Understanding Cognitive Dissonance With a Narcissist
What is Cognitive Dissonance and how does it Happen in Narcissistic Relationships?
Have you ever suffered from hearing two completely different songs played at the same time? The disharmony of sounds is called dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term used to describe the mental discomfort people feel when they hold two or more conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. It occurs when a person’s actions, thoughts, or beliefs contradict each other, leading to mental discomfort, confusion, and even anxiety. This psychological phenomenon can be caused by a variety of situations, but it’s also very common in victims of narcissistic abuse.
To understand cognitive dissonance, it is essential to understand how our beliefs and attitudes shape our behavior. Our attitudes and beliefs are powerful drivers of our behavior, and we tend to automatically act in ways that align with them. However, when we are confronted with new information or experiences that contradict our beliefs, we experience cognitive dissonance. This mental discomfort arises because we cannot reconcile our beliefs with our observations, experiences or (potentially unwelcome) discoveries. To alleviate this discomfort, we either change our beliefs or actions, or we rationalize the inconsistency between the two. This might mean loosening our own moral standards, but more likely, compartmentalization (this is an isolated incident), rationalization (she didn’t mean it – she’s just having a bad day) or denial (surely, it’s not as bad as it looks – I’m probably reading too much into this) result.
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Victims of narcissistic abuse are probably going to experience cognitive dissonance. Probably a lot. Narcissistic abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse that is characterized by manipulation, control, and exploitation. Narcissists use a variety of tactics to maintain power and control over their victims, including gaslighting, triangulation, and projection. Victims of narcissistic abuse often experience cognitive dissonance because the narcissist’s behavior contradicts their beliefs and values.
One way narcissistic abuse commonly causes cognitive dissonance is through gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which the abuser distorts the victim’s perception of reality. Gaslighting is a powerful tool that narcissists use to control their victims by making them question their own sanity, memory, and judgment. A gaslighter insists that a victim disbelieve his or her own eyes and will unflinchingly maintain the most unbelievable stories. A narcissistic partner will often accuse their victim of being overly sensitive or irrational when they bring up concerns about the relationship or question the narrative of a narcissist’s gaslighting campaign. The victim may then internally begin to question their perceptions, leading to cognitive dissonance as they try to reconcile their beliefs about the relationship with the narcissist’s gaslighting, or to reconcile the narcissist’s lies with observed reality.
Triangulation is another tactic that narcissists employ that may inflict cognitive dissonance. Triangulation occurs when the narcissist involves a third party in the relationship, often pitting the victim against the third party. The third party can be a friend, family member, or even another partner. The purpose of triangulation is to create confusion, jealousy, and a sense of competition between the victim and the third party. This tactic can cause cognitive dissonance in the victim as they try to reconcile their belief that their partner loves them with the narcissist’s behavior of involving another person in the relationship.
Projection is yet another tactic used by narcissists to cause cognitive dissonance. Projection occurs when the narcissist projects their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors onto the victim. For example, a narcissistic parent may accuse their child of being selfish when they ask for help with their homework. The narcissistic parent may be projecting their own selfishness onto the child, causing cognitive dissonance in the child as they try to reconcile their belief that their parent loves them with the parent’s projection.
Narcissistic abuse can cause cognitive dissonance because the victim’s beliefs and values are in conflict with the narcissist’s behavior. Victims may try to hold on to their beliefs and values, such as the belief that they deserve to be treated with respect and kindness, while the narcissist continues to behave in ways that contradict these beliefs. When a victim allows these abusive behaviors to continue, the conflict can lead to confusion, anxiety, and even depression in the victim. This is where a victim may even begin to compromise their own ideas about morality, in order to accommodate a narcissist’s immoral behavior in their own paradigm.
The longer a victim remains in an abusive relationship, the more entrenched the cognitive dissonance is likely to become. Over time, the victim may start to question their own beliefs and values, leading to a loss of self-esteem and self-worth. The narcissist’s gaslighting and manipulation can make it difficult for the victim to trust their own perceptions and judgments, further exacerbating the cognitive dissonance. A victim may even begin to rely on their abuser as a sort of arbiter of what reality is.
In order to overcome cognitive dissonance caused by narcissistic abuse, it is important for victims to seek support and validation from outside sources. This can include therapy, support groups, and trusted friends and family members. Victims should also work on developing a strong sense of self. It’s important to reconnect with the person you were before the narcissist took over your life. Recovering victims will need to get reacquainted with and reinforce their own values and beliefs. By doing so, they can reestablish their own sense of reality and begin to resolve the cognitive dissonance and the depression and anxiety that invariably come with it. Cognitive dissonance can be a persistent symptom of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome or CPTSD.
It’s important for victims of narcissistic abuse to understand that the narcissist’s behavior is not their fault. The narcissist is responsible for their own behavior and the abuse they inflict on others. Victims should not blame themselves for the cognitive dissonance they experience as a result of the abuse. Victims tend to blame themselves for becoming victims, but it’s not fair to do so. Narcissists spend a lifetime honing their skills of deception and manipulation to extract narcissistic supply from people. Smart and conscientious people are among their favorite targets. Anyone can fall prey to narcissistic abuse.
Read next: Symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse
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