“People intuitively strive for continuity between personal expectations and the realities of life.”- JSP
We all at one time or another experience some internal tension between beliefs, values, or behaviors that contradict what we currently hold to be true. We choose to work through and rectify our internal inconsistencies because it is essential for us to be honest with ourselves; this isn’t always the case with many.
Ignoring the Contradictions
There are people who seem to be “walking contradictions.” You know the type, they say one thing and do another, some knowingly, others unaware. There are people who hold on to bad habits for years; they know them to be harmful yet persist in them none-the-less.
Many of us live with certain inconsistencies, such as unhealthy eating habits we know to be harmful; facts notwithstanding, we continue indulging because we want to. Our internal inconsistencies can affect those around us.
Many leaders engage in unwise or unethical practices to get an edge on competitors or, worse, their employees. They know it’s wrong, yet they make excuses for their compromising behaviors. They may refuse to address the issues or deny they’ll fall victim to the obvious yet inevitable consequences. Why? Because admitting the truth to ourselves may fill us with uncertainties that make us uncomfortable.
For many, confronting contradictory ideas or behaviors are stressful and mentally draining. The thought of grappling with opposing beliefs and values that may be true is, for some, too much to handle.
Psychologist Tara Well says, “Uncertainty is difficult to tolerate, so we have a natural tendency to create stories that help us feel certain and feel safe. It’s important to realize that these narratives aren’t necessarily correct.” (1) It’s for this reason many resolve their contradictions by believing whatever they want regardless.
We all experience inner contradictions in some measure, and we may not always acknowledge it. Haven’t we all experienced one or more of the following at one time or another?
- We allow ourselves to get talked into doing or saying something against our better judgment.
- We are feeling embarrassed or regretful about something we’ve said or done.
- We rationalize making a wrong decision or a mistake.
- We lied to a friend and are too ashamed to admit it.
We sometimes go into self-preservation mode, which allows our inner turmoil to persist and increase, when being honest though embarrassing, builds internal integrity in the long run. When our self-talk is honestly rooted in reality, we stand a better chance of uncovering our motives for persisting in our contradictions.
Contradiction as a Path for Learning
“Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted… but to weigh and consider.” – Francis Bacon
Lifelong learners regularly confront inner inconsistencies; it’s how we learn and grow. To do something different or improve on values or behaviors, we must be open to new information that may contradict what we currently believe or a habit with which we are comfortable.
Objectively examining the new information or behavior, we weigh it against what we currently hold to be accurate; if we judge it to be wrong for us, we reject it. If we see how this new information can better align us with our objectives or life-purpose, we’ll be comfortable accepting it.
Once new values and behaviors are accepted and internalized, harmony replaces the temporary contradictory feelings. What I’m describing only works if we’re honest with ourselves. When it comes to resolving internal contradictions in living and learning, honesty is always the best policy. Sometimes we may not be honest with ourselves or others because we believe the truth will cause us pain.
The way to live peaceably with contradictions is to grow in self-awareness. Kenia Nunez says it best, “Surrender to things you cannot change from your past, release your worries of tomorrow, and learn to value the present and inner peace will follow.”
- Tara Well, PhD is an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University, where she has taught Personality Psychology, Health Psychology, and Psychology of Leadership for over 20 years.