Contradicting yourself may be a sign of growth

Contradicting yourself may be a sign of growth

My father suffered from dementia. In that state, he contradicted most of what I knew about him- his behavior, mannerisms, beliefs and his story as I knew it. I struggled with this new reality, which was not in sync with my mental model of my father.

Our brains seek coherence, structure, and order as this guarantees predictability and control. This is what we expect from others and us. When faced with contradictions it threatens us, unconsciously we distort, and delete stimulus and data in an attempt to weave a coherent story by applying logic and order that doesn’t exist in reality.

To simplify things and evaluate new situations and experiences against our own beliefs and knowledge is human nature. Most of the time we are not aware of this mental process. All of us live with contradictions, and we peacefully exist by our capacity to compartmentalize. Think about people we know who are animal lovers and meat eaters or are ruthless leaders and caring fathers.Whenever these contradictions jump out of these boxes, we are good at finding justifications to ease this cognitive dissonance.

Cultures worship coherence and consistency while contradicting symbolizes inconsistency and unpredictability. This further thwarts our attempts to relook at our stances, beliefs, and ideologies, which over time molds into crusted egos.

Contradictions may come across as a threat, but in reality, it may represent opportunities.

As Malcolm Gladwell articulates, “ If you don’t contradict yourself regularly then you are not thinking.” It’s these fissures in our thoughts and actions that become the fertile ground for creativity, to see the world from a fresh perspective and keep updating our positions. In a fast-changing world, then dealing with contradictory views to our beliefs and knowledge becomes an essential ingredient for growth and our savior from becoming victims of confirmation bias.

So how do we guard against this trap of fitting into a known schema? How do we become aware that we are resisting contradictions? Moreover, importantly how do we overcome it?

There do exist signs when we resist a thought, which is in contradiction to our beliefs. My initial response to my dad’s condition before the diagnosis was one of anger and denial. If we are instinctively defensive to a view, then we need to be suspicious, and if the reaction is emotional, then it’s a definite sign of being wedded to an opinion. In this state, our brain is working hard to prove that our stance is right and it doesn’t allow any space for understanding. This is the time to pause, listen and reflect; yet not to come to any conclusion.

Secondly, we need to switch to a thinking mode, which is deliberate, and slow. In this state the mind becomes inquisitive, and a good starting point is to start with “I don’t know.” A position that is enormously disorienting but infinitely rewarding. When we are in touch with this vulnerable human state of starting with “I don’t know” half the job is done. The journey is then to lead with questions; it’s an inquiry to understand by risking our stance on a subject, an ideology or even about ourselves.

Finally to borrow from Malcolm Gladwell is to “treat the alternate viewpoint entirely at face value and with an enormous amount of respect. That’s a faster way to engage with what they are getting at than to lob grenades in their direction.”

All of the above is not common practice as it’s not easy. We owe it to ourselves to view contradicting viewpoints with respect and embrace our contradictions to keep molding our beliefs and thoughts. To constantly unlearn with no shame and learn to correct ourselves with pride.

With my Dad, I had to be in that conflict zone for a while with the help of his doctor. This opened up another side of my father, which I didn’t realize existed. While it was not comforting, it was definitely enriching.

Maybe as individuals, we need to experience periodic phases of dementia to remain sane, relevant and inspiring.

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