The Importance of Coherence: Agreement in What You Say and Do

February 21, 2020
Being coherent and keeping what you think and do aligned is a way to guarantee your psychological well-being. It's as important as being clear about your values and letting them guide your behavior.

Coherence is when people do their best to be consistent at all times. One of humanity’s main needs is making sure that there’s an agreement in what they say and do and between what they’ve learned and what immediate circumstances demand. People don’t always make that happen, which can cause unease.

Carl Rogers, a celebrated humanist psychologist, was one of the first people to delve deep into the principle of coherence. In 1950, he defined it as an alliance between experience and consciousness.

On a basic level, it’s the result of every lived experience and what you’ve learned from them. This allows you to act in a consistent way regarding your values, feelings, and desires.

Rogers concerned himself with delving deeper into this topic for a good reason. One thing that many therapists witness is incoherence. In other words, the clear difference between what you need and what you do for yourself.

Many people seek help because they feel they’ve gotten too far away from their “ideal self”. Their reality has lost meaning because they can see a clear difference between what they want and what they do, as well as between what they feel and what they receive.

If you aren’t coherent, unease and suffering emerge. This is a sadly common reality that’s worth examining.

“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It’s a direction not a destination.”

-Carl Rogers-

A woman leaning back on a couch.

Coherence can sometimes be the root of problems

Writer and psychologist Robert B. Cialdini from the University of Arizona studied coherence extensively. One of his most well-known books is Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Method to Influence and Persuade. In this book, he delved deeper into this theory to give readers a new and interesting focus.

The nuance that Dr. Cialdini introduces is this: sometimes, in an attempt to be coherent, you find yourself in contradictory situations that turn problematic. For example, if you define yourself as an ecologist and are fiercely dedicated to caring for the environment, then it isn’t coherent to keep using energy sources that pollute.

Many people are subject to social sanctioning for defending certain situations but not being coherent with others. This gets even more complicated if you want to inspire others. If your desire is to get through to others through your values and behavior, this can be problematic.

What can you do in these situations? Are you not as congruent as you thought?

The concept of coherence with a little dissonance

There are times when you just can’t be 100% coherent. You probably don’t like the discussions and discrepancies that come about when you’re dealing with them. It’s possible to defend political ideas, for example, and have a partner who defends the opposite side. It’s possible that you love children but decided not to have them.

Regarding these apparent inconsistencies, there are certain facts you must remember:

  • You really can be coherent, even in the face of apparent daily incongruencies. In the end, as Carl Rogers points out, the idea of coherency is each individual’s conscience.
  • If you don’t experience dissonance, for example, and your perception is still one of agreement between what you say and do, then there’s no problem. In the end, the environment is incredibly complex. This means that you must simply deal with each stimulus, person, circumstance, and unexpected experience as well as you can.
  • An internal balance is always the most essential aspect of coherence. There will always be situations that threaten your principles. There are those to which you react with conviction to defend your coherence. Other times, you’re forced to make small concessions because the benefits are important and you want to maintain homeostasis. For example, having a partner with different ideas who you’re happy with.
A man looking at a wall with two opposite arrows.

In the face of pressure, be congruent; it’s a question of bravery

You know that, sometimes, your thoughts and behaviors won’t align. This dissonance can sometimes happen without any important consequences.

The most harmful effects happen when there’s constant dissonance. Carl Rogers relates it to his theories of the “I”, one of his most important contributions.

  • When you’re consistently incoherent, you put a great distance between your ideal self and your perceived self.
  • That same lack of compliance ends up generating mental strategies with which you force yourself (uselessly) to find balance. For example, you build cognitive dissonance, which are internal conflicts that arise when you have opposing ideas. This usually ends up leading you to justify something that goes against your values in order to reduce your own psychological suffering.
  • You resort to complex defense mechanisms to appease those contradictions. These are completely useless strategies because they simply translate into a higher level of frustration and anxiety.

If you want to guarantee your psychological well-being, it’s important to try your best to be coherent. Doing so is an act of daily bravery.

The healthy exercise of being and acting through your values at all times can be complicated, but it guarantees that your self-esteem will stay in good shape.