I recently heard that cognitive dissonance occurs when you act in a way that’s at odds with your values. I’ve also heard that cognitive dissonance happens when, in order to function, you have to hold in your consciousness two totally different ideas or realities at the same time. Some of us experience this kind of thing when we’re kids, if we come from abusive places, where, out in the world or at school, we were met as giving or smart or creative, and at home we were met as stupid or selfish or bad. We had to hold both of these realities of ourselves at the same time — we had to somehow understand that different people could interact with us in completely different ways, opposing ways, even if we thought we assumed it seemed as though we were the same person (weren’t we?) when we moved from one situation to the next.
That experience of cognitive dissonance doesn’t lessen as I get older — when I come to understand that someone has a completely different understanding of a situation than I do, or when I come to understand that someone I thought knew me, saw me, actually sees someone very different — and I have to wonder if I am that person that they see, as well as the person I understand myself to be (who is, in this case, the opposite of, or at least quite different from, their vision — or at least, so I’d imagined).
It’s too heady, trying to explain this, too much in my head — the bodily experience is that I’ve been nauseous for a week. I wrote somewhere else that I wished others could throw up for me: maybe if I explained clearly enough the awfulness of the situation I was in when I was a kid, my listener could get sick and throw up and then we’d both be relieved. I’m not good at that sort of release. All I can do is let the stories go. So I’m swallowing the bile and drinking lots of peppermint and/or ginger tea, which helps a little.
It’s difficult (could there be more of an understatement?) to meet the ourselves that live in others’ conceptions of us, and find that we don’t recognize those people — does this make sense? To find that the Jen someone else has perceived, has been interacting with, has maybe been parenting (or imagining that they were parenting) isn’t me at all. Or isn’t the me that I thought I was. See what I mean about heady?
Maybe this is always true — we’re always interacting through filters, through past experience, through triggers and previous loss, through fantasy and imagining and wishful thinking, through our lenses and prejudices and preconceived notions. Every now and again, we can push, dust all that stuff aside and meet someone else for who they are, not who we want them to be or who we’re imagining them to be — can’t we? Or is that all just imagining, too?
I guess it’s kind of a solipsistic viewpoint; I don’t know what that has to do with my nausea, though.
Maybe the nausea comes from continuing to be hopeful. Hopeful that we can ever really know someone else. That someone else can ever really know the self that we ourselves know “inside,” from within our own experience.
I’m being as direct as I can be without saying clearly that right now I’m dealing with the reality that not only doesn’t my father know who I am now, as an adult, he didn’t know who I was when I was fifteen. And that brings up this other dissonance — having the covers pulled on the understanding I thought I had of someone else, and of a relationship: in a couple of short, awful conversations, I got to see my father and our history in a new light. And I understood that he looked completely different from the someone I thought I was the daughter of. Who I thought I was seeing wasn’t there at all.
I guess it’s just another form of course-correction: re-considering and getting more honest about our relationships. I get it that our lives are spent in course correction. I think I imagined that one day we could have some solid understanding of another human being. Maybe that’s another ostensible definitive I need to release. Of course our human relationships are always in flux — we just need to stay awake and alive in them, present in every moment.
What about a prompt here? Something that we can all open our notebooks to and write on later today:
Make a list of several (at least 4-6) people who are important or influential in your (or your character’s) life, whether mostly-positive or mostly-challenging. Let yourself make a star or mark next to the three names on your list that are the most charged for you right now, for whatever reason.
Write for three minutes about how you see yourself in the world (or how your character understands hirself in the world). Then, for the next 9-15 minutes, write for 3-5 minutes each about how those three folks you starred on your list would perceive or describe you (or your character). If you’ve got a bit more time, then lift your pen after the last of these description, take a deep breath, and drop back down into your writing for another 10 minutes, following it wherever it seems to want to go.
Feel welcome to share your writing, if you want, in the comments section below — I haven’t written in response to this yet, and when I do, I’ll post it here.
Thanks for being there.