Just listened to the CBC show Ideas on the topic of Risk and Risk Management. The show discusses how we human beings tend to surround ourselves with people who see the world the way we do. It’s a pretty good strategy for avoiding cognitive dissonance, “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, esp. as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change.” It’s a way of keeping on going without having to slow down and figure something out that doesn’t quite fit.
Sometimes I feel like my whole life is a case of cognitive dissonance. And I’m constantly trying to figure out what it is I actually believe. I question my beliefs almost to a fault – afraid that if I take a stance then I need to acknowledge that I might be wrong. And I don’t want to be wrong because with that comes the feeling that maybe I’m stupid.
I’m really scared of being called stupid.
It’s an irony: I’ve been told by so many people who I truly respect that I am smart, highly intelligent even. And yet, I carry with me this absolute terror that I will be exposed for the fraud that I am. As a stupid person maskerading as someone clever. As a fool.
But what if I am not a fool? What if this fear I carry with me is the panic of someone who was told, repeatedly, as a child, that I was lazy, stupid and willfully bad? I see my terrified 4-year-old face as I clamber up a tree in the back yard of my parents’ house in South Africa. And the tears that stream from my face when I realize that I can’t get down again, my mother somewhere in the house, leaving me out there to teach me a lesson no doubt. My mother abhorred risk takers, at least among her children. And she hated disobedience even more.
I witness myself behind the steering wheel of my mother’s car, practicing for the driver’s test I am scheduled to take at age 16. My mother sits next to me, screaming at me to do this, do that, but I’m not really sure what she’s saying because she just yells and yells and I’m freaking out. I remember the neighbour who walked over to the car that I had inadvertently parked in the middle of our cul-de-sac and that I was unable to move. He quietly, non-confrontationally, told me what to do, and I – grateful for the respite from my mother’s fury – finally succeeded in pulling away. I credit his kindness for helping me learn to drive at all. To this day I feel the warmth of his kindness.
In my early life, I struggled to learn new skills because I had not learned the most essential part of the process: that first you must try and fail and adjust and fail and adjust once more. And as you practice this, you get better, until – one day – you succeed. Those initial failures? They aren’t failures. They are stepping-stones along the way to mastery. I wish I could have learned that when I was a child. Instead I was made to feel stupid and it just seemed easier not to try at all. To this day I struggle with trying new activities, especially mildly risky activities.
But that spark, that desire to know how things work, how to build things and grow, that part is still beating in my chest. It’s a little shaky, a little faint, to be sure. But it’s the heart of who I am and it’s there alright. No one can take that away from me.
On cognitive dissonance: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance