There are a lot of reasons that it’s so difficult to leave a narcissist. Just by alternating between kind and cruel behavior, a narcissist can induce chemical changes in our brains that can cause us to become chemically addicted to this attack-and-rescue cycle. Then depending on how strong our attachment is to the narcissist, we may develop Stockholm Syndrome. These are just a couple of the ways that explain how narcissists get into our heads and control us.
There is one particular force, however, that is the most important in explaining how narcissists are able to establish and maintain control of our minds: cognitive dissonance.
By presenting to us what feels like two completely different people, we can become snared in a battle for control over our perception of reality.
In this article, I want to go into further detail about where the cognitive dissonance comes from, what it feels like, what role it plays in the relationship, and what it takes to eliminate it.
It is nothing less than mind control and it must be broken.
What is Cognitive Dissonance?
The idea behind cognitive dissonance is that people will feel so much anxiety when they do something that’s inconsistent with what they personally believe–or when they are confronted with new information–that they will somehow find a way to make everything consistent again psychologically.
Leon Festinger was the psychologist who originally developed this idea. With colleagues, he famously studied a group of people who were convinced that an apocalypse was coming and UFOs were going to visit from planet Clarion and take them away in their spaceships. The members of the group sold all of their possessions and waited on a mountaintop on the designated day of the apocalypse for the otherworldly visitors to arrive and save them.
The next day when the UFOs didn’t come, surprisingly, instead of giving up their beliefs, some of the group members were even more firm believers than they were before. They believed that the aliens had been so pleased with their faith, that earth had been spared. In other words, they had reconciled their belief in the impending apocalypse with the fact that it didn’t come by creating a new supporting belief for the original one so they didn’t have to give it up.
Although it’s a very vivid example, I hesitate to use it, because it can create a sense that cognitive dissonance only happens in bizarre circumstances.
Cognitive dissonance is something that happens to us all, however.
Everyday Cognitive Dissonance Turns into a Nightmare When You’re With a Narcissist
Cognitive dissonance is a normal psychological phenomenon that we experience frequently. We are constantly bombarded with information and choices that conflict with what we think we know or causes us to question what it is we really value. Resolving it is adaptive, something we often do automatically without thinking through consciously what has just happened.
Do you know anyone who:
- Smokes or drinks regularly but is otherwise a health-conscious person (and would claim to be so)?
- Drives rather than takes public transportation when they have a choice, but claims that climate change is an important issue to them?
- Wants to save money for a car, but keeps going out for lunch every day?
Or is it you who does any of these things? This is all normal behavior.
Perhaps you tell yourself that your healthy diet cancels out the smoking, or that you’ll quit “tomorrow.” And that you’re only one driver among billions, so it can’t make much of a difference–and besides you recycle! Maybe you tell yourself a lunch doesn’t cost that much in the grand scheme of things and you deserve to treat yourself.
We all do it.
We often find ourselves as we go through our everyday lives confronting information that contradicts what we already believe, and we have to decide how we will manage it. If we didn’t do this, our reality would not make sense. We could not build a consistent foundation that would enable us to create order out of the world and make decisions about how to proceed with living our lives.
There are many ways that cognitive dissonance can go very wrong, and one of those ways is when someone intentionally manipulates this human, normal cognitive bias to exploit you.
Life with a narcissist takes cognitive dissonance to an entirely new level.
A narcissist will target us and hijack our own minds to them as weapons against us.
The narcissist has intentionally put us in a position of having to constantly review words and actions that do not match. We are consistently being forced to choose what we saw and experienced with our own eyes at one moment versus what happened in the next.
We may be in a near-constant state of hyper-arousal due to the anxiety from the cognitive dissonance.
A narcissist uses our discomfort at holding two opposing ideas about him or her to change our behavior and slowly even change our identities until we are no longer acting in our own best interest.
It’s cognitive abuse.
How Do Narcissists Get Into Our Heads and Control Us?
To outsiders, it might appear that the simplest thing to do to resolve the cognitive dissonance, especially if it causes so much constant discomfort, is to leave the relationship.
There are many reasons why this is highly difficult, and one of them is the nature of cognitive dissonance itself.
When someone has cognitive dissonance, the belief that is the oldest is the most resistant to change, because that person has often built additional secondary beliefs around it and has been living a life that is in sync with that original belief.
These actions create a strong foundation that has to be psychologically and sometimes physically dismantled, which can often leave that person with nothing in its place–a feeling of psychological freefall– while figuring out what goes there instead.
In other words, to change an original view when two views conflict, a lot must happen psychologically.
When it comes to relationships with narcissists, the first beliefs we develop about our narcissistic partners are during the love-bombing stage, where those beliefs bloom and solidify. The beliefs become firmly entrenched and go something like this:
This is my soulmate. No one could understand me and “get” me like this and not truly love me. No one has ever loved me like this. I know that there is are logical explanations for his negative behavior.*
Bree Bonchay, a trauma therapist who works with victims of narcissistic abuse, writes about the importance of cognitive dissonance in keeping victims tied to their abusers:
“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…
“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.”
This is why love-bombing is the most dangerous stage of a relationship with a narcissist. The tactics employed during this phase are psychologically powerful and they become the first view we ever have of the narcissist– not impossible to dislodge, but very formidable.
All of this isn’t just speculation by victims, researchers, and mental health professionals. Ponder what H.G. Tudor, self-aware narcissist, writes about love-bombing and its purpose for the narcissist and intended effects on the partner:
“The one thing that will never leave is that deep-seated pain that you loved a ghost. Your head will eventually accept what happened, that you were charmed, entranced, and enchanted and you never stood a chance. That was why you were chosen. Emotionally, you will never lose that dull ache as you sit and reminisce about our time together and how wonderful being in love with me was. Your heart will never accept that it was not real.
“That crack, that fracture, that tiny chink that remains from your frenetic and devastating time with me shall always remain. It is through it that I can return as I slip, shadow-like, into your heart through that unhealed wound. This is why we did what we did: so we always had a way back in…
“You will always be in love with the person you thought I was.”
Self-aware narcissists know exactly what it is and what they do!
Those who aren’t self-aware may not have the insight to know exactly why they are doing what they are doing, but they know how to get what they want.
Cognitive Dissonance: A Set-Up for the Narcissist
So how does this work exactly? Once the love-bombing stops and the devaluation begins, or we begin to see behind the mask, we start to feel the effects of the cognitive dissonance and this is when we truly become ensnared.
Bonchay describes what partners of narcissists end up doing in order to resolve the cognitive dissonance– the types of things that we might do in the more benign situations:
“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 may 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.”
What happens then is that our reality becomes completely distorted during this time because of consistent contact with the pathological worldview of the narcissist and a break down of the normal psychological mechanisms of confronting such pathology in the partner, partially due to those other effects of remaining in close contact with the narcissist. We begin to lose the ability to perform executive functions, for example.
Sandra L. Brown writes in her book Women Who Love Psychopaths**:
“This unique feature [of the psychopath] is the unbelievable contradictions, opposites, and dichotomies that mark this man as the disordered person he is. This is what separates pathological love relationships from other merely bad breakups.”
“These inconsistent and totally contradictory statements, behaviors, and beliefs cause women to feel like they are going crazy in the relationship. The exposure of his dichotomous beliefs and behaviors begins when he can no longer completely function in the mirage he first created. They signal the end of the ‘bait’ and the beginning of the ‘switch.’
“According to some of the women, nothing prepares a woman for a relationship with a psychopathic man, where underneath none of the elements of a healthy relationship are present…
“She begins to question her own experiences beliefs and thoughts the more he insists that their relationship is normal, not the other ones she has had, the more she begins to think she is “crazy” or something is wrong with her that she doesn’t understand the basics of what makes a good relationship.
“Once he convinces her that their relationship is normal, he can start to shift her reality-off base he sets up a double-bind where she begins to work harder at the pathological relationship… While he is telling her she just isn’t measuring up and no wonder she hasn’t had successful relationships” (p. 204-5).
The cognitive dissonance allows our narcissistic partners to split us in two along the lines of the two beliefs regarding who he or she really is.
“Her inability to stay on the same thought page about ‘who’ he is and have one consistent view of him increases the ‘ping-pong’ effect in her mind.
“As soon as she tries to get herself on the ‘he’s bad for me’ page, up pops a positive intrusive thought of a time she perceives him as ‘good.’ When she tries to realign herself to get on the ‘he’s good for me page,’ up pops an emotional pressure to find out he was cheating.
“She never stays consistently on one page about how she views him so she never really finishes a thought and never really connects to a firm decision about how to handle the relationship. Instead, she’s pulled back and forth with the ‘ping-ponging’ without ever resolving even one conflicting thought.
“Nothing changes because she never completes a thought without being pulled to the dichotomous opposite belief she was just having” (Brown, p. 241).
Why the Cognitive Dissonance is So Bad for Us
Because of the permanent state of cognitive dissonance, we:
- don’t realize we are being abused (because we suppress or rationalize the knowledge of negative treatment) — although there may be some moments of clarity, which we then suppress because they are more difficult to accept– more on this below
- become loyal to him or her and may hide the abuse from others even if we have acknowledged it to ourselves
- stay in the situation and allow him or her to keep exploiting us
- stay in a perpetual state of anxiety and fight-or-flight awareness and our physical and mental health may decline
- even after the relationship ends, we can continue to struggle with cognitive dissonance– understanding the abuse, our role (or lack thereof), who the narcissist was and what happened
This all happens partially because it is not only our thoughts about the narcissist that are divided because of the cognitive dissonance. It is also our thoughts about ourselves that become split in two. We may have thoughts such as these:
I love him so much, and I know he loves me. We have such a strong connection. I’ve never had this connection with anyone else. I should give him another chance. He said he wouldn’t still be here if he didn’t love me, and I guess he’s right. Why am I letting all these other things still matter? If I’d just stop talking about them, they would go away. Maybe I am the bad one. Maybe he’s right.*
These thoughts are actually rationalizations that keep us in an abusive situation.
Why The Cognitive Dissonance Hurts So Much
Brown (p. 238-242) says that the most troubling effects on the women in her study of those coming out of relationships with psychopaths were cognitive dissonance and intrusive thoughts.
She describes how it’s normal when people go through trauma to have intrusive thoughts about the experience. The unique thing about being in a relationship with a psychopath, however, is that the intrusive thoughts focus on the positive aspects of their partner and the relationship.
This is because the positive thought that creeps in does not match all of what she experienced so those memories keep popping into her mind. The women continue to have anxiety because of this cognitive dissonance about their views of him and their own feelings. For example, despite the abuse, they might not be able to stop missing him and this causes suffering.
Sometimes the incongruous emotions caused so much anxiety that it also led to the women going back to the psychopath when they said they wouldn’t and knew they shouldn’t. They would go back to relieve the anxiety and suffering caused by the continued cognitive dissonance that existed because of the instilled positive views.
This suggests a cyclical pattern based on a constant relief of anxiety.
The Anxiety Spell That Must Be Broken
The cycle of cognitive dissonance has us constantly shifting between seeing them as either “good” or “bad.”
Yet we can’t stay in either state forever, where we are just seeing them as one. There is always a precipitating event that causes us to start to see them both ways again. Therefore, the anxiety always returns and we are seeking to find ways to resolve it.
When we want to see them as good, we suppress or deny the negative behavior and knowledge of narcissism. We are more likely to accept the blame for what has been going wrong and more amenable to the narcissist’s hoovering and love-bombing. If we are still close to the narcissist, we probably still have a trauma bond and neurochemical dysregulation, all of which make it easier to suppress knowledge of the narcissist’s bad behavior as well.
When we want to see the narcissist as bad, we reject the good things they try to do and see through them. We see them as toxic and don’t believe their lies or that they can change. We are tired of their abuse and don’t want to tolerate it anymore and feel angry and disgusted by their behavior. Their worldview doesn’t feel like our “truth,” it feels pathological and crazy. Reading about narcissism and talking to other people helps.
Breaking the Spell of Cognitive Dissonance
Brown (p. 241) says that the only way out of suffering is to stop the positive intrusive thoughts of the narcissist, and, by extension, what I have been referring to as ending idealization of the narcissist and the relationship.
She states that that will partially involve examining why we have been resistant to dismantling the positive view of the narcissist. The narcissist has turned our own minds against us, and now it is up to us to figure out what it is inside of us that we are scared to let go of and face it in order to save ourselves. The narcissist is using it to control us.
- Are we afraid that if we accept that the narcissist is pathological, there is no hope?
- Do we have a fear of being alone?
- Are we afraid we are too damaged to have another relationship?
- Did the narcissist implant beliefs in us about ourselves or the nature of our relationship with him or her that make us believe that we don’t deserve a good relationship, or that we will never have another one?
- Have we been led to believe this is what a relationship “with passion” is supposed to look like and that we will never be happy with another relationship again?
- Are we worried since this is the person we chose and we didn’t recognize the pathology that means there is something wrong with us?
- Do we worry the problem is us and if we don’t keep trying, he or she is just going to be happy with someone else?
- Are we worried about the time investment?
- Do we keep holding on to this because it’s painful to think about the fact that we weren’t loved in the same way we loved or that we were lied to and used?
As painful as these things are, they aren’t as painful as what is being done to us in this relationship the longer it goes on.
“Women don’t feel like they have hit recovery until they can manage their most distressing symptoms of intrusive thoughts and cognitive dissonance… Intrusive thoughts are created, in part, by trying to stay away from information or feelings she doesn’t want to deal with. The longer she doesn’t deal with it, the longer she has intrusive thoughts.” (Brown, p. 238).
So how good was (or is) your narcissistic partner at giving you what you needed to stay asleep?
Not good enough– that’s why you’re reading this.
Your partner can never be good enough to keep you asleep and use your own mind against you forever– no matter how much he or she would like to believe it– and like for you to believe it too.
In summary, what is causing the strongest bond with the narcissist and is the most difficult to break is cognitive dissonance.
This is anxiety, discomfort, and suffering in our own minds purposely manufactured from the beginning because of the love-bombing in the idealization stage and it will last throughout the relationship and even after it is over– until and unless we decide to do something about it.
*I switch to first-person occasionally for effect in order to demonstrate thought processes, however, I want in these types of “thought process” insights to ensure that I am making it clear that I am speaking from my perspective, which means that I can only write them from my own point of view hence the use of fixed pronouns (i.e., “he” for my ex-partner). Please substitute the correct pronouns that work for your situation where appropriate. Thank you for your understanding.
**Brown does her research on women, however many of her conclusions are general enough to be applied to both men and women.