It goes without saying that the world is undergoing a profound shift in consciousness in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. It’s the kind of shift that gives way to an existential crisis, but in collective form, en masse. As with a personal crisis, the revelation that something (or things) we hold incredibly dear—our health, our financial security, our loved ones, our personal possessions, our very lives—might suddenly be taken away from us puts us squarely in the grip of cognitive dissonance, that painful tension that arises when what we know to be true, objectively, and what we want to be true, subjectively, are in conflict with one another.
A key psychological principle—perhaps the key psychological principle—undergirding human behavior is the overwhelming desire to ensure that inner (subjective) reality be in perpetual alignment with outer (objective) reality; in other words, to minimize cognitive dissonance as much as possible. When these inner and outer realities are out of sync, as they are frequently wont to be, there are two basic paths by which to remedy the misalignment: we can either work to change outer reality to meet our inner expectations, or we can work to change our inner expectations to meet the outer reality. And occasionally, if we’re self-actualized enough, we can do both.
A healthy amount of cognitive dissonance is arguably a good thing as the desire to ease that tension is what chiefly motivates us to keep striving to meet our goals, work hard, be successful, etc.: an example of working to change outer reality to meet our inner expectations. This is especially true when bridging the gap between our inner desires and outside circumstances feels realistic and largely within our control. It’s a concept that should sound especially familiar in the United States where the message that attaining the “American Dream” is possible for anyone with a “can do” attitude and the willingness to work hard is a broader reflection of a culture dominated by Extraverts.
For a country like the U.S., where conditions have historically been favorable to this Extraverted approach, a strong precedent of relative success changing our circumstances to meet our inner expectations has been established. For this reason, an ethos of near-eternal optimism—often noted and marveled at by non-U.S. citizens—is endemic to Americans. In a society so accustomed, future success seems practically guaranteed. Indeed, the prevailing wisdom in America is that tomorrow will always be better than today. To suggest otherwise is tantamount to treason; to call on an oft-repeated joke, in this country one is either an “Ameri-can” or an “Ameri-can’t.” Woe to you, traitor, if you be the later.
When Extraverted Optimism Proves Counterproductive
The natural result of all of this prolific, Extraverted optimism is that it generates a subtle, yet powerful, projection of outward momentum that always assumes the solution to our cognitive dissonance lies in changing things “out there” somewhere. As previously noted, we have a history of relative success with this approach in the U.S.; optimism and confidence in our ability to overcome adversity tend to promote success which subsequently boosts optimism and confidence, creating a kind of positive feedback loop. This way of operating in the world, of quieting cognitive dissonance by changing our circumstances instead of our mindset, has become the cultural norm, an automatic reflex in response to resistance. It’s our collective comfort zone. And this approach tends to work really well…until it doesn’t.
Unfortunately, there are times when the subtle, forward momentum of growth-oriented, Extraverted thinking becomes untethered from reality—moments where the estimation of one’s relative power over the external world becomes greatly exaggerated. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice cocksurely believing that everything is well in hand even as the buckets and brooms he’s conjured to life conspire to drown him, the basic message is always: “I’ve got this!” Too often, we project a type of wishful thinking that sees us insisting that everything we’re doing is working just fine because the disruption generated by cognitive dissonance (the psychological equivalent of nails on a chalkboard) is so unpleasant an interruption to our usual state of contentment, that it prompts us to deny or distort objective facts in an attempt to re-harmonize the discordant realities.
But the thing about a state of existence that sees us comfortably couched in continual contentment is that it rarely prompts meaningful growth from a psychological standpoint. Rather, contentment tends to pull a subtle bait and switch that lures us into doubling down on the same approach, even as we run into an increasing number of roadblocks. According to Jungian theory, as we gradually rely on controlling the outside world (Extraversion) to cope with cognitive dissonance or stress, we lose corresponding control over the inner world (Introversion). In essence, we become lopsided. True self-growth often only happens when we meet enough resistance while attempting to use the same, old approach such that it forces us into trying an unfamiliar one.
What understandably has our Extraverted culture so distressed at this time is the near total restraint on outward movement that we are accustomed to relying on in order to overcome cognitive dissonance. We are a country of do-ers. We are a country of act-ors. I daresay that going to literal war by hopping on airplanes and manning machine guns would somehow feel more comforting to many Americans than being asked to sit at home and do nothing at this time. But with the exception of our heroic healthcare workers, essential food suppliers, and public service sector workers, going out and “doing” is largely antithetical—detrimental, even—to our war effort here. For the first time in a long time, our Extraverted instincts are working against us.
In some ways, the experience is a lot like getting caught in a Chinese finger trap. Our instincts lead us to yank our fingers apart which only binds us further. Maddeningly, the harder we struggle, the more we end up ensnared. Eventually, where brute force fails to suffice, necessity demands that cleverness kick in: only by taking the opposite approach and pushing our fingers together—by working with the finger trap—do we find a way out. In other words, we have to be smarter than our instincts. More bluntly, we have to be smarter than ourselves. Enter humility.
Humility, Introversion & Insight
Humility is the natural response to, and often found only in the face of, overwhelming external resistance. The beauty of humility is that it almost immediately engenders a sense of flexibility. That flexibility is the saving grace, like a trap door, that offers us an entirely new way out of a locked room. It gives us a profound level of appreciation for the universe we find ourselves working within so that there can be better harmony between it and us, undoubtedly providing us with advantages paramount to our survival. But without some kind of external resistance, we might never know that we’ve been doing something wrong, that we’ve become rigid and lopsided in our way of thinking and operating.
All of the above draws on the idea that adversity has something to teach us about ourselves, spiritually and psychologically, and to reveal blindspots that previously prevented us from becoming as whole or well-balanced as we might have otherwise become if we were willing to welcome some measure of discomfort into our lives. Virtually all religious texts have sought to deal with the problem of cognitive dissonance in one iteration or another as the central problem of the human spiritual experience: What do we do when we, as mere mortals, feel spiritually torn asunder, powerless to change what only God can control? As an aside, it is a well-observed, if rather ironic, reality that the need for religion is often eschewed when times are good, but finds sudden, renewed interest in a downturn.
External hardship has an incredible way of bringing us to a place of profound self-reflection, where we’re forced to discover the ways in which we’ve been blind to some kind of deeper truth. And as unpleasant as this pandemic experience is in the short run, our pain and discomfort has the potential to bring us more resilience in the long run. By necessity we’ve been forced to remember the other remedy to the cognitive dissonance problem, the one that sees us changing our mindset and expectations to fit the circumstances. It’s a remedy that will, by and large, come more naturally to Introverted Intuitive types.
In a way, this situation has made Introverts out of all of us. Indeed, actual Introverts may not find this whole social distancing stuff all that disruptive to their sense of well-being. I’ve heard more than a few IN types admit somewhat sheepishly that their daily lives and routines haven’t changed all that much in the wake of Coronavirus and the resulting order to “shelter in place.” The pandemic has begged the question, “what meaningful existence could you find if you were considerably less distracted by the usual breadth of activities and obligations of modern life?”
This is the perfect time to re-examine what matters most to us, as well as to re-evaluate our spiritual and psychological health. Perhaps this collective pause has us rediscovering our own inner creative potential—that potential we’ve ignored because we’ve been spread too thin recently to nurture it in any meaningful way. Perhaps this gives us the opportunity to ask how we might be more prepared to weather potential setbacks in the future. Perhaps this experience is creating space to allow for a few more Introverted values going forward such as learning to live with less, an emphasis on sustainability, and taking time to reflect on and appreciate what is rather than what might be.
In sum, the pain we’re currently experiencing is the non-stop shrieking of our collective cognitive dissonance as Rome burns and we remain paralyzed to act, unable to throw water on the fire. As uncomfortable and frustrating as this is, without any hint of patronization, I do believe that cognitive dissonance has something to teach us, if we’re open to learning. That’s because a constraint on our power to change our circumstances effectively requires that we adjust our mindset or expectations to adapt with the situation—to become more flexible psychologically and spiritually for the good of our long-term growth and development. I daresay, if we can do that, once this profound collective grief we are experiencing has passed, we will emerge from the ashes more resilient than ever.