When Behaviors conflict with values, we feel dissonance—conflicted, torn between who we think we are and who we actually are. We point to many admirable character traits, adopt them as our own (values), then behave in opposition to those things we hold in high esteem. Our mismatch of values and behavior creates stress that we must resolve to improve wellness.
Integrating Behaviors and Values
We can’t blindly march and expect values and behaviors to smoothly sync. When we just live according to impulse, the syncing is forced to happened post hoc. We bend and twist interpretation of our erratic behavior to match our idealistic beliefs.
See Self Deceptions for more on this topic
With the help of the prefrontal cortex, we can draw from a vast pool of resources to change the trajectories of our lives, using the executive functions of top-down processing to plan rather than allowing impulsive behavior first and leaning on the our creative processes to justify the harmful impulse.
Personal development requires active engagement, balancing demands with our important values. A flourishing, well-lived life needs focus on the things that we really want. We must attend to the things and people that matter.
Our values aren’t necessarily obvious. Many goals (motivators) exist beneath consciousness. Our actions quietly (sometimes loudly) serve these drives. Our explicit and specific goals, such as losing weight, may conflict with internal drives (unconscious goals). As in a weight loss goal, underlying motivations push for consumption, while conscious goals attempt to set limits. The overtly proclaimed goal often collapses to the less salient and unconscious goals. We suffer from conflicting goals. Regular reflection assists with identifying and resolving internal conflicts.
Values and Character
Our character is defined by our foundational goals—whether we seek to be kind, secure, or powerful. All these driving forces exist within us; but have different priorities. When opportunities for kindness collide with need for power, which will win?
See a People of Character for more on this topic
An old Cherokee chief taught his grandson that, “There are two wolves living inside me.” He continued, “They are in a terrible and ferocious fight.” One of the wolves he explained was evil, full of anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other wolf is good, full of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
The grandson pondered and then curiously asked, “which wolf will win?”
His kind grandfather replied, “The one that you feed.”
“Recognition of what we value isn’t necessarily obvious. Many goals exist unconsciously.~T. Franklin Murphy
Our mental lives are divided—good and bad; self and others; conscious and unconscious. There is constant collision between warring parties. Our brains work to process the constant flow of information, soaking up data and providing a relevant narrative for guidance.
When action occurs, one priority is given dominance over the others. One set of drives (conscious or unconscious) defines the more important value, demanding our behavioral attention, and motivating action. Values and behaviors often get separated during these complex processess.While, from a conscious perspective, we seem singular—united in purpose—we are not. Inferior stimuluses don’t vanish—they linger. Once the immediacy of choice has settled and action completed, unfollowed impulses remain, pestering the mind—cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive Dissonance Theory
When two motivating goals collide, such as a ruthless action to secure advantage that hurts someone else and our self-image of kindness, a powerful dissonance arises interfering with inner peace. A divided self seeks for reunification. When belief and completed action are incompatible, we wildly justify forcing the odd action into the confining hole of our belief. We can act mean, blame it on the target, and maintain the self-righteousness of our kindness. Our dissonance is soothed, and we continue forward in the comforting fog of self-deception.
Self-deception serves us well—in the short run. It serves to perceptively lessen the divide between values and behaviors. However, recognizing, in the examples case, that an act was unkind, requires deeper examination, efforts to repair, and closer attention to impulses of unkindness in the future. We may even need to alter our current goals for power, taking a more compassionate route than originally designed. So, we continue as we always have, largely unconscious, and justifying the mismatched actions, on our golden road to hell (figurative).
See Cognitive Dissonance for more on this topic
We combat blind defensive non-sense by painstakingly looking a little deeper, knowing ominous threats to thoughts and examining patterns of justification and blaming, exposing for the hard truths that they hide. We must deliberately seek enlightenment and courageously fight trajectories that have harmed and will continue to harm our lives. Dragging internal conflicts out into the open, and adjusting behaviors to honor values is essential wellbeing.
See Deep Reflection for more on this topic
Strengthening the Good
There is another front to this war. We must direct positive resources to fight the battles. We win and lose many conflicts in the hidden recesses of our minds. The ferocious wolf of impulse and desire lurks there. We fight unconscious conflicts by strengthening worthy goals for good by adding uplifting and developing activities to our lives. For kindness, we read books by and about juggernauts of kindness. We join groups dedicated to helping others. And, we seek opportunities to serve. Kind practices strengthen hidden motivations to act kind, creating sensitivity to unkind and mean acts—magnifying dissonance when we act in opposition to our desire for kindness.
Nathaniel Braden explained this process in his book Six-Pillars of Self-Esteem:
“The practice of these virtues over time tends to generate a felt need for them. If I habitually operate at a high level of consciousness, unclarity and fog in my awareness will make me uncomfortable. I will usually experience a drive to dispel the darkness. If I have made self-responsibility second nature, passivity and dependency will be onerous to me. I will experience internal pressure to reassert the control over my existence possible only with autonomy. If I have been consistent in my integrity, I will experience dishonesty on my part as disturbing and will feel a thrust to resolve the dissonance and restore the inner sense of moral cleanliness.”
A Few Final Words by Psychology Fanatic
Soothing discomforts between mismatched values and behaviors is a life time work. Wisely solving and resolving dissonance is what wellness demands. Personal development solves the dissonance by bringing behaviors into line with values rather than the simpler path of justifying and protecting blame. Our inner peace can be discovered. We can bring together who we think we are with who we really. As these two worlds come together, our lives, through healthy behaviors, express our values.
Branden, Nathaniel (2012). The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.