What is cognitive dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance is a type of mental stress that results from struggling to correct that surreal-feeling gap between what we know to be real, and what we are told is real. It is the crazy-making component of gaslighting and the biggest cause of C-PTSD.
Growing up in a narcissist home means that we’ve probably experienced cognitive dissonance and have felt the resulting and ongoing confusion. We humans can’t continually live in a state of confusion. Not knowing what to believe, what to expect, and not able to trust our feelings, judgment, or senses is overwhelming and harmful. Our natural state of “being” requires that our thoughts and interactions make sense to us because we need stability and security to be emotionally healthy and balanced. When we feel doubtful of our reality, or are so fearful of making a decision, that we’re emotionally paralyzed, it may be the result of cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is the confusion and mental discomfort you experience when you live with contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. It indicates a state of trying to live with continually opposing or conflicting viewpoints, beliefs, or behaviors. It’s usually the result of manipulation, and specifically of gaslighting. To restore emotional balance, the afflicted person must change or remove the inconsistencies or conflicts. We do this on an ongoing basis.
Although it doesn’t sound like it, cognitive dissonance can be healthy. For example, guilt is a positive and healthy form of cognitive dissonance. Guilt allows us to see the discrepancy between “this is who I say I am, but this is what I did.” We feel guilty when “who we are” and “what we did” are not aligned. This misalignment causes us to feel empathy for the person we wronged. For example, if I believe I’m a gentle, kind, and loving person, and I make a cruel remark to someone, my perception of “who I am” no longer matches “what I did.” A gentle, kind, and loving person would not say mean things. I would be motivated by feelings of guilt to apologize to the person I hurt. The cognitive dissonance provided by our guilt drives us to atone for our actions.
Cognitive dissonance has a dark side too, and it’s harmful.
When we’re gaslighted regularly, our level of cognitive dissonance grows, and the crazier and more out-of-touch we feel. We’re unsure of what’s real and what’s not, what’s true and what’s not, and we don’t know whether to believe our senses or only to accept what we’re told.
We all tell ourselves stories. It’s how we make sense of ourselves and the world. Our egos translate our experiences so they make sense, but doing this when we’re in a state of cognitive dissonance can keep us stuck. To get unstuck, we might choose to accept the best explanation that we can come up with, regardless if it’s accurate.
For example, think about the possible explanations for a situation that a six-year-old might create, versus a twenty-year-old, or a thirty-five-year-old. Youth and immaturity work against us when we’re gaslighted as kids. We’re not experienced or knowledgeable enough to imagine plausible and realistic explanations. At ten, if my best friend doesn’t reach out, I might think it’s because she doesn’t like me anymore. But at thirty, if I haven’t heard from my friend, I might think it’s because she’s preoccupied, tired, not feeling well, etc. I can choose any number of explanations, and they’ll align with my current self-concept. Now, if I formed the belief in childhood that I’m unlovable, and I carried that belief with me into adulthood, my interpretation of other’s behavior will reflect that belief. If I have strong self-esteem, then my interpretation will reflect that. We interpret our reality using these emotional “filters.” It’s important to remember this because our filters can and do change. Our perceptions and interpretations also continually change and develop as we mature physically, intellectually, socially, spiritually, and emotionally.
Remember that “beliefs” are thoughts that have emotions attached to them. Eliminating inaccurate beliefs is a primary key to healing. Pick a childhood belief. What thoughts and feelings are still connected to it? For example: “I’m not smart.” List feelings, thoughts, and actions that come from that belief and write about them at length. Is the belief still relevant today? Why or why not? Explain. Learn about therapeutic approaches like Tapping, Neurolinguistic Programming, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to eliminate faulty beliefs and create healthy new ones. Invest time to investigate other methods for changing beliefs. We acquired our beliefs as children. We get to replace them with ones that serve us, as adults.
Cognitive dissonance is one of the most challenging aspects of healing. Because of gaslighting, we’ve learned to disregard or mistrust our perceptions, judgment, and memory. We may have learned to trust and accept our mother’s interpretation of the world and events and we may now rely on her interpretations, judgment, and perceptions instead of our own.
When you were gaslighted by your mother as a child, you probably received unexpected or inappropriate responses from her. Your response to her gaslighting may have been determined to be incorrect, unreasonable, or shameful. You may have wondered why your mother gave you strange looks that caused you to question your actions and words. Now, as an adult, you may be fearful for your mental health, you’re concerned that you may be losing your mind. You accept that you’re the illogical one, or that you’re mentally ill. You’re confused by things she says and does, but your observations can’t be validated because you’re often the only witness or the only one who finds her behavior strange.
Gaslighting often leads to depression, anxiety, helplessness, hopelessness, or exhaustion. If it’s severe, you may feel like your sense of self is “fuzzy” and “reality” feels dreamlike. You probably can’t think clearly and have trouble with problem-solving and making decisions. This is cognitive dissonance.
I’d often get confused, stressed, and frustrated when my mother denied doing or saying something I’d witnessed. I’d ask, “You’re saying that I didn’t see what I know I just saw?” And she’d reply in an exasperated or dismayed tone of voice, “You dreamt it,” “You imagined it,” or “So-and-so did that, not me.” It shouldn’t surprise you that I grew up to continue that tradition. I excelled at self-gaslighting. When you convince yourself that you didn’t just hear what you know you heard or that you didn’t just see what you know you saw….you are self-gaslighting. We do it to protect ourselves from further trauma.
Self-gaslighting also contributes to cognitive dissonance. When we tell ourselves that someone’s actions or behavior was our fault, we’re self-gaslighting. We may convince ourselves that we somehow provoked their hurtful behavior, or we take responsibility for the things they did to hurt us. When we self-gaslight, we not only accept blame, we intentionally place it on ourselves. We lie to ourselves and then spend precious emotional energy, convincing ourselves that we’re not. It’s exhausting. Throughout your healing process, remind yourself not to do that anymore. Be honest with yourself now. Stand up for yourself and become your own advocate. If you won’t, then who will? Tell yourself the truth and stop accepting gaslighting from anybody, including yourself, period. Practice mindfulness to become aware that you’re doing it and stop every time.
Humans have a natural need for their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to co-exist peacefully with each other. This is known as “cognitive consistency.” Living in a state of cognitive consistency means that we feel stable, relaxed, and secure. For example, if I believe I’m an honest person, and I act accordingly, it means I’ll tell the truth even when it’s uncomfortable or it gets me into trouble. Doing so means I’ll maintain my integrity and my cognitive consistency.
For those of us who’ve experienced gaslighting as children, it likely caused harmful cognitive dissonance and reduced us to confused, uncertain, dependent shadows of our true selves. It robbed us of our ability to think logically, make decisions easily, use sound judgment, and recall accurately. Instead, we doubt ourselves, always second-guessing our thoughts, emotions, and decisions. I believe that gaslighting is the most treacherous form of manipulation because it undermines our sense of self and stability.
How cognitive dissonance is resolved
Most of us consciously or unconsciously resolve cognitive dissonance by doing one of these three things:
- Change our thoughts: Choosing this option means you change your thoughts and beliefs to match those of your narcissistic mom. For example, you accept your mother’s perspective that you lack common sense, rather than continue believing that you have sound judgment. Now you agree with your mother, which eliminates the emotional conflict and cognitive dissonance.
- Change our actions: With this approach, you change your behavior, so it matches your beliefs about yourself. Using the above example, you find ways to demonstrate that you actually have sound judgment and common sense. Your actions now match your mindset, eliminating the emotional conflict and cognitive dissonance.
- Justify our perceptions: You really do lack common sense and sound judgment, and you rationalize this by minimizing their value and significance. In essence, you trivialize your lack of common sense and sound judgment to eliminate the emotional conflict and cognitive dissonance.
Resolving cognitive dissonance isn’t always done on a conscious level, although we may be aware that we have choices to make. At some point, we’ll use one of the three methods to keep our sanity intact.
Eliminating cognitive dissonance isn’t a “one and done” thing. Typically, and speaking from my own experience, we play around with the three possibilities for resolution, trying them on, seeing how they fit and feel. Eventually, we settle on one that suits us best, that causes us the least mental and emotional stress.
Because my mother liked to overwrite my perceptions and memories with her own, I heard a lot of, “I never said that,” “You imagined it,” “You dreamt it,” or “It wasn’t me.” I was in a continual state of self-doubt and confusion from her insistence that I perceived and remembered events inaccurately. My ability to make decisions and to trust my own senses was severely negatively impacted. I eventually came to believe that the discrepancies between my own observations and those of my mother were flaws in my memory and perception. I became obsessed with explaining the disparities between what I observed and what I was told I observed. I remained in a state of cognitive dissonance throughout my childhood. If you can relate, I urge you to start your healing journey now and recover from the resulting cognitive dissonance.
Tools for healing:
Conscious awareness: Be aware and make conscious choices before acting. Self-awareness releases us from making impulsive and potentially damaging decisions.
Learn about codependency and maladaptive coping skills
Take the Adverse Childhood Experiences quiz
Learn about Narcissism Awareness Grief
Understand the abuse cycle
Learn about letting go of what you can’t control, by using loving-detachment
Learn about expectations
Learn about setting boundaries
Self-care: We can only choose to focus on and be responsible for ourselves, our own thoughts, actions, and behavior. The good news is that we can change ourselves with patience, persistence, and practice. We can take responsibility for getting our needs met, instead of waiting for someone to change or meet our needs for us. We are in control of ourselves and no one is responsible for us but us.
About the author
Diane Metcalf is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on the topics of domestic violence, abuse, and family dysfunction. Currently, she writes about toxic relationships and recovery tools. Diane holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and has worked in numerous fields, including domestic violence and abuse. She holds a Master of Science degree in Information Technology.
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, she has developed strong coping skills and healing strategies. She happily shares those insights with others who want to learn and recover.
Her books and articles are the results of her education, knowledge, and personal insight regarding her own abusive experiences and subsequent recovery work. She is no longer a practicing Social Worker, Counselor, Program Manager or Advocate, nor is she or has she ever been a licensed psychologist.
Currently, Diane runs her own website design company, Image and Aspect, and writes articles and tutorials for Tips and Snips, her inspirational blog for creative people. She continues to learn and write about Emotional Healing.
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.