In my previous article, I’ve mention that “cognitive dissonance” and “Stockholm Syndrome” are two of the most important reasons why people cannot easily end the relationships in which they’ve been emotionally abused. In this one, I’m going to talk about cognitive dissonance and its place in narcissistic relationships. I’ll leave Stockholm Syndrome to my next article.
First of all, let’s define cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance emerges when people face a situation or an idea that goes against their own current knowledge or belief. These contradicting knowledge and beliefs may cause severe stress, discomfort and confusion. Therefore, people suffering from it try to reduce their stress by eliminating one of these beliefs. Even if the newly acquired information is much more scientific and realistic, people still try to deny it and cling to their existing knowledge through various excuses just because the new information causes them pain and stress.
Leon Festinger, who first proposed the cognitive dissonance theory, deals with a religious group in his book titled “When Prophecy Fails” which is based on real events. The members of this group believed that the world would end in December 21, 1954 and only the real believers (themselves) would be saved by UFOs. But when the prophesied date and time arrived and nothing happened, the members of the cult experienced a huge shock. At first, they try to make up various excuses and think their clocks don’t work. But hours pass, and nothing happens. Therefore, what they believe in and the truths contradict each other and this causes a huge anxiety.
As a result, the members of the cult are left with two options. They either accept the fact their leader deceived them, or find an excuse that would support their current beliefs. The cult members prefer going with the latter. Their leader tells them that the reason why the world didn’t end is because they were given a second chance to reach more people, and the majority of the members are immensely relieved upon the news so they continue expanding their cult by reaching more people.
According to that, we can see cognitive dissonance as having to lie to ourselves in order to reduce our stress. But the real problem is that we actually believe in the lie we tell.
How does cognitive dissonance emerge in narcissistic relationships?
A narcissist can introduce themselves as a loving, kind-hearted and mature person. They can successfully analyze you, find out what you want from a relationship and act accordingly. They can make you believe that they love you a lot and win your trust in no time. At the end of this process, you’ll develop certain beliefs regarding the narcissist; “They love me a lot, they’re trustworthy.”
But in time, things start to change and narcissist’s mask begins to crack. Emotional abuse which had started really subtly can get so much more prominent at this point. You face a situation that contradicts your precious belief: “They hurt me consciously and deliberately.”
In that case, we have two contradicting information and only one of them can be real. But the ‘real’ one in this example is also the painful one. If we’re not ready for that pain, we may try the following methods in order to reduce cognitive dissonance:
1- Denial and avoidance
At first, we can try to deny the truth in an attempt to reduce our stress level. We can try to erase all the bad memories and pretend like they never happened. When the narcissist says something hurtful, we can tell ourselves things like “they didn’t mean it like that, they just don’t know how to express themselves” or “actually, they love me a lot, they just don’t know how to show it.”
We can try to hide the fact we’re being abused by only talking about the best qualities of our partners when surrounded by other people, and mention how much they love us. Perhaps we have a friend who’s more rational, who’s more objective and experienced than we are. Such person could notice that something’s off and try to warn us. In a situation like that, we could once again choose denial and even avoid seeing this friend anymore, making up excuses to cut them out of our lives. And sometimes we could defend the abuser against them.
2- Distorting the truth
If things have come to a point where we could no longer deny them, this time we can try to distort the facts. Our subconscious tries to twist the truth and rationalize the lies. This is basically a trap set by our ego and if it succeeds, we can find ourselves forming sentences such as;
“Who would want to be with someone who hurts them? I’m sure they’re not trying to hurt me, there must be something else.”
“I’m known to be a successful and intelligent person, how could someone manipulate me so easily? I’m sure there’s no manipulation.”
3- Minimizing the truth
Even if we stop distorting the truth and start seeing the problem, we can try to minimize it. We can tell ourselves things like: “It’s not that bad!”
If you start saying that often, you might be trying to avoid something you’re not ready to face.
4- Reducing its value
Similar to minimizing the truth, we can start reducing its value. We can say things like; “it wasn’t that important anyway, I’m just exaggerating. Besides, all relationships have some ups and downs”.
If you suffer from emotional abuse for a long time, you’ll need to choose either the lie or the truth. If you ever find yourself in a dilemma, try to avoid jumping to the most positive conclusion just because you want that one to be the truth. Sometimes, truth hurts a lot. But once we stop running from it and decide to face it, we start to heal and rid ourselves from the narcissistic relationship.
I’d like to end this article with a Debbie Macomber quote: “The truth shall set you free, and until you know the truth you’ll be held captive by your fears and doubts.”
You can also find the articles on https://medium.com/@narsistsiz:
Psikoloji Okulu. “Bilişsel Çelişki Kuramı (Cognitive Dissonance)”. Access 25 July, 2018. http://psikolojiokulu.com/bilissel-celiski-kurami-cognitive-dissonance/.
Good Therapy. “Unreality Check: Cognitive Dissonance in Narcissistic Abuse”. Access 7 January, 2014. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/unreality-check-cognitive-dissonance-in-narcissistic-abuse-1007144.