Cognitive dissonance occurs when we hold conflicting beliefs at the same time. The results of trying to balance two competing beliefs in one’s mind are often confusion, shame, guilt, and second-guessing one’s self. Cognitive dissonance can cause physical damage as well as it is stressful both mentally and physically. A lowered immune system, raised blood pressure, as well as a host of other symptoms can afflict the sufferer.
Life and circumstances often cause some cognitive dissonance. For instance, we know that a particular purchase is not within our budget. We really want this purchase and so we argue with ourselves, employing a lot of rationalization. If we give in, we try to convince ourselves it really was necessary. If we resist, we tell ourselves we didn’t really want it in the first place or that it wasn’t that great. Either way, we try to silence one of the two voices arguing in our minds.
In the hands of a sociopathic manipulator, cognitive dissonance is a weapon of choice. Employed correctly, it can keep a victim hovering in a no man’s land of emotional chaos indefinitely. The goal of keeping a victim in a constant state of uncertainty is to maintain power and control. I am frequently grieved by how often the victims of abuse tell me that they are still not sure if the abuse they suffered is real. A sense of unreality is most certainly a symptom of cognitive dissonance and that an abuser has done his or her job well.
Here are some of the most common instances of how an abuser might use cognitive dissonance against a victim:
Blowing Hot and Cold
Narcissists are notorious for wooing with an incredible intensity only to turn cold as ice for no reason. Their victims are left wondering if all the passionate declarations, gifts, and affection were imagined. Often the abuser will find the resulting bewilderment amusing or claim that it was all a misunderstanding. Not all narcissists are after commitment. Some just love playing the game, causing vulnerable victims to fall in love as a way of reinforcing their egos. Meanwhile, the person they played is left devastated.
The cognitive dissonance can cause a tremendous amount of self-doubt, as it is meant to. Some end up picking the petals of an endless mental daisy. He loves me. He loves me not. Both feel true which leads to emotional disorder. If you find yourself suddenly dropped by a once ardent lover, let them go. The only way out of the mental merry go round is to face the bitter truth.
The Great Reversal
I have a dear friend whose significant other would often say things like I thought other people would act like this, but not you…This shaming usually came after she disagreed with him or tried to call him on some unwelcome behavior. Ironically, a narcissist cannot tolerate any level of cognitive dissonance and so if someone presents to them an unflattering picture of themselves, they turn it around onto their victim. All resistance must be crushed.
Some narcissists are so skilled at creating cognitive dissonance that they convince their victims that the abuse is the fault of the victim. I have worked with a number of young people who, though sexually assaulted by their abuser, struggle with believing the abuse occurred. On the one hand, they know it happened. They remember the bruises. On the other hand, they also can’t believe that such a thing happened to them and their abuser denies it vehemently. Inner turmoil ensues.
The Great Compromise
One of the strategies of an emotionally abusive partner is the gradual destruction of the value system of the victim. In a Christian marriage, this can look like a dogmatic insistence on submission. For instance, a husband might insist on blind obedience in all matters. This is more common than many women wish to admit. That blind obedience begins with small issues but gradually moves into areas of greater moral compromise.
Control is always the goal of the abuser, and so the slow separation of what a victim believes creates a constant moral muddle that can be difficult to sort out. The victim knows that he or she has drifted from his or her core values, but surviving a narcissist becomes paramount. I remember how relieved I was at knowing I didn’t have to hide anything once I left my ex. It took me a long time to forgive myself for having crossed my own moral boundaries, though understanding the effect of fourteen years of narcissistic brainwashing helped.
Narcissistic abusers ‘remember’ shared history quite differently from their victims. In fact, their version of history always seems to recall how they were cheated somehow. Narcissists also reframe family relationships. My ex spent years lecturing me about how my parents loved my younger brother far more than they did me. No actual evidence exists to prove this. But even if doubt is created, the narcissist has won.
He referred to his sister as dead which is another trait of narcissists. They ‘kill’ off relatives frequently. For the victim, however, this constant revision creates cognitive dissonance. Normal people are prone to believe their spouses. In fact, normal amounts of cognitive dissonance can enhance a marriage. We overlook flaws in our mates and dwell on their qualities all the time. But when what we hear on a regular basis differs significantly from our memories, our minds and bodies suffer from the tension.
One of the most difficult perceptions of narcissistic abuse to cope with is the misconception regarding who become victims of abuse. Often people do not immediately believe me. Even family members have been incredulous. Writing this blog has created some stir in my family. I am educated, articulate, and seem emotionally healthy. Aren’t abuse victims mousy women who can’t say boo to a mouse?
But cognitive dissonance can take a normal person and tear them in half. I never believed I would become a victim of domestic violence. To see who I was when I was married to my ex and who I believed myself to be was the ultimate in cognitive dissonance. I could not reconcile the two and the pain of facing the truth was intense. But many evils have been perpetuated because people are dedicated to the idea that they are ‘not that kind of person’. This can’t be happening is a belief that keeps many people in a constant state of mental upheaval.
When I think of Jesus praying that we would be one, as He and His Father were one, I hear the answer to cognitive dissonance. Being one with oneself and with God means facing those competing beliefs. Having the mind of Christ, I believe, is allowing Him into our belief systems to give us relief. His truth realigns our lies and heals the broken areas in our identity and emotions. I could not have healed without knowing He hears my story and is helping me to write a better one.
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