The most challenging year most of us have ever experienced—or ever will experience—has finally moved into the past. Its significant toll has left millions struggling to clear the financial and emotional wreckage in order to move ahead with their lives. In the dawn of the New Year we have the opportunity for reflection, and a brief pause to contemplate resolutions and goals for the upcoming year.
Whether modest or ambitious, goals emerge from a personal vision of the future. Such visions are rooted in our core values. Whether built upon our own personal experiences or inherited from our elders, our values act as a compass, providing directionality to our lives; they shape our decisions, behavior, and the accompanying emotions. However, for many people, the psychological toll wrought by the pandemic has led to a questioning of basic values and beliefs.
Pervasive fear of an invisible, potentially deadly enemy was compounded by instability and economic hardship through loss of employment, decrease in income, and drastic measures undertaken to reduce spending. As the months of adversity persisted, sadness and hopelessness gave way to desperation. But the somber reality of financial privation was not the only source of difficult emotions. The challenges to our values and beliefs also worked to create negative emotions.
Our beliefs shape our reality through their impact on our behavior and the subsequent reactions of others (Breines, 2015). When new information or unexpected circumstances defy long-held beliefs, we experience the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. For example, for most Americans the traditions of gathering together to celebrate July 4th and Thanksgiving were disrupted in 2020 in the name of “social distancing.” Likewise, the annual year-end Season of Giving—during which charitable contributions and holiday gift-giving usually reach a peak—met with major reductions in personal expressions of generosity, originating in unanticipated financial duress.
The resultant dissonance causes a host of negative emotions including anxiety and shame. Our psychological health is adversely affected, as ensuing behavioral changes deviate further from our values, the negative cycle of emotions overpowering our decisions.
The disconnect between our values and behavior tests our ability to adapt to new situations and prevent internal conflict. An acknowledgement of our emotions’ role in this process allows us to address this discordance and create resolutions for positive change.
Dr.Christiane Northrup (2019) offers suggestions for reducing cognitive dissonance through simple changes in behavior. For example, although monetary donations may be difficult or impossible at this time, the decision to sort and donate old clothes and unwanted household items to a local charity may be one way to respect and align with the core value of generosity. Similarly, practices that hold the power to alter negative thinking include daily entries in a gratitude journal and deliberate mindfulness. Another beneficial exercise is to begin each morning with a clear and positive intention for the day, following up with determined effort to align behavior with that intention. Such practices derail negative thoughts and allow one to notice and appreciate the good in life.
The difficulties of “the new normal” may persist well into 2021. However, acknowledgment of our emotions and positive resolutions during the early days of the New Year may bring some peace and hope for the future, financially and emotionally.
- Breines, J. (2015, August 30). 3 Ways Your Beliefs Can Shape Your Reality | Psychology … Retrieved December 21, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/in-love-and-war/201508/3-ways-your-beliefs-can-shape-your-reality
- Northrup, C. (2019, January 22). 4 Ways To Reduce Cognitive Dissonance. Retrieved December 21, 2020, from https://www.drnorthrup.com/4-ways-to-reduce-cognitive-dissonance/