoughts can drive us crazy, as we use them to try and make sense of our world – confirming our worst fears or imagining the reality we want to believe. Thoughts are not the reality, they are just thoughts. My thoughts at that time were: this is my only opportunity. Everything hangs on this agent’s response. When I didn’t hear back, I assumed the worst. I judged myself and started to lose confidence in my writing ability. My thoughts imprisoned me in a false reality.
Psychology tells us that our thoughts are not always rational. I got stuck in a loop where my thoughts resulted in a fear of failure. My emotional response to perceived reality triggered further irrational thoughts. If only I could have broken that cycle by realising that they were just my thoughts.
We always have choices
A good friend suggested to me that by not meeting with me or getting me to sign a contract, my agent was avoiding any attachment so that she could more easily drop me if we didn’t get a publishing contract. I didn’t disagree, all that my friend said was true. I was acting with my eyes open. However, this is where cognitive dissonance came in as I convinced myself that I didn’t have a choice. I reasoned that it didn’t matter because my agent was going to bring my manuscript to the attention of top publishers. She had an amazing reputation and I was lucky to have her representing me. I had nothing to lose. Besides, what if nobody else wants to represent me? a little voice in my head whispered. I didn’t think I had much choice.
So often, we get stuck in a situation that is not serving us well, but we convince ourselves that there is no other way.
When we feel stuck it is often because we are believing something that is not true. There is always another way. Sometimes it feels as though there isn’t, but we just have to use our imagination – and that should be easy to us. We are creative people.
Instead of trying to justify our actions or inaction by building a wall of perceived truth, we need to listen to our hearts. My heart was telling me that I wasn’t happy. If I had honoured myself with kindness, and acknowledged that although they felt real, my thoughts were just thoughts not reality, I might have broken free sooner.
Sometimes we knock ourselves out by repeatedly hitting against a wall when all we have to do is walk around it. There is always another way.
Looking back, I can understand now that my agent’s success at that time led to changes in her working life that she had not anticipated. When we parted company, she explained that her world had changed significantly since we started working together. I realise now that her lack of communication was no reflection on my writing ability, and wasn’t personal. I had responsibility for myself. There were other options. The editor who was working with me at that time also worked freelance. Since becoming an Indie author, this editor has worked with me on my next novel, and I hope that we will continue to work together.
It was fourteen months after receiving a holding email that signalled a change in my working relationship with my agent that I suggested it might be better for us to part company. I have had no regrets since, but I could have saved myself the misery and self-doubt of my negative thoughts.
Of course, I can still list all of the positives that justify why I stayed with that agent for a year longer than I perhaps should have done. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing. But, I have learned from this experience.
- When something doesn’t feel right, listen to your heart (gut/intuition)
- List the thoughts that are limiting you and then let them go.
- When negative thoughts stick, be kind to yourself and allow time to shift your thinking.
- Honour yourself with courage and respect, you are responsible for your destiny – nobody else has this power.
- When we still our thoughts and listen to our heart, a greater power reveals itself.