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Cognitive Dissonance

Narcissists, Relationships, and Cognitive Dissonance

8 signs that cognitive dissonance is occurring in a relationship.

Key points

  • Cognitive dissonance, or having two very different beliefs about something at the same time, is common in relationships with narcissists.
  • Signs of cognitive dissonance include being paralyzed by self-doubt, second-guessing your decisions, constantly apologizing, and more.
  • Learning to trust yourself and your experiences is key to breaking free from cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance can occur in a range of different situations. Simply put, cognitive dissonance is having two very different thoughts or beliefs about something at the same time. It is very common in emotionally abusive situations and in relationships with narcissists.

The individual who is emotionally abused experiences cognitive dissonance through the strategic, structured manipulation by the narcissist. She is told one thing one day, and then the entire conversation is denied the next. She is swept off her feet in a shower of affection and attention, only to be ignored or abandoned the following day.

The result is a sense of deep and profound confusion about the relationship. Is the wonderful, charismatic, and loving person the actual partner, or is it the abusive, emotionally unavailable, and cold person? Is the truth what was discussed in detail over the last few days, or is it the denial of the conversations, promises, and agreements heard today?

It is not uncommon for narcissists to use this pattern in all aspects of their life. It is also possible for the narcissist to create more than two different ideas or "realities" about a specific issue, which only leads to more confusion, self-doubt, and loss of self-trust by the emotionally abused partner.

The feeling of cognitive dissonance is one of constantly doubting yourself and struggling to keep up with the whirlwind of changes and challenges to reality. The behavior of the narcissist that causes cognitive dissonance is called "gaslighting."

Signs of cognitive dissonance

Recognizing you are experiencing cognitive dissonance is not always a simple process. The narcissist gradually wears down your self-awareness and self-trust, leaving you vulnerable to their manipulations.

The most common signs of cognitive dissonance include:

  • Doubting your own memory or recollection of events, conversations, and experiences
  • Second-guessing decisions and choices
  • Becoming paralyzed with indecision
  • Inability to trust your own decision-making process
  • Feeling like there is something wrong with you
  • Withdrawing from social interactions
  • Constantly apologizing for things that the other person does or says
  • Recognizing lies from the partner but defending their actions, words, and behaviors

Overcoming cognitive dissonance

Recognizing the emotional and mental confusion that you experience is an important step in breaking out of self-doubt. Working with a therapist using talk therapy is instrumental in making changes to how you see yourself and learning to trust your own experiences, thoughts, and beliefs.

Other ways to help reduce the cognitive dissonance caused by a narcissist include:

  • Learning mindfulness to stay grounded and present in the moment
  • Journaling to record and validate your feelings, experiences, and memories
  • Sharing your story with trusted individuals
  • Developing healthy boundaries
  • Practicing self-care and self-love

Learning to trust yourself and your experiences is not always easy. Professionals can provide the safe space for this emotional healing that is vital to your recovery.

To find a therapist near you, see the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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