Cognitive Dissonance and Systemic Harm

When I was in my undergraduate program, I had a second major in philosophy, and I did my capstone project on cognitive dissonance. I was fascinated by the way that we can twist facts and logic to justify our behaviors and thoughts. I have caught myself in cognitive dissonance, and I am sure I still have some beliefs based on my own misconstruction of what is “right.”

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I think that this is something mental health professionals need to be aware of. While I truly believe that most of us are in this field with good intentions, clients still experience harm within the system. There may be providers out there who got into this field with the intent of hurting people, but I have seen many cases where a provider behaves in a way that harms the client, and the clinician truly believes they did nothing wrong.

It works like this: I believe I am a good person. Therefore, I strive to do good things. Therefore, the things that I do are good things. Therefore, I did not do a bad thing.

The fallacy here is that no one does good things every time. We all make mistakes, often because we did not realize that something was harmful until after the fact. Unfortunately, what happens often is that it then becomes distressing and even impossible to acknowledge a mistake. So, when it comes to light that a therapeutic intervention does more harm than good, many therapists who used this intervention will dig their heels in. I’m a good therapist! I would never harm my clients! Therefore, this intervention isn’t always harmful! It wasn’t harmful when I did it because I’m a good therapist who doesn’t do harmful things!

This is a dangerous mentality because that therapist is likely to continue using the intervention. Why stop when you do not recognize your behavior as harmful?

It is essential that we change our thinking. Instead of: “I believe I am a good person; therefore, the things I do are good things,” we need to shift to: “I try to make the right choices; therefore, I will strive to make the best decision with the information that I have. If I later learn new information, that does not make me a bad person, but it means I need to adjust my choices in the future.”

I had to un-learn a lot after I finished my graduate training, and I am still learning more every day. I used to recommend things I would never suggest today. Does that mean the choices I made years ago make me a bad person? I certainly hope not, but there are many I would do differently now. Because I strive to do my best, I regularly assess my clinical choices and note when I could have done something better.

Like Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”

Published by Dr Marschall

Dr. Amy Marschall received her Psy.D. from the University of Hartford in September 2015. She completed her internship at the National Psychology Training Consortium with specializations in assessment and rural mental health. Currently, she specializes in trauma-informed and neurodiversity-affirming care, and she is certified in telemental health. Dr. Marschall runs a private practice, RMH Therapy, where she provides individual and family therapy as well as psychological assessments across the lifespan. Dr. Amy Marschall is an author and professional speaker.

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