Cognitive Dissonance: A Mental Tug Of War

(Read time: 1-2 mins.)

Cognitive dissonance, the state of holding two, or more contradictory thoughts or beliefs simultaneously, is the mental twisting, twirling, tug-of-war that survivors of narcissistic abuse experience during, and after, the relationship with the narcissist. It is very distressing, and can be unrelenting in its torment. Many partners, and ex-partners, say they feel like they are going crazy from the “push-me/pull-you” dynamic running amok in their minds. The good news is, it can be overcome. In order to overcome it successfully it’s important to understand how it develops, and what keeps it going, so it can be stopped.

The biochemical brain trap

The narcissist lays the trap for cognitive dissonance at the very beginning of the relationship, by crashing boundaries with love-bombing tactics designed to lure in, and entrap the partner. His focus on the partner is intense and all-consuming. He typically expresses his love very soon – sometimes within weeks, and declares his partner his soulmate, starts talking about a shared future, and wants to be with her all of the time. He texts, calls, and emails multiple times a day. Physical intimacy is passionate. He make promises of a wonderful future, and convinces his partner that he shares her values, dreams, and hopes. He is effusive with his praise and admiration, compliments her frequently, and makes her feel like she is the only star in his universe, and the only person who can fulfill him.

This is intoxicating for the partner and literally overwhelms her brain wiring. During this phase of the relationship high levels of dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin, very powerful bonding chemicals, are coursing through her brain – with much more frequency, and at a higher level than they would in non-toxic relationship. The partner becomes biochemically addicted to the narcissist via-a-vis these feel-good chemicals, and is conditioned by these biochemicals to associate the narcissist with everything good in the relationship, the affection, praise, approval, and physical intimacy.

This phase lasts until the narcissist is sure that he has secured his partner. Then, devaluing and dismantling starts. It begins with “helpful, constructive” criticism, moves into snide, derogatory comments, hostile looks, controlling behaviors, glaring, abuse (verbal, emotional, mental and/or physical), emotional manipulation, explosive anger, humiliating the partner in public, blameshifting, gaslighting, ignoring the partner, withdrawing affection, and giving the silent treatment.

This calculated shift from love-bombing to devaluing, destabilizes the partner. She starts walking on eggshells, her self-esteem is being battered, and she begins to suffer from high levels of stress and anxiety. Her brain copes with this by releasing cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. Just as in the love-bombing phase, the partner’s brain releases greater amounts of these chemicals with more frequency than would be normal.

Over time, as the cycle of abuse becomes entrenched, the partner becomes accustomed to the “new normal” – the rivers of biochemicals her brain is releasing on a regular basis. She becomes habituated to the instability, drama and abuse. Her “normal”, the state in which she feels “at home” functioning, is a state of ongoing emotional chaos, a rollercoaster of abuse, anxiety, and stress.

This is the biochemical brain trap, and is where is the cognitive dissonance lives. Her beliefs about the narcissist live in both biochemical camps – the feel-good “ain’t life grand!?” dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins camp; and the chronically stressed, anxious, traumatized adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol camp. The partner experiences conflicting beliefs about the narcissist – at the same time – the loving, positive feelings generated by the feel-good biochemicals, and the fear, anger, anxiety, and even repulsion generated by the stress chemicals. Her brain is running like a hamster on a wheel, continually trying to reconcile these opposing thoughts and feelings. It is distressing and exhausting.

Free from the biochemical brain trap

As distressing as it is and as difficult as it seems, cognitive dissonance can be overcome. Working with a licensed therapist who has experience in treating trauma and narcissistic abuse survivors can facilitate healing. The following 7 steps may also help:

1. Validate yourself and give voice to your reality: tell yourself, “I am experiencing cognitive dissonance because of the trauma and abuse that was inflicted on me. This is normal to experience this after what I went through, and I will get through this successfully.”

2. Do not judge yourself, and don’t “fight” the cognitive dissonance: when you feel it, accept it for what it is – and nothing more – a normal biochemical response to being in a relationship with a narcissist that you are healing from, more and more every day. It will not last forever.

3. Feelings are not facts: Don’t let cognitive dissonance live in your heart. It is not reflective of your feelings for the narcissist. It is your brain on biochemicals, and these biochemical rivers will dry up over time.

4. Retrain your brain: when you start to experience cognitive dissonance, validate yourself (step 1), and focus your mind on something else, such as a Scripture verse, an affirmation, a wonderful childhood memory, a calming mental image such as a beautiful landscape, and/or get busy doing something else.

5. Get physical: start taking yoga or a dance class, walking, running, swimming etc.

6. Take care of you: focus on eating healthy, nutritious food and getting enough sleep, use aromatherapy to facilitate mind-body-spirit healing, practice meditation and prayer, be patient and kind to yourself.

7. Stay committed to living in reality and trust your gut: no matter what the cognitive dissonance is making you think or feel.

*Articles are written with the use of masculine pronouns to describe the narcissist. This is solely due to my own experience, and not meant to imply that men are not also victims of narcissistic abuse, which they are.

2 thoughts on “Cognitive Dissonance: A Mental Tug Of War

  1. Chosen

    Once again, this is a great post. The “new normal” that replaced reality is hard to see when you are in the midst of the cyclone of exchanges with a narcissist. Those who have no one to speak the grounding question, why, help us move forward and break the fog. Please continue to share and help others break free to clarity and hope!


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