Cognitive Dissonance came from American Social Psychologist Leon Festinger, and the theory is that we have this inner drive to hold all our attitudes and behaviour in harmony to avoid disharmony, or dissonance. When something gets in the way of that, we get cognitive inconsistency. But what does that actually mean for you?
So what happens in a Narcissistic relationship is that your narcissist is behaving one way in the beginning, and it’s all wonderful, and then suddenly their behaviour changes and they become cruel and hurtful… and you don’t understand what is going on. There are two things going on in your mind now that don’t make sense… two conflicting realities that you’ve experienced with this same person.
I’ve experienced cognitive dissonance once in my life, so I know how very very confusing and unsettling it really is. I was in my early 30s and had gone to Ireland to celebrate my uncle’s 60th birthday with our very big family.
We were all sharing rooms with 3 or 4 beds and assorted family members would end up sleeping wherever they ended up. There were 3 beds in the room I was in, and one morning after a very late, boozy night, I woke up late with a raging hangover. Both the other beds had been slept in but were empty, and I realized it was gone 10 o’clock. Then one of my sisters came into the room and she looked a bit worried.
She sat down on my bed and she said ‘I have something I need to tell you…’Concerned, of course I sat up and said ‘What’s going on?’ So she said ‘Barb’… that’s not my aunt’s real name, but she was referring to one of my aunts who it turned out had slept in one of the beds in my room… ‘Is missing 400 pounds from her purse and she thinks you took it.’
I remember feeling as if I’d been hit with a hammer! I don’t think I could even speak for a few minutes. I searched my head to make sense of this… I had known and loved this aunt all my life… she was my mother’s sister and both our families had been very close growing up as they both had 7 children, all similar ages, so this wasn’t some aunt I only saw from time to time. We were always in each others lives, every week for as long as I’d lived at home.
I didn’t know what to do, say, or think. My family (and hers for that matter), were outraged that she could make such an accusation. I had NEVER been known to steal anything, except for a ring when I was 6 years old… and as I sat in the pub later that day with my father and brother –a different pub from where the rest of the family were with my aunt, who I just couldn’t face,
I remember feeling as if someone had died… the feeling of disbelief and shock was that intense… I just could not reconcile the aunt who I’d always loved and defended when other people made fun of her (because she often did or said really stupid things), and who I believed always had one good trait, and that was her judge of character, could possibly think that I would go into her purse in the middle of the night and steal 400 pounds off her.
Preposterous! It was just incomprehensible to me and cast a huge black cloud over the rest of the holiday. But this was Cognitive Dissonance that I was feeling…
That complete inability to reconcile two totally conflicting things in a way that made sense.
I spoke to her once that day, to tell her how shocked, upset and disappointed I was that she could ever think such a thing of me, and then, I didn’t speak to her again until more than 10 years later, on the day of my mother’s funeral.
So I can imagine how much more deeply it can hurt when you are in a romantic relationship and the person you love, and who you thought loved you, starts devaluing you and Cognitive Dissonance kicks in. It throws you for a loop, that's for sure.
So what can you do when it happens to you?
Unfortunately, the standard recommendations for dealing with Cognitive Dissonance are not very effective when you are going through the emotional turmoil of a Narcissistic relationship because cognitive dissonance creates a FEELING in you… and by the time it happens, you’re already in that feeling, reeling from the shock and there’s nothing you can do to turn back the clock and change that.
What you can do however is look back at it and understand what it was, and why it happened. And understand that it was not your fault, you didn’t cause it to happen, there was nothing you could have done to prevent it, or done differently to make it less painful. It’s one of the many painful prices you will have had to pay if you’re in a relationship with a Narcissist.
On the upside, once you realize it’s happened the first time, it’s not going to be quite as galling or shocking when it happens again, because the Narcissist’s pattern will usually become clear to you. They’ll bounce around between devaluing, love-bombing, devaluing, discarding, and hoovering as they continue to play havoc with your emotions.
Then, one of the most critical things you can do is ground yourself in reality. I say this often, but it’s essential that you write things do, or record them, so that you can validate to yourself what really happened, and know that you are NOT losing the plot. Your Narcissist just wants you to think you are.
But as I always advise, learn as much as you can about NPD, reach out for support, get a therapist, and get the hell out of the relationship, because your sanity depends on it.
If you want to connect with me, see my ‘Contact’ page. I’m helping women and men to understand, recover and heal from Narcissistic Abuse. I can help you too.