I bet you have asked yourself this question at least a hundred times, “Why is it so hard to get over the narcissist in my life?”. It probably doesn’t make much sense to you why you’re struggling so hard, to move on from someone, whose rap sheet of wrongdoings toward you is a mile long. It should be easy to let go of someone who has caused you so much pain… right? Well, not really, when you understand the interplay of factors that contribute to the concept of cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance, can be viewed as a Grand Canyon-sized gap, between our beliefs and new data that is presented (facts). It is the difficulty of accepting what you believed to be true, is actually false. Mental conflict and confusion arise, when the beliefs we hold so firmly and the new facts, contradict each other. Dissolving the cognitive dissonance, by challenging the conflicting information, is the cornerstone of recovery from narcissistic abuse.
Here’s how it works.
The love-bombing of the idealization stage of a toxic relationship sows the initial seeds of cognitive dissonance. The narcissist fakes being the ideal partner by saying and doing all the right things. They pretend to be everything we ever dreamed of, and shower us with promises of perfect and eternal love. We are conned into believing the narcissist is the best partner we’ve ever had, and the most wonderful person on the planet. We trust their promises, and believe they’re able to love wholeheartedly, and without limits, in the same way we do.
We fall madly in love, and our brains become drenched in a potent cocktail of love-bombing, and the pleasure-inducing chemicals, that are released by neurotransmitters in our brains, when we are in love. This potent cocktail is what germinates the seeds of cognitive dissonance, that were planted in our minds, during the idealization stage.
By the time the devaluation stage occurs, and the narcissist’s behavior begins to deviate from the way they first acted, our positive regard for them, and our beliefs about their good character and intentions, have grown like weeds that have permeated, and become firmly rooted throughout our minds.
To reduce the confusion and discomfort of having beliefs of positive regard, that are challenged by the new facts, we instinctively try to reestablish congruity and close the gap between our originally held beliefs, and the new data, by using one or more defense mechanisms. We reject the facts (denial). We explain them away (rationalize), or ignore the new information altogether. We may try to convince ourselves that no conflict really exists, and the problem must be our fault. Or, we attempt to reconcile the distance between our beliefs and the new facts, through easing the gap, by focusing on our memories of how the narcissist used to be.
Since narcissistic abuse is characterized by various forms of ambient or stealth abuse, such as gaslighting, triangulation, intermittent reinforcement, and projection, the more covert and crafty the narcissist is, the more difficult it can be to dissolve the cognitive dissonance. The reason being, is the intensity, and power of the positive image of the narcissist we adopted during the love-bombing stage, is so embedded in our minds, that it appears more believable to us, than the reality of the ambiguous, ambient abuse we experience, but aren’t able to quite put the finger on. So when the narcissist shocks us from time to time with more overt cruelty, we are inclined to engage in some of the defensive maneuvers mentioned earlier, to resolve the inconsistency and discrepancy of their actions.
This is the reason why so many victims of narcissistic abuse have tremendous difficulty getting over their narcissist or leaving their abusive relationships for good, and instead continue to become trapped in the vicious seduce/discard cycle, even though they know their relationship is toxic.
One of the main focal points of therapy in my psychotherapy practice, with narcissistic abuse victims, is to help dissolve the cognitive dissonance, through the therapeutic use of Cognitive Behavioral techniques, and narrative therapy. These modalities, combined with education, about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, are effective at helping the survivor finally disentangle the facts from the fiction in their relationships. By clearing out the weeds from their minds, which are akin to clarifying their beliefs about their narcissist, and replacing them with new beliefs, based on the new data and facts the cognitive dissonance and doubt decreases, freeing the survivor from the stranglehold of their cognitive dissonance for good.
Bree Bonchay, LCSW, is a psychotherapist with over 18 years of experience working in the field of mental health and trauma recovery. She specializes in helping people recover from toxic relationships and shares her insights about Narcissistic Personality Disorder and psychopathy in her blog FreeFromToxic. Her articles have been featured in major online magazines and she has appeared on radio as a guest expert. She is also a dedicated advocate, educator, and facilitates survivor support groups and workshops.
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