Cognitive Dissonance

A  psychological term for the discomfort that most people feel when they encounter information which contradicts their existing set of beliefs or values.

Uncomfortable Realities:

Cognitive Dissonance occurs whenever a person is confronted with information which conflicts with their own world view. For someone with a Personality Disorder, this includes evidence their actions have hurt others or have contradicted their stated morals.

Examples of Cognitive Dissonance:

  • If a person holds the view "mother's know what is best for their children" they may experience conflict when presented with evidence that a mother has acted in a violent, unkind or abusive way towards one of her children.
  • If a person holds the view "all believers of a particular faith will go to heaven" they may feel cognitive dissonance when they witness a believer actingin a cruel or depraved manner.
  • If a person holds the belief "I am a good person" they may experience cognitive dissonance whenever it is obvious their words or actions have hurt others.

Confronted by evidence which contradicts their values or beliefs, a person is forced to make an uncomfortable choice:

  1. To hold to their belief and disregard the data they have been presented with or
  2. To modify their beliefs and risk having to re-evaluate their world view, their choices and their character.

What it feels like:

People who are experiencing cognitive dissonance may adopt a pattern of denial, diversion and defensiveness to control their discomfort. They may also alternate between periods of denial and periods of admission when they try to compensate or make amends.

Non personality-disordered (Non-PD) individuals often experience cognitive dissonance when they are confronted with evidence that their partner, spouse, parent, sibling or child is not behaving in a loving way toward them. This may contradict their belief or desire that their family is healthy or "normal".

Non-PD's may also experience cognitive dissonance when they discover that their own reactions or responses to challenging behavior on the part of a family member do not reveal their best side. They may display occasional angry outbursts, actions of deception or retribution, such as violence, shouting, name calling, sabotage, affairs, gossip and slander. Following such actions they may feel shameful, worthless or powerless. They may feel regret that they have handed justification for bad behavior to the abusive person in their home. They may even blame themselves for contributing to the abuse and dysfunction in the home.

What NOT to do:

If you experience cognitive dissonance as a Non-PD:

  • Don't blame yourself or shame yourself for having had contradictory thoughts or assumptions. Everybody has them. They are an important part of growth and learning.
  • Don't assume that because you have been wrong or mistaken about one thing that you are wrong and mistaken about everything. Accept your errors for what they are and learn from them.
  • Don't consider yourself worthless, useless or powerless.
  • Don't try to over-compensate for your weaknesses by over steering in the direction of your strengths. Try to love and accept the whole you.
  • Don't go into denial about things which are plain facts. Try to accept the truth and learn from it.
  • Don't make any big announcements, dramatic gestures or life decisions while you are feeling emotional. Wait until you have had time to think and consider your options.

If a Personality-Disordered person in your life experiences cognitive dissonance:

  • Don't take advantage of them by preaching, pontificating or nagging. Nobody likes that.
  • Don't mock, ridicule, shame or criticize another person who is struggling, no matter how much you may feel they deserve it.
  • Don't be surprised if they engage in denial, desperately seek an "out" or rationalize away flawed thinking, poor choices or unkind behavior.
  • Don't blame yourself for another person's behaviors, words or beliefs. That's their stuff.
  • Don't condone abusive behavior or speech. Protect yourself and children.
  • Don't engage in circular arguments or thought policing.

What TO do:

If you experience cognitive dissonance as a Non-PD:

  • Forgive yourself. Nobody is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. It's not wrong to be wrong. Everyone who has ever lived has personal struggles.
  • Take advantage of the opportunity for growth that comes from learning something new about yourself.
  • Open your mind. Take advantage of the opportunity to see things from a totally different perspective.
  • Get support. Talk to trusted friends, family and professionals who can help you work it out.

If a personality-disordered person in your life experiences cognitive dissonance:

  • Give them space to explore their own thoughts.
  • Encourage, support and validate them where appropriate.
  • Accept that they have a right to have their own thoughts and feelings, even if you think they are "wrong".
  • Find a supportive environment where you will independently feel validated and nurtured.
  • Take care of yourself, regardless of what level of encouragement the personality-disordered individual gives you.