Cognitive Dissonance and Narcissistic Abuse:
Breaking Through The Fog of Confusion
Rev. Sheri Heller
When American social psychologist Leon Festinger (1956) read about a cult’s fixation with the end of the world due to an apocalyptic flood predicted by extraterrestrials, he embarked on an empirical study to explore the believers’ reactions to the inevitability of having their prophecy discredited.
Festinger discovered a surprising trend. Rather than dispense with their unfounded prediction, unswerving believers escalated efforts to convince others of the veracity of their catastrophic predictions. These phenomena led Festinger to devise what is known as cognitive dissonance theory.
Essentially, Festinger theorized that when incongruous (dissonant) cognitions give rise to psychological distress, reducing discomfort may result from simply nullifying that which causes conflict. Limiting the intrusion of new information or canceling out thoughts that counter pre-existing beliefs in order to return to a state of internal equilibrium is an effective (albeit detrimental) strategy.
Since we are inclined to reject that which generates uncertainty and threatens our worldview, when an unsettling contradiction occurs we will simply deny that which causes distress and choose the attitude or belief that assuages anxiety and guarantees a modicum of stability.
An example of this phenomenon concerned my psychotherapy client who presented with severe complex trauma and dissociative amnesia due to being perpetrated by a pedophile throughout his formative years. The pedophile was a highly regarded coach and educator in an affluent suburb.
Years after the assault of my client, the FBI arrested the pedophile in a sting operation. In spite of the irrefutable evidence implicating him, the community came to his defense, citing his character and beneficent deeds as proof of his innocence. Even when allegations of sexual abuse made by a foster child in his care came forth, the child’s credibility was ironically damaged by his stigmatized status as an emotionally troubled ward of the state.
This predilection to deny troubling details, in this case, the reality of human evil, is exemplary of the ego’s ability to censor and reconstruct distressing information, irrespective of clear evidence, so as to maintain consonance.
Similarly, we see these defenses employed in response to allegations of clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups perpetrated by the catholic church. Hence, more often than not, ensuring our need to believe in a just, secure and dependable world takes precedence over acknowledging that evil is typically cloaked in virtue.
Given that evil calls into question our basic trust in the order and structure of our world we are compelled by our instinct for self-preservation to deny evil’s existence and construct a reality that offers an illusory sense of safety and predictability.
This proclivity, known as confirmation bias explains why victims of abuse form emotional bonds with their captors, demonstrate abject compliance and deny reality so as to manage the threat of psychological annihilation. It also clarifies why victims of narcissistic abuse are often not believed.
Our innate need to trust in humanity reveals how cognitive dissonance is an unavoidable component of trauma bonding. It elucidates why victims of narcissistic abuse conceptualize their tormenters as their redeemers.
Rather than consciously accept sinister motives in others and even ourselves, rationalizing a rhyme and reason is a common response. While the victim of narcissistic abuse might initially question maltreatment, negotiation and bargaining with moral depravity typically ensue. After all, we want to trust that there is a collective moral imperative to responsibly resolve difficulties, especially with those who matter most.
Naturally, the narcissistic abuser will capitalize on this propensity by denying accountability and insinuating it is the victim’s imagination, perhaps rooted in prior relational injuries or simply constitutional insecurities and instability. Moreover, narcissistic abuse thrives on variable forms of confusional techniques such as gaslighting, pathological lying and love bombing.
Inevitably, the onus will be on the victim for any ‘misunderstandings.’ In due course, the one inflicting
torment is imbued with the power to stop the pain by absolving the guilty victim for their unlimited faults. To survive, the victim will remain blind to and even justify difficult truths. With repetitive indoctrination and thought control, steadfast allegiance will take tenacious hold.
Overall, in spite of egregious misconduct the need to believe others are inherently good and well-meaning dupes the victim into taking on misguided liability. Holding on to a mythic narrative that all people possess an inner light and the moral compass to amicably resolve difficulties, sets the victim up for further exploitation and manipulation. This relational trajectory is further exacerbated by others’ disbelief that the narcissist is causing deliberate harm.
For the victim of narcissistic abuse, healing hinges on recognizing their pain as real and accurate. Yet due to inherent biases, invalidation, the prevalence of developmental attachment injuries and the bizarre nature of narcissistic abuse, along with the narcissist’s ability to dupe others with a façade of normalcy and charisma, victims struggle to believe the horror of their traumatic reality.
Even worse, clinicians who are called upon to exercise critical thought, to acknowledge the dangers posed by those who are predisposed to sadistically destroy others, often unwittingly collude in the narcissist’s agendas. This is especially true when the narcissist in question is a mother, a world leader, a CEO, a celebrity, a lauded altruist or a cleric. Positions of authority further obfuscate the malevolent motives of those presenting with what psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley referred to as a neuropsychiatric defect.
Moreover, prolonged exposure to the malignant narcissist’s abuse and exploitation results in acute or complex PTSD, and in the worst-case scenarios DID. Being that these victims are emotionally, psychologically, physically, financially and socially devastated the visibility of their distress and symptoms makes them vulnerable to being contemptuously labeled as the one who is mentally unhinged. Ironically it is not unusual for victims of narcissistic abuse to be characterized as the instigator of problems or even the perpetrator.
This unfortunate chain of events results in Cassandra Syndrome, a state of madness caused by having one’s truth chalked up as lies. Indeed, if the relentless cycles of calculated stealth abuse aren’t bad enough, traumatized victims of narcissistic abuse, desperate to make sense out of their surreal plight, are further agonized by the pain of invalidation from peers, family and mental health professionals.
Given the machinations of cognitive dissonance, Stockholm Syndrome and stigmatization the victim will take on the narcissist’s perspective convinced that s/he is mentally deranged and just needs to accommodate a version of reality that pleases not just the abuser, but also their presumed network of support. Compliance with the abuser’s perspective paradoxically assuages the unbearable pain of confusion, danger, helplessness, and deliberate cruelty.
According to Dr. Saul McLeod cognitive dissonance can be resolved in “one of three ways. a) changing existing beliefs, b) adding new beliefs, or c) reducing the importance of the beliefs.”
Applying these directives to narcissistic abuse means resisting over-identification with simplistic polarization of virtuous or malevolent presentations. The survivor intent on recovery must be willing to expand one’s consciousness to be inclusive of lower impulses and depraved proclivities. This means altering one’s beliefs about the potential for evil in the human condition.
For survivors, who emerge as thrivers, notions of all people as ‘good’ is replaced with a more holistic understanding of moral complexity.
Whereas one might have once believed everyone has an inner redemptive essence, new notions of irreparable malignancy emerge. We are not all born innocent. We do not all enter the world with a foundation for morality, such as altruism and empathy. In fact, evidence suggests that malignant narcissism and psychopathy is an interaction between genetics and the environment, thus predisposing them to violence, aggression and low empathy. Naturally, how benign or destructive a narcissist is depends on where they land on the spectrum.
Having an unassailable view of the range of human evil is not a popular heart-warming perspective, albeit it is one that ensures the ability to dodge bullets fired by narcissists. It ensures that one will fastidiously evaluate another’s character and assess the give and take and pros and cons of all relationships. It makes certain that when conflictual, confusing information ensues one can assess if it might be due to deliberate subterfuge.
Engaging with dissonant cognitions, rather than seeking to alleviate distress by dispensing with critical thought or aligning with popular opinion, grants the survivor the agency to exercise self-containment, self-protection and meaningful expression of aggressive inclinations. This is a courageous and daunting choice.
The survivor and thriver of narcissistic abuse come to understand that innate inclinations to conform and obey can eclipse moral judgment. They know how challenging it is to deviate from collective unequivocal, dichotomous prescriptions of decency. Yet to survive and transcend narcissistic abuse and emerge from the fog of confusion demythologizing human evil and consciously recognizing all that is corrupt and inhumane is a crucial undertaking.
Tragically, the refusal to acknowledge and comprehend the dark side of human nature is our hubris. As a result, ignorance morphs into collusion which serves to enable and proliferate acts of evil that are often camouflaged by narratives of innocence and benevolence. The endgame is that victims of narcissistic abuse are typically blamed for their plight.
As clinicians assigned with treating victims of traumatic abuse we are tasked with the ethical responsibility of fully embodying consciousness. To serve as reliable instruments of healing for those seeking to recover from the wreckage of systemic traumatic abuse, clinicians must be willing to truly recognize evil for what it is.
As founder of analytical depth psychology, Carl Jung explained, if mental health clinicians collectively scoff at notions of human evil then how can evil be integrated, raised to the level of consciousness and be assimilated? In short, it can’t.
Accordingly, if we are to defy cognitive dissonance brought about by trauma bonding we must all be willing to bring the reality of evil’s influence into the light of consciousness. Only by doing so can the impact of the dark side of humanity be confronted so that those victimized by human evil can surmount what was done to them and find the strength to pull through.
Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW is a NYC psychotherapist, freelance writer/author, and an interfaith minister in private practice specializing in the treatment of complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome, and addictive disorders. Learn more about Sheri at www.sheritherapist.com.