AND, Save Us!

We have to coach our negatively wired brains to find and embrace the AND. When we find it, we need to say it out loud and call attention to it

By Melissa Stefanec

People are feeling a certain sort of way lately and that way isn’t pleasant.

Maybe it’s the changing seasons. Maybe it’s the incessant inflation and stagnant wages. Maybe it’s the dark promise of another heated, negative election cycle. Maybe it’s the reality that post-pandemic life has ushered in a new normal that doesn’t feel all that awesome.

Maybe it’s the constant grind of work and obligations that separate us from our family, friends and passions. Maybe it’s the wars, fires and humanitarian crises that flash across our phones and televisions just long enough to induce sadness and dread. Whatever it is, the world is feeling it right now.

In the face of all of these circumstances, a lot of folks in my circles are feeling depleted, disconnected, exhausted, foggy and incapable.

I’ve had several conversations recently where someone has trailed off mid-sentence, only to apologize for their mental fatigue and lack of ability to carry on said conversation. For a lot of people, especially parents, things are very difficult right now. I’m one of those parents.

Where is our lifeline? In the face of this mental funk, how do we pull ourselves out of the stress and sadness and into the brighter moments of our lives?

How do we not drag our children down with us?

In my opinion, I think our emotional rescue squad takes shape in a 25-cent word: cognitive dissonance.

That fancy term describes the uncomfortable feeling us humans get when we realize two conflicting things are simultaneously true. Said another way, we often feel two ways about many situations and that doesn’t make sense to our brains.

When you think about it logically, that discomfort doesn’t make much sense. A lot of situations demand mixed emotional reactions and varying perspectives. But much of what us humans think and do isn’t rational or logical. We just have to be aware of our less-rational tendencies and then be ready to run those tendencies off at the pass.

Our childhoods didn’t have room for 25-cent words Rationally, most of us understand we can feel a variety of feelings about the same situation, but why does cognitive dissonance give us so much discomfort? Besides being hard wired for it, I think it was our generational upbringing. Many of us 30- and 40-something parents were raised in black and white worlds.

Things were one way, or they were another way. There were right decisions and wrong decisions. There was no room for the in-between or gray areas and if we dared to feel two ways about a situation, we were told we always had to pick a side and disregard much of what we were feeling.

But as we grow older and, hopefully, wiser, we owe it to ourselves and our children to give cognitive dissonance room to flourish. We need to accept it as a healthy part of human nature and encourage our kids to do the same. That’s easier said than done, but I think it’s possible.

Cognitive dissonance in the parenting world As parents, how liberating would it be to wake up and tell yourself you can feel two ways about almost every situation in the day ahead?  What if we could dread the school drop-off line AND be thankful we had a healthy kid who could attend school (and a vehicle to get them there)? What if we were dreading the workday AND thankful for the financial stability and mental stimulation our jobs provided?

What if we were allowed to shudder at a week full of after-school events and then find joy in watching our kids experience those events? What if we could be both enraged AND amused by another sibling bicker-fest? What if we could curse filling out another permission slip AND be incredibly thankful for the PTA providing enrichment for our children? What if we could be annoyed by the books thrown all around the house AND be thankful that our children are reading books?

Doesn’t the “AND” sound a lot better than just being annoyed by the drop off line? Doesn’t the “AND” sound better than letting a sibling argument finally push us over the deep end? Doesn’t the “AND” sound better than resenting a beautiful thing like a book?

Stressed AND blessed — We have to coach our negatively wired brains to find and embrace the AND. When we find it, we need to say it out loud and call attention to it, especially in the presence of our kids.

In short, as we all tackle the exhaustion that comes from parenting and adulting in unprecedented times, embracing cognitive dissonance may be just the cure-all we’ve been searching for.

We shouldn’t feel guilty when we admit we’re incredibly stressed AND incredibly blessed. We just have to find the energy and emotional resilience to emphasize, admire and spotlight the blessed. If we teach our kids it’s OK to feel a range of emotions about all of the complicated things life throws at us, we might just give them the tools to be both human AND happy. Just maybe, AND can save us from ourselves.