Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that refers to the discomfort we feel when our beliefs are contradicted by our actions or experiences. In other words, it's the gap between what we think and what we do.
Cognitive dissonance can be a very uncomfortable feeling, and it often leads us to rationalize our behavior to reduce the dissonance. For example, if we believe that smoking is harmful to our health but we can't seem to quit, we may tell ourselves that "it's not that bad" or "I only smoke when I'm drinking."
Cognitive dissonance is a common occurrence a person may experience while in a relationship with a narcissist. The narcissistic abuser will often use the tactic of gaslighting, which is a form of psychological manipulation designed to make the victim doubt their reality. The narcissist gaslights their victim into doubting their memories, or perception of events. This can leave the victim feeling confused, anxious, and even depressed. The narcissist will use gaslighting to keep the victim feeling off-balanced, making them more likely to stay in the abusive relationship.
The narcissistic abuser may also use something called "projection." This is when they project their negative feelings and behaviors onto their victim. For example, the narcissistic abuser may accuse their victim of being "crazy" or "unstable" when in reality, it is the narcissistic abuser who is exhibiting these traits.
Victims of narcissistic abuse often suffer from cognitive dissonance long after they've left the relationship. This is because the abuser has instilled so many false beliefs in their victim that it can take a long time to sort out what's true and what's not. Victims of narcissistic abuse often second guess themselves and may have difficulty making a decision when asked to do so by others. People pleasing becomes a normative behavior to not have to possibly make the "wrong decision" and to avoid any potential conflict.
When narcissistic abuse is experienced while in childhood and the narcissist is either their mother or father or possibly both parents, the effects of the trauma the child sustained endures into adulthood unless the child has had an immediate intervention. Adults who are childhood survivors of narcissistic abuse are too often overlooked by the general public as there is cognitive dissonance in believing a parent is capable of behaviors that are very damaging to a child's overall development. This can be especially said for the label of "mother". When we think of a "mother" the term is often seen as loving, nurturing, etc., therefore, it is incomprehensible to think a mother could engage in this type of abusive behavior towards their child.
Victims of narcissistic abuse often experience a great deal of cognitive dissonance during and after they have left the abusive relationship. On one hand, they want to believe that the abuser loves and cares for them. On the other hand, they are constantly being subjected to hurtful words and actions. This can lead to a lot of confusion and self-doubt. It's important to remember that you are not responsible for the abuser's behavior. No matter how much you try to rationalize it, narcissistic abuse is never your fault.
The harmful effects of cognitive dissonance can include anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It's important to seek professional help if you're struggling to cope with the aftermath of narcissistic abuse. A therapist who specializes in this area can help you work through the false beliefs that have been instilled in you and help you learn to trust yourself again.
Thank you for reading. I hope this article has helped you better understand the concept of cognitive dissonance and its harmful effects.
By Renee Cherowitz, MS, CHt, QS, LMHC
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