The Narcissistic Weapon of Choice, and its Catastrophic Damage to the Psyche.
The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the feelings of discomfort that result when your beliefs run counter to your behaviors and/or new information that is presented to you. People tend to seek consistency in their attitudes and perceptions, so when what you hold true is challenged or what you do doesn’t jibe with what you think, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance (lack of agreement). A classic example of this is “explaining something away.” — Verywellmind.com
Cognitive dissonance is a catastrophic breakdown of steadfast beliefs and self-knowledge. It is the sense of complete confusion — an entire dissolution of clarity. It feels like mental torture. If you have been in a relationship of any kind with a narcissist, you will know this feeling well.
In day to day life, we all face bouts of cognitive dissonance. In small doses, and dealing with normal healthy people this is no bad thing as it can allow us to consider two sides of the same coin with fact, reason and critical thinking.
But when cognitive dissonance becomes a pattern of ongoing conflict and confusion in your mind as a result of toxic abuse, severe damage can be done to your sense of self and personal autonomy.
In a relationship with a narcissist, Cognitive Dissonance underlies trauma-bonding. In its extreme, it can cause Stockholm-syndrome and battered wife syndrome.
Narcissists are spectacularly skilled in causing cognitive dissonance.
They engage in word-salad type monologues — taking you on a wild goose-chase with their words and long self-oriented tirades. You are left exhausted and depleted trying to decode what it is they are saying.
If you manage to get a word in edgeways, narcissists will surreptitiously sidestep the thrust of your every point, and then deflect and redirect incessantly to a point where you cannot even remember where you started or how you end up at the final destination. The final destination looks like chaos — a complete and utter jumble of words and re-framed semantics that actually lack meaning entirely.
They are even more adept at redirecting to you. Woe betides if you express sadness or disappointment at the narcissist. Masters in the art of projection, you will be on the receiving end of all their rage and self-hatred. They will insult you, criticise your character and press deeply on all your own insecurities to deflect the spotlight from themselves. What started out as you hoping for some resolution from your disappointment, finishes with you doubting yourself and all that you are.
Projection is an insidious form of lying — by projecting unto us, we are the ones to blame and the narcissist avoids all accountability. Shame is often the cornerstone of their projection. It lies at the root of the narcissistic personality type. Narcissists cannot handle the deep severity of the emotion thus they project it onto others in a primitive attempt to rid themselves of it.
When you love this person, cognitive dissonance magnifies in its power. It slowly breaks down the psyche causing chronic confusion — about yourself, and about the person in question. We wonder, how can this person keep saying the same things if it isn’t true? They love me, so they must be right. How horrifically tragic it is when we start to believe this.
Of all the weapons in the Narcissists armory cabinet, this is probably his favourite. Gas-lighting is a deleterious maneuver that narcissists and other toxic types use to make you bring your own sanity into question. I remember when my ex-husband and I started marital therapy 18 months ago (prior to receiving his diagnosis); my first words to our therapist were
“I think I am losing my mind, I don’t know what is real and what is not anymore.”
I’ll never forget our therapist’s face — I had in one sentence revealed the bedrock of my husband’s character, and it was clear to him at that moment what personality type my husband belonged to. Two hours later, a personality test report confirmed his perception.
It is a terrible notion to believe — that somebody we love could be purposely trying to distort our version of reality but sadly it is a reality in life with a narcissist. Narcissists use this tactic to make us dependent on their account of reality whilst covertly pulling the rug from under our feet so that you are no longer on psychological or emotional terra-firma.
Examples of Gas-lighting
- Flat-out denial of events that occurred, words that were uttered, abuse that took place.
- Reversal and projection of facts — onto you. “It’s you that is insane, why do you think I keep telling you this? I say it all the time but you just don’t listen, I’m tired of you not hearing me.”
- They’ll tell you you’re irrational, you’ve lost your mind, you are too sensitive.
- The supremely artful narcissists of the covert type will mask their words under sweet-icing “No baby, I know what is right for you, you just need to trust me, what I am saying is right.” Or, “I was just joking sweetie.”
- Your deepest wounds will be prodded and poked at — upturning your self-control and emotional stability.
- Reactive abuse — goading you to a point where you implode and then blame you for being the abuser.
Cognitive Dissonance Paralyses Clarity and Agency
- Rationalization — something feels intuitively very wrong, but we rationalize the behaviour of the toxic other; they love me, they wouldn’t want to hurt me on purpose. This explanation reduces the anxiety of the abuse, strengthening the toxic trauma-bond to the abuser.
- Defensiveness — we defend the toxic individual to other people, especially when loved ones are trying to protect us. We think the abuser is simply misunderstood, that we understand their psychological wiring and therefore must act to defend it.
- Denial — the brain goes into overdrive to protect the internal conflict. It is too painful to consider that the person we care for may actually be abusing us. So we deny the reality and force it deep into our unconscious. But the conflict is magnified by doing so and will rear its head in complete emotional depletion.
- Justification — we justify to ourselves why we need to stay in the relationship. Maybe we think that the narcissist suffered terribly in childhood and justify his behaviour.
The Impact of Cognitive Dissonance to the Psyche
- A complete deterioration of self-worth. Tragic but inevitable that self-worth breaks down when your mental reasoning is protecting an abuser to the point that you believe it is you to blame for the toxic state of the relationship. This reasoning is the only way the brain can justify staying in the partnership.
- Chronic self-doubt. The line between right and wrong is now entirely muddled, blurry. We are no longer in control of destiny, emotions, desires. We have become wired to the ambient mood and behaviours of the toxic other, enmeshed in their way of thinking and being. Self-doubt becomes an internal disease, rendering the psyche entirely devoid of a sense of self.
- Perfectionism and people-pleasing. Unconscious fear about the next bout of rage or shift in mood leads to a persistent hypervigilance. This vigilance is a finessed attunement to the moods of the other, allowing us to cultivate ways of avoiding or deflecting the next meltdown or round of abuse. How this plays out in practice is perverse pleasing of the other — anything to avoid further damage. In doing so we lose ourselves entirely in the other, neglecting ourselves fully in the process.
- Social withdrawal and isolation. The clever narcissist has a way of making himself look like a pillar of grace and humility. And he will make you look like you’re deranged and unhinged. So we withdraw from those that we love, retreat into our hovels of confusion and despair, further amplifying the self-doubt that is haunting the mind.
- Profound lack of clarity. You no longer know what is real and what is not, what is right and what is wrong. Your narcissistic loved one has shattered your sense of reality so you have to clarify everything — when somebody speaks you ask them to elaborate, to be clearer — you don’t trust your own perception or interpretations.
What to do When You Realise You’re Suffering From Chronic Cognitive Dissonance
Your intuition has probably been telling you for some time that something is interminably wrong. You care for this person deeply, but you feel confused, lost and depleted for the majority of your waking hours.
Confusion and depletion are luminescent markers of cognitive dissonance.
So now what?
- Take a big step back from the toxic other, and seek help. If you can get access to a counselor or therapist this will be a great blessing to yourself and your healing from this covert emotional abuse. A therapist or counselor will help you wade through the murky terrain and identify the behaviours and actions of the narcissist. In doing so, you will reclaim all of what you have lost in time — control, self-worth and clarity.
- Accept that the other person cannot change. Certainly not with your help, only with that of a therapist. Even then, it is sadly unlikely that they will change. Their behaviours are deeply embedded in their personality structure, formed in very early childhood. Moreover, it is a the hallmark of a narcissist that they never ever believe they are in the wrong. This would shatter their false illusion of entitlement and grandeur. This is the most heartbreaking aspect of it all — especially if we really love the narcissist. But it is an immutable truth: they cannot and will not change.
- Remove this person from your life — they have been abusing you, intentionally. Any human being that purposefully makes us question our sanity does not deserve any place in our life.
- Seek clarity as your number one goal in these early days after you have removed yourself from the relationship. The loss of definitive lines is the main crux of the damage done. We need to regain this as a priority. Only then can we rebuild the definition of right and wrong, real and fiction, healthy and unhealthy. And then reclaim ourselves and all that we stand for and believe in. Friends, family and therapists can help us redefine the lines (with permanent marker this time).
- Surround yourself with good, kind people that love you and respect your boundaries. A healthy soul does not try to bulldoze over, or eradicate your personal boundaries. Someone who truly loves us will respect the lines that we draw.
When cognitive dissonance betrays our once wise and clear mindset, we feel like we have lost ourselves. Rest assured, this is a temporary madness, we can reclaim all that has been squashed under the oppression of narcissistic abuse. We just need a little time, and a whole lot of love from ourselves and healthy loved ones.
N.B. Narcissists come in all shapes and sizes, I have referred to the narcissist as a ‘he’ here as my only experience has been with two males. Please forgive the reference, there are plenty of female narcissistic abusers out there.