In this article, I will go into cognitive dissonance in a relationship as a result of narcissistic abuse. Sadly, when dealing with a narcissist truth can become blurry and an unhealthy state of being confused/anxious can become the truth for the victim of a narcissist.
Cognitive dissonance is quite common in life and we use it to develop our beliefs and make decisions. It’s a feeling of discomfort resulting from having beliefs or values that don’t match with your behaviour. People like to remove this discomfort by changing beliefs or their actions. A simple example would be rationalizing or explaining away eating chocolate when you also feel like you shouldn’t eat it because it’s unhealthy.
When cognitive dissonance follows from interaction with a narcissist it’s a very different story. A narcissist loves to (ab)use the wish of the victim to remove the discomfort following from cognitive dissonance. If you experience narcissistic abuse you could disconnect from your own thoughts, feelings, intuition, and truth.
A narcissist can act normally while showing abnormal/disturbing behaviour and respond abnormally when you show normal behaviour (such as setting a boundary). This ongoing discrepancy creates anxiety and confusion. Clearly, these manipulations are very brutal and unhealthy.
This article is closely related to my article about gaslighting which is a very stealthy way of trying to make you insane and question your perception of truth. It’s an example of behaviour that specifically aims to make you insane and confused. Other manipulative behaviours of narcissists can have the same effect but seem more focused on devaluing you. Devaluation is a part of the narcissistic abuse cycle, which I explain in this article.
First, I will go into the theory of cognitive dissonance and then explore the truth of a narcissist and how their manipulative behaviour and truth perception can result in experiencing cognitive dissonance. I will discuss defense mechanisms victims can use to reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance and explore how the mind can sabotage or postpone the decision to go no contact. Lastly, I will discuss how to possibly deal with it.
This article is a long read as I think cognitive dissonance is an important aspect in order to understand narcissistic abuse. I hope it will be helpful to you.
What is cognitive dissonance in short?
‘Cognitive’ has to do with the mind (mental processes such as thinking, knowing, remembering, judging and problem-solving) and ‘dissonance’ is about a lack of harmony or inconsistency between things. Wikipedia (2020) states that ‘in the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values, or participates in an action that goes against one of these three, and experiences psychological stress because of that‘.
Cognitive dissonance thus occurs when actions and beliefs are not consistent with each other according to your own mind. This inconsistency results in discomfort and mostly a person will try to fix this inconsistency in some way.
Naturally, a person doesn’t like the discomfort of conflicting thoughts and therefore has a motivation to fix the inconsistency. This can be done in two basic ways. On the one hand, the belief could be adjusted to make it consistent with the action and on the other hand, the action could be avoided to avoid the discomfort to occur.
In general, cognitive dissonance is acceptable when the discomfort is acceptable for living. It doesn’t necessarily interfere with functioning and it’s normal to sometimes experience it to some degree. It’s how you make decisions, learn and develop your beliefs and wisdom.
A simple example of reducing cognitive dissonance is the following where the belief is eating apple pie is unhealthy and the action is eating apple pie.
Ways to reduce the discomfort:
1. Changing the behaviour (I will stop eating this apple pie)
2. Justifying the behavior by changing the conflicting belief (I’m allowed to eat one piece of pie every two weeks)
3. Justify the behavior by adding other (compensating) behaviours (I will go exercise today to burn the calories)
4. Ignore or deny conflicting information with the belief (This pie is not that bad as it contains apples and fruit is healthy. And it doesn’t even have whipped cream on it!)
To conclude in simple terms: cognitive dissonance is the discomfort and anxiety someone experiences when internally dealing with two conflicting ideas at the same time.
Manipulative behaviour of a narcissist causing cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is a logical consequence when having a relationship or interaction with a narcissist. A narcissist switches between idealization and devaluing/discarding and these stages of the narcissistic abuse cycle aren’t consistent with each other. A narcissist’s created identity is not consistent with their manipulative behaviour.
The victim has the belief they are in love and they have a real connection. The belief is that this person is a good person. These beliefs don’t match all the stealthy or brutal behaviour such as gaslighting, blaming, raging, unpredictability and silent treatments. The result is anxiety and discomfort because of cognitive dissonance.
Examples of narcissistic behavior causing cognitive dissonance
A narcissist can show many different kinds of manipulative behaviour and these behaviours can create a lot of doubts and confusion to a victim. I will go into a few types of behaviour that really play with the truth and a victim’s sense of reality. Some behaviour is more aggressive such as blaming and raging whereas other behaviour can be very stealthy such as gaslighting.
Endless monologues without a clue
A narcissist can tell endless monologues with some disturbing or strange statements within them and make sure there is no space to interfere. It feels you can’t respond to what has been said earlier and you need time to process and decode what they are saying. You could be left tired and wondering what this person exactly said or meant. It’s hard to remember and it aims to create a blur and chaos.
A narcissist has the skill to mirror any situation or conversation. They can turn anything around on you. You suddenly become the one to blame and you start doubting yourself. A narcissist will not take any accountability or responsibility and thus needs to project it back onto you.
When you start to believe their mirroring or turning things around your mind is trying to reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. How could a person that loves me lie to me in this way? Is this person right about me after all?
This is a brutal form of manipulation in order to make you doubt your own thoughts and perception of reality. It will make you slowly disconnect from yourself. It’s ongoing manipulation and brainwashing to cause the victim to have ever-increasing self-doubts and eventually have them lose their own sense of perception, identity, and self-worth.
Some examples of what could be repeatedly said are:
– ‘You are just crazy, that never happened!‘
– ‘Are you sure about that? Your memory isn’t always that great.‘
– ‘It’s all in your head. It’s like you’re making things up randomly!‘
The narcissist will lie with certainty, deny and demand proof in arguments, use tricks to confuse you and more. I wrote an in-depth article about gaslighting if you want to read more about this behaviour.
There is a variety of devaluing behavior a narcissist can show. This could be guilt-blaming, raging or using the silent treatment. I wrote an article about the silent treatment that could be useful if you experience(d) this. All these devaluing actions create cognitive dissonance because it doesn’t match with the idealization and love-bombing of a narcissist. The conflicting thought is ‘how can someone that loves you act in this way and hurt you like this?’
In my article about the web of control of a narcissist, I explain how a narcissist creates a web of people under their control and uses manipulation strategies to do so. Narcissists can seem very kind and good people. They can be loved in a community and your family could even talk about how great they are or how lucky you are to have them. It fuels the cognitive dissonance as your belief is not equal to the belief of others. You could feel outside pressure to make the relationship or marriage work.
The above examples show how a lot of manipulative behaviour can create cognitive dissonance. I will go into the narcissist’s mind first before going deeper into cognitive dissonance in abusive relationships.
The truth for a narcissist
I will try to explore the mind of a narcissist. It follows from my own experience combined with my research on narcissism. I’m aware there is a large variety of types of narcissists and this is a generalized attempt mainly to explain why it’s logical victims start doubting themselves and their truth. It’s not a rational or conscious choice to be abused and you can’t blame a victim for being manipulated into staying.
Everyone has their own truth resulting from their own thoughts and beliefs. What a person fully believes can become the truth for them. A narcissist seems to fully believe in their truth. The truth to them is their created identity of being superior. Their ego has gotten control over their soul. The narcissist could believe their identity created by ego is an authentic soul. It means there is emptiness or hidden pain beneath it all but it will never be reached.
It seems like the dynamic of the narcissistic mind revolves around the following:
1. Unending needs
Having an unending need for validation, appreciation, and ego-boosting. This need grows continuously when being fulfilled and therefore the needs will never be fulfilled as a whole. It’s like trying to fill a bottle with water but the bottle doesn’t have a bottom.
2. Feeling no empathy
Feeling no empathy results in a form of emptiness. They can’t imagine how something could feel because they don’t know. They also can’t choose to feel or emphasize and thus only could learn it theoretically.
3. Narcissistic supply
They choose their actions consciously or unconsciously to get narcissistic supply, which follows from their unending needs. This supply feeds their ego and confirms their view of the world.
4. Positive vicious circle of confirmation and ego-boosting
A narcissist only takes responsibility for good things and doesn’t take responsibility for bad things (but blames others for these). They essentially have a mind that doesn’t question themselves but seeks outside reasons for bad things. If you never take responsibility or apologize you will not learn to grow spiritually. Their self-worth can only increase by taking responsibility for merely the good things and by doing this they keep confirming their superiority. In a way, they create a positive vicious circle of confirmation and ego-boosting.
5. No true self-reflection
The blind spot of a narcissist seems to be the lack of critical self-reflection and this creates certainty. They don’t have to doubt themselves. It doesn’t matter whether the blind spot follows from earlier unbearable pain or emptiness or whether it’s intentional or unconscious. It seems they have no control over this blind spot.
6. A narcissist embraces who they are
Narcissist can be aware of being narcissistic or having a narcissistic reputation. When a narcissist knows this about themselves it doesn’t really change anything because mostly they don’t want to change. They embrace who they are and their narcissistic reputation. A narcissist doesn’t care about your feelings and can’t compare to their own feelings. Why would you care if you don’t have shame, a sense of responsibility for others’ feelings and when you’re not slowed down by guilt?
The result of this narcissistic mind is thus a created identity that is very certain and confident. It has an unhealthy belief in own superiority and truth. This creates an unfair advantage when their truth conflicts with the truth of a victim who obviously doesn’t have this same amount of certainty but has self-doubts and a critical inner voice.
A narcissist (ab)uses this unfair advantage consciously and/or unconsciously. Their behaviour demands that the victim also has certainty of their truth. A victim needs to acknowledge the relationship is unhealthy in order to be able to leave. This requires a strong trust in own truth and intuition.
Cognitive dissonance in abusive relationships
We explored how the mind can work to reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance and for example rationalize things away. We also explored why truth can become blurry because of the dynamic of narcissists having full certainty about their truth and healthy human beings having doubts. Now, I will go deeper into how the mind of a victim of narcissistic abuse can respond to the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.
I’ll use an example with fictional names to explore this. Maria (victim) tries to confront Paul (narcissist) about seeing sexual messages from him to another woman. The belief of Maria is that Paul is a good man and the action is him cheating on her.
She can choose several ways to respond to this situation:
1. Maria instantly changes her view of Paul and realizes/knows he is not who she thought. She will end the relationship. In her belief someone that loves her can’t do something like that and therefore she needs to end the relationship. This response shows clear boundaries and certainty in what she saw.
2. Maria still believes Paul is a good man and he didn’t mean to do this. He must be sorry, it was a one-time thing and they will work on it together. Paul convinces her it didn’t mean anything and it’s not important.
3. Maria blames herself for not being good enough and understands Paul had to seek love somewhere else. She will try to improve herself in order to keep Paul happy. He won’t do it again if she will take better care of him in the future.
4. Maria chooses to believe Paul’s attempts to convince her it’s simply not true what she saw (gaslighting). She misunderstood the texts or imagined it. Paul says she does that more often because of her jealousy.
5. Maria denies to herself she saw the messages and doesn’t bring it up to Paul. It just can’t be true and she must be mistaken. Paul will be mad or use silent treatment and she doesn’t want to disturb the good thing they have right now.
The above example shows that a situation can play out in many ways and there could be more possibilities than the above. There are many ways to rationalize or change beliefs or ideas. In this example, only the first reaction will not lead to cognitive dissonance whereas the other responses are ways to reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.
What happens will be very dependent on the level of narcissistic abuse in the relationship. Paul could have been devaluing and gaslighting Maria for a long time, which could result in reactions 3, 4 or 5.
The disturbing thing is a lot of victims can’t believe their loved one is a narcissist showing brutal and twisted manipulative behaviour. The tendency will be to find other solutions to reduce the discomfort following from cognitive dissonance. If you can’t believe the truth about narcissistic abuse you will be stuck in changing other beliefs or the truth.
Maria could, for example, have the following defense mechanisms if she decides to stay with Paul:
1. Maria could accept Paul is a narcissist but also believe he is still a good man as well. She will separate the narcissistic part from the good behaviour (the loving Paul). In that way, she can accept staying in the relationship.
2. Maria could accept she will not find love with a deeper connection and settles for Paul. He does provide income and she convinces herself she has some freedom. It’s sacrificing freedom and the possibility of having real love that could be caused by fear or low self-worth.
3. Maria believes in all relationships there will be lows and this is just the tough part. A lot of relationships have trouble and a lot of people have cheated on their partner. She convinces herself this is the same and convinces herself Paul is really sorry even though he might not even say it himself.
A victim of a narcissist could thus live with an incredible amount of discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance. When you are an outsider to the victim you can observe the mind of the victim arguing a lot away. It’s a form of survival and a requirement for the victim to keep functioning. Mostly this functioning will be on a minimal level.
Experiencing a narcissistic father and unhealthy family dynamics for years I became very disconnected from my own feelings and body in my youth. It’s hard to describe the energy at the house when my father was around. It was very uncomfortable, tense and a bit frightening. It’s an experience close to walking on eggshells, being anxious, a continuous feeling you can’t be yourself and a feeling you want to hide, run and be invisible.
My narcissistic father shows a great discrepancy between his words and his actions. He can be kind and charming and seems a great and confident man to the outside world. In the last years, he kept developing his stealthy manipulative games and reduced his more ‘obvious’ devaluing behaviours. He knew he had to adjust his game to keep my mother under his control and he did this successfully.
During the years and still today, I listened to and observed my mother’s thoughts, feelings, confusion and she manages to convince herself she has some reason to stay. Sadly, she hasn’t managed to break the cycle. There seems too much fear or bond to make the final decision. It leaves her in an unhealthy state of unending anxiety and confusion.
Writing this is very personal to me and I would like to go into my mother’s defense mechanisms even though it feels somewhat uncomfortable. Know these are my observations and thus subjective. My motivation to share is that it might help others in seeing how the mind of a victim can work.
Examples of my mother’s defense mechanisms or reasons to stay:
- Lifestyle: She lives in her dream house with a large garden and beautiful nature around the house. It seems she doesn’t want to sacrifice their current (luxury) lifestyle and become poor or dependent on others for help. Sometimes she feels like she earned this lifestyle after all the narcissistic abuse even though she knows the dream is empty in an empty marriage.
- Dark scenario: She is scared she won’t find a job and will need the help of others financially. She doesn’t want to live in a small flat without a garden. Even when she is offered help she doesn’t want to accept the help.
- Convincing herself: She convinces herself she has some power or control in the relationship and a form of freedom to do what she wants. Also, she convinced herself from time to time it could be her path to change or help him. At the same time, she recognizes she can’t change him.
- Denial: She separates the narcissist from the good man he also can be. He helps people at his work and can be friendly to her. She would prefer not knowing and denying the dark side. It’s almost like she regrets she knows there is another family he supports and manipulates.
- Shame: She blames herself for not leaving a long time ago. She thought staying was best for the children and didn’t have the strength at that time to make the decision to leave. It feels like she made a commitment by staying at that time and she doesn’t want to waste the commitment.
She sometimes hopes he does something to make her decision easier or possibly make the decision for her. ‘Why doesn’t he just leave me and go live with this other woman and family? I don’t understand what he wants.‘
- Emotional connection or trauma bond: There is an emotional connection. She recognizes the abuse but the trauma bonding could be perceived as a form of love. She has empathy for my father’s tough youth and his childhood wounds and might think he still tries.
They have been together for a long time and marrying is a commitment. My father still shows kindness and reduced his more obvious manipulative behaviours which makes her say ‘it’s not that bad and other marriages have problems as well’.
- Passiveness: She always has some excuse to wait for a better time to leave. This could be the financial situation or when she has even more definitive proof. It seems an endless postponing of breaking up and fooling yourself into thinking you will do it eventually.
All mechanisms and reasons seem to be helpful to cope with the situation. The decision is not to leave him and thus the mind creates ways to reduce the discomfort. She emphasizes all the fears and risks of leaving. She needs all these thoughts and defense mechanisms to survive in her decision to stay.
We can summarize the above examples into a couple of general defense mechanisms victims can use to survive their abusive relationship and stay in the situation.
Your intuition tells something is wrong but the toxic behaviour is rationalized. This person loves you, doesn’t mean it this way or doesn’t purposely want to hurt you. The victim decides to stay and see it through to the bitter end.
It’s too painful to recognize and acknowledge the truth of this person you love abusing you. Your mind will deny it with force. It can be a defense mechanism in order to cope with the painful truth someone (un)consciously knows within.
The victim knows it’s not right or the situation is unhealthy but could deny this to and convince themselves that the abuser cares and loves them. There can be a lot of shame involved in not wanting to acknowledge the truth.
The victim tries to justify and explain to themselves why they need to stay in the relationship and why that’s okay. The victim tries to convince themselves that staying is the best choice for now. It might be that the victim thinks they should help the narcissist, they made a commitment or they sympathize with the suffering of the narcissist in childhood.
In abusive relationships, the victim is motivated to make the relationship work. This is why they might justify the behaviour or make abusive behaviour smaller. A victim could choose to believe the abuse is an exception because it doesn’t match the person they fell in love with during the idealization phase.
The victim could push away responsibility for themselves, become helpless and fully dependent on the abuser. This is a form of survival, where the victim instinctively bonds with a powerful force in a frightening world. The abuser could be protected and defended by the victim when people try to rescue or encourage the victim to leave their abuser. It might result in a trauma bond (Stockholm Syndrome) with the abuser. There could be underlying fear for what the abuser might do.
Impact on self-worth
All the above mechanisms seem lies to comfort yourself and reduce the pain and discomfort as a result of cognitive dissonance. It’s the commitment to the decision of staying that requires you to convince yourself although you will still know the truth within. It’s protection.
Clearly, this unhealthy situation has a lot of impact on your mind and self-worth. There will probably be a lot of self-doubts as there is no clarity anymore between right and wrong. Your sense of reality could be impacted and you might not trust your own intuition anymore.
The commitment to the mind of the abuser means there is no room for your own needs and emotions. The relationship revolves around pleasing the narcissist and you will disconnect from yourself and possibly disconnect from your support system by withdrawing from those you love and isolating yourself.
The (early) decision to stay with an abuser
Our beliefs and values change over time by growing up, learning and having experiences. Cognitive dissonance is about decision making. You can choose to decide to change behaviour, change your belief or choose to keep the discomfort. In a relationship, we could rationalize the negative characteristics of the others to make it consistent with our vision and expectations of how a relationship should be.
In a marriage, you could make efforts to make things work. You might support your spouse with rooting for a sports team you don’t really care about. This could be little sacrifices and you’re rewarded because the spouse will appreciate it.
It’s a different thing when you have to compromise your values or give things up such as a job you love. You need to decide how large the gap is between the behavior and the belief and whether it’s long term or not. It’s not about whether someone is a narcissist or not but it’s really about behaviour and whether the relationship is unhealthy or not.
The victim mostly knows they should get out of the unhealthy abusive situation, but this puts them in (psychological) danger, uncertainty and stress as well. Staying or leaving both results in emotional stress and the decision could be made based on what seems the path of the least resistance. After deciding, their mind and motivation will work to justify their decision.
A risk could be that leaving is a decision with more uncertainty and thus seems more stressful. It requires a lot of courage and strength to make the decision to leave. Mostly these decisions follow from self-confidence but when being abused by a narcissist this has been affected as well. It’s a trap that makes it extremely difficult to break the cycle.
Why the empath is more vulnerable to cognitive dissonance
Empaths have strong empathic feelings and this can result in more anxiety. Empaths care a lot for the feelings of others and they sometimes feel it themselves. It means an empath is very tuned into the emotions of others. The emotions and ‘feelings’ of a narcissist are disturbed. There is a lot of intensity and it switches from idealizing to devaluing and from hot to cold, which results in a lot of emotions to process for an empath.
A narcissist can keep an empath on edge and the empath will walk on eggshells. The feelings will be very unsettling and it creates a lot of anxiety. The subconscious or intuition will know the truth. The soul will know this person feels in a different way because the deeper connection won’t really be there. You can read more about the empath narcissist relationship and dynamics in my article about the highly toxic attraction between empaths and narcissists.
Dealing with cognitive dissonance: how to counterbalance the effects
Luckily, there are ways to counterbalance the effects of a narcissist’s manipulative behavior. This can be done when you’re still dealing with a narcissist or already in a no-contact situation. It’s necessary to shift the attention from the narcissist to yourself again.
Clearly, the best time to work on yourself is when you are in a no-contact situation. Going no contact is the only healthy solution. In this article, we learned this decision can be difficult or seem impossible to make due to the mind trying to reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.
The mental effect of a narcissist can still be very present for quite some time after going no contact. It can be a challenge to shift the (mental) attention to yourself again as you could have grown into a dynamic of disconnecting with your own needs and feelings and mostly having attention for the narcissist.
Validation and confirmation of the reality in your circumstances are needed to reduce cognitive dissonance. You can get this validation and confirmation from yourself or from others.
1. Knowledge about narcissism
The recovery of a narcissistic abusive relationship is a long and painful road. It’s psychological abuse and the impact of cognitive dissonance is severe. It results in confusion and anxiety trying to match the truth of the loving person and the manipulating narcissist. It’s hard to understand and accept.
The truth about a narcissist needs to be embraced. Getting knowledge about narcissism can help you in accepting you can’t change this person. You will not get an apology, explanation and they will not take any responsibility. You can’t heal them, only yourself.
2. Going no contact
The only real solution to stop the abuse is to go no contact. Only this way you can start recovering and really become yourself again. You need to protect your energy and life. If you can’t go no contact (right away) I would advise reading my article about the grey rock method in order to start emotionally detaching from the narcissist.
3. Conscious breathing and meditation
These methods are great for gathering thoughts and acknowledging your thoughts and feelings. It can help you with emotionally detaching from the narcissist as well. You can read more about mindfulness in my article about conscious breathing, my article exploring mindfulness and narcissistic abuse or my article with 5 tips in Buddhist meditation.
4. Create a kind and compassionate environment
It would be great if you can surround yourself with kind, sincere and compassionate people that love you and respect you. In healthy relationships, people will respect your boundaries.
5. Learn to trust yourself and your intuition
You need to seek clarity again. It’s necessary to redefine how a relationship or marriage should be and that narcissistic abuse is disturbing and brutal. Redefine what’s right and wrong and recognize the situation was unhealthy.
6. Write things down and go to psychotherapy
It can help to narrate your story in a psychotherapy session and by writing journals and documenting your story. It’s an important part of starting the road of healing and recovering. This acknowledgment is necessary to work on further growth. You need to be empowered to narrate your story as all manipulative behaviors can have had a great impact on your mind. Another useful therapy could be EMDR.
7. Work on self-worth
It’s time to work on yourself and reclaim control over your life and your self-worth. In my article about self-worth, appreciation, ego, and narcissism I share some tips on how to work on your self-worth.
You are worth it
I’m aware this is quite a list on how to deal with cognitive dissonance and this was a long article. Thank you for taking the time to read it and I sincerely hope it can be helpful. I’m sorry if you experience(d) narcissistic abuse and I wish you more kindness in the future.
It’s essential to connect with yourself again. Know this is an important process and it can require a lot of time. Allow yourself this time. You could have been abused for a long period of time and this clearly has consequences on your thought patterns and emotions. Try to be compassionate to yourself when healing. You will restore your energy and find yourself again. It’s worth it and you are worth it!
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