As humans, we tend to seek consistency in our beliefs and actions. So, when you have two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or when you engage in behavior that conflicts with your beliefs, you are apt to feel a sense of discomfort. This is known as cognitive dissonance. And, if you’re like most people, when you are in a state of dissonance, you feel a need to resolve it.
A very common example of cognitive dissonance occurs in people who smoke. They know smoking causes cancer, so the act of continuing to smoke despite the damaging effects on their health causes cognitive dissonance. Another common example of dissonance is experienced by people who join a cult then realize that their beliefs and those of the cult leaders are not in line.
Life is filled with situations that create dissonance every day. In fact, every time you are faced with making a decision there is the possibility of dissonance. The dissonance we experience on a daily basis is usually insignificant enough that we reduce it automatically – often without even knowing — and move on. However, when beliefs and actions that are important to us conflict, we experience a greater level of psychological discomfort.
Now, experiencing cognitive dissonance is not always a bad thing. In fact, the process of reducing dissonance can actually help you weigh both sides of a situation so that you can make the best decision.
How Does Cognitive Dissonance Feel?
Everyone has a different level of tolerance for dissonance and it really can’t be measured objectively. So, how do you know what it feels like? For most people, dissonance feels uncomfortable, like a nagging feeling that something isn’t right, but it doesn’t create a huge problem in your life. Others may feel the need to change something to resolve their nagging discomfort.
On the more extreme side of the spectrum, dissonance could manifest as anxiety, especially if it involves a long-held belief, such as a religious belief or moral, that is being challenged. For example, if you grew up in a strict fundamentalist religion and were taught that sex before marriage is a sin, you may find yourself in a state of cognitive dissonance if you begin a sexual relationship before marriage. This can also occur if you were taught that something is inherently wrong with you if you are gay. (This kind of dissonance was far more common in the past than it is now, though it still exists.) Some people experience feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment, or anger as an effect of cognitive dissonance. If the dissonance is great, some people may even feel they have become immoral, or they can develop a lack of self-worth until the dissonance is resolved.
3 Proven Ways To Reduce Cognitive Dissonance
If you don’t want to live with a high degree of dissonance, you must change something in order to bring back balance. While complete consistency all of the time in everything we believe and do is almost impossible to achieve, experts typically recognize three ways to reduce cognitive dissonance:
- Change your behavior. One way to reduce cognitive dissonance is to change a dissonant behavior. A person who regularly drinks alcohol then drives, may stop drinking, or they may decide to hire an Uber after having a few drinks. Changing either behavior relieves cognitive dissonance and brings their actions into harmony with what they know to be true about the dangers of drinking and driving.
- Change your beliefs. My friend, Paulanne Balch, M., says that our construction of “the way things are” is constantly being adjusted to relieve dissonance. In other words, our minds are constantly filtering out conflicting data to support our beliefs. So, a person who smokes may look for, and believe, scientific research that says smoking does not necessarily cause cancer. That way, when they continue their behavior, they experience less dissonance.
- Justify your beliefs and behavior. A good example of this is a person who spends money frivolously. They might convince themselves that throwing their money away is ok, saying things such as “you can’t take it with you.” Another example is when a person who engages in risky behavior says “you’ve got to live every day to the fullest. You never know when it will be your last” in an attempt to rationalize their risky behavior.
Cognitive Dissonance and the Energy Vampire Relationship
Energy vampires are masters at creating dissonance in their relationships. They often use abuse tactics — intimidation, emotional and physical abuse, economic abuse, sexual abuse, social isolation, and more – in order to maintain power and control over their victims. The threat of abuse is always present and usually becomes more frequent (and even violent) with time.
Because of this, energy-vampire-victims doubt their gut reactions when it comes to the dynamics of the relationship and continues to cling to their narcissistic partner despite living in fear of what will happen next – “Will he love bomb me, or pick a fight and walk out?” This keeps you torn between believing what you want to believe about them – the narcissist is capable of changing into someone who can really love you if you simply pay enough attention to them and care enough — versus the reality that their behavior is anything but loving. And, they continue to shame, belittle, criticize and punish you. Thus, extreme dissonance is created.
For a person in an energy-vampire-relationship, finding ways to reduce cognitive dissonance is a primary defense mechanism — it’s the path of least resistance that you believe will keep you safe. For example, you may justify your situation by lying to yourself, saying “he loves me and everything will go back to normal as soon as (fill in the blank).” Of course, every time the vampire does something hurtful, you experience the stress of cognitive dissonance.
The problem for victims of narcissistic abuse who have lived with cognitive dissonance for a long time is that they actually experience brain changes similar to those in people with PTSD. They also develop a whole host of physical symptoms (often called autoimmune diseases) and can even suffer “executive function” brain disorders. They literally can’t think straight. This makes it difficult for them to change their situation until they learn how to trust themselves again. Techniques such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing(EMDR)Therapy and Tapping can help enormously.
How To Reduce Dissonance After An Energy Vampire Relationship
If you are in an energy-vampire-relationship, you need strategies to protect yourself. Once you are free from your energy vampire, you need to reduce dissonance in order to begin healing.
In addition to the three ways described above, in my experience, there is actually a fourth way to reduce cognitive dissonance when it is associated with energy vampires — you must receive validation for your circumstances. This can occur in therapy, when speaking to a close friend about your trauma, or even when writing about your experiences as I have in my book, Dodging Energy Vampires.
Have you struggled with cognitive dissonance? What was your experience and how did you resolve it?