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Cult Withdrawal and Cognitive Dissonance: When the Brain Bounces Away from the Truth

Yesterday, I’d had it! Had it “up to here”! Cult Withdrawal had me worn down. Just sick of it. So I posted how I felt in a couple of Cult Recovery Facebook groups.

There were so many helpful, heartfelt, validating, kind comments. (Thank you all! Bless you!) But one phrase leaped off the screen and pinged me right between the eyes:

Cognitive Dissonance

I’m not exactly sure what that means officially, but this is how I’d define it: Your brain feels like a bouncy red rubber ball.

You try, really try, to face the truth about your abusers. Maybe it’s…

“My family is a cult.”

“Dad is a narcissist.”

“Mom is jealousy of me.”

“None of my relatives give a damn that I was abused.”

Your brain sees the words, hears the words, understands the words and recoils like a rubberband stretched too far. Snap! Your brain bounces away boi-yoi-yoi-yoing to anywhere else screaming “Noooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!”

If you prefer, we can use magnets as an analogy.

Cognitive dissonance is like trying to force two magnets with the same charge together. The truth is one positive magnet. My cognitive dissonance the other positive magnet. No matter how hard I push them together, they just won’t touch. They repel each other. My brain slips one way, the truth slips the other. That’s cognitive dissonance.

So why? Why the cognitive dissonance? Why?

After all, our narcissist/our cult hurt us. They ruined years, decades of our lives. We’re damaged for life. Relationships ruined. Reputations sullied. Fortunes lost. Happiness…pfffft. Life… down the drain.

You’d think we’d welcome the truth with open arms. That we’d want to pin the blame on the donkey. Go into No Contact with a glad cry.

Some people do. Some people can. I admire their Greatness of Mind.

But I’m not one of them. I did it but I didn’t enjoy it in the least. I wish I had  Greatness of Mind. I don’t. There! I admitted it! All I have is balls-to-the-wall guts. I dare myself to do things that scare me…then suffer for it afterwards.

The truth is just too unthinkable for my brain to accept.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Maybe that’s the crux of Cognitive Dissonance especially for cult members. One Facebook commenter kindly gave me a list of books to read, so I can notice the similarities between those women in cults and my experience in a family/cult. Even that doesn’t help. Sure, I read the story. I intellectually note all the shocking similarities in our shared experiences but my Cognitive Dissonance side-steps the truth. Flukes! All flukes! Maybe they did and said the same things, but the motivation must have been different. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. They told me it wasn’t like this. We disapproved of cults!

In her Ted talk about Cult Withdrawal, former Moonie, Diane Monscoter put her finger directly on the nerve. She calls it “Us vs Them.”

Ever since I was five years old, it was Us vs Them.

We were enlightened. They were not.

We were the true Christians. They were not.

So if my narcissists were wrong and lost and addle-minded, that means I, poor brainwashed trusting child, was too. Am too.

If we believed ourselves enlightened but were, frankly, more foolish, more blind, more lost than the beer-drinking, TV-watching, honest, down-to-earth good ol’ boy we looked down our righteous, over-educated, teetotaler noses at, then the Us vs Them narrative crumbles.

The whole narrative of life begins to crumble. I’m not who I think I am. My family is not what I was told to believe it was.

We weren’t special. I’m not special. I’m not “more loved” than other offspring, as I was told as an excuse to hold me against my will in my twenties. That was just love-bombing!

It’s hard for the brain to accept that. The ball bounces. The magnets segue sideways.

Part of it is the Fallacy of Composition. I did a whole article about it December 2016. Here’s an excerpt:

I’m a fairly normal, ordinary person.
I identify closely with my family-of-origin.
If I (the part) am normal,
they (the whole) must be normal too.
How could a normal person (me),
possibly come from a narcissistic family!?
Therefore, they must not be narcissists.
They must be normal people who inadvertently
behave in narcissistic ways.

It must all be just a colossal misunderstanding!

In other words, we’re projecting our honesty onto them.

We’re projecting our self-awareness onto them.

We’re projecting our true-motive-awareness onto them.

We’re projecting our logic onto them.

We’re projecting our morality onto them.

We’re projecting our good selves onto them.

After all, in many cases, our narcissists / our cult leaders taught us to be honest and moral. To logical people like us, it’s inconceivable that they would not “practice what they preached.”

It’s inconceivable they could be that purposely hypocritical.

It’s inconceivable they could be that dishonest or self-deceiving about their obvious true motives.

It’s inconceivable that we should turn out (more or less) “normal” when they are so abnormal.

Give yourself a pat on the back that you “don’t get it.” If you “got it” you’d be just as warped and yes, immoral, as they are.

Maybe, like death, our minds are not designed to be able to handle this level of badness. It wasn’t supposed to happen. Ever. That’s why we’re not mentally equipped to handle it gracefully and easily.

We’re wired to respect and honor our parents. We’re not designed to rethink, question, turn-upside-down and reverse engineer their False Narrative. We’re good people raised by narcissistic parents. Just typing that, I have my head on the side like a confused puppy. “Say wha….!?!”

We’re wired to respect, trust and learn from our religious leaders in humility. We’re not designed to think the unthinkable: “Hey! It’s a cult!” How many hurting, hopeful people are struggling with the sad fact that João Teixeira de Faria (pictured above) was never “John of God.” Given his penchant for rape, apparently he was John of the Devil. How many good Catholics are struggling to accept that, given the thousands of cases of sexual abuse of children by priests, there are men who actually go seminary and devote their entire lives to the Church apparently with the motive of surrounding themselves with trusting potential victims. It’s unthinkable!

Unfortunately, the longer we allow our Red Rubber Ball of Cognitive Dissonance to bounce off the truth, the longer we’ll suffer. The longer we allow the magnets to slip, the longer cult withdrawal will poison the sweetness of life.

That’s where I find myself today. Six years and hundreds of articles later, I still don’t want it to be true. The message “This is an excellent family…superior to most other families” was implied, if not spoken, all my life. I thought I had the perfect Leave It To Beaver family. My husband thought I had the perfect Leave It To Beaver family and he was thrilled to have June and Ward Cleaver for in-laws.

But soon after our marriage, he began to notice something was wrong. They were weird. I got weird when they came around. But it was like their power had a geographic territory. As soon as I left the Twin Cities, my guts churned at the thought of them. It wasn’t an intellectual thing. It was a visceral, instinctive thing.  My conscience smote me. I mean…who kicks Ward and June Cleaver to the curb!? It’s unthinkable!

Discovering the terms “narcissism” and “cult” gave it a name. It validated the visceral. But I still don’t want it to be true.

How could my daddy, mine!, treat me at age fifteen (almost) as badly as Steve Drain of the Westboro Baptist Church treated his daughter when she was fifteen. The sexual shaming! The slut-shaming! Isolation in homeschool…and just because she liked a boy and he liked her. The end (See! I prevented her from a teen pregnancy!) doesn’t justify the extreme means.

The behavior is scary similar so too must be the cause. That’s the connection my Cognitive Dissonance has never allowed me to make…until now.

My family isn’t “that” special. They’re just human and humans follow a limited number of patterns. My family following the cultish pattern wasn’t a fluke. They didn’t arrive at the cultish end by a different route than any other cult leader. No, they’re all the same ilk with the same secret motivations and needs for power, for control, for dominance, for submissive servants.

Why did it happen to me? How could it happen to me? Ah, my love-bombed, cult-inspired ego is showing again. Those are all the wrong questions. Why wouldn’t it happen to me? I’m nobody special.

I’m not “Us” anymore. I’m just plain, ordinary, garden-variety “Them.”

Perhaps it happened so I could help others as so many of you have helped me. So I could help those who also grew up in families that were more cult-like than they were family-like. Cults that went by names like “Smith” and “Johnson” and don’t appear on any officially recognized list of cults.

We may not be {Insert-Famouse-Cult-Name-Here}, but we struggle with Cognitive Dissonance just as much as them!

Cult Withdrawal and Cognitive Dissonance: When the Brain Bounces Away from the Truth

Lenora Thompson

Lenora Thompson is a syndicated Huffington Post freelance writer and food blogger. Her readers call her the "Edward Snowden" and "Wikileaks" of narcissism because of her no-holds-barred-take-no-prisoners approach to writing about narcissism. “Narcissism Meets Normalcy” is the real-life, ongoing story of her healing journey from being held “hostage” by a multi-generational, cult-like narcissistic family. It's gritty and real, bloody and bruised, humorous and sarcastic. Lenora Thompson considers herself a “whistleblower,” shining a spotlight on narcissistic abuse so others can also claim their freedom and experience healing. To learn more about Lenora, her husband Michael's heroic battle with Pulmonary Alveolar Proteinosis and to read her writings about food, please visit Thank you!

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APA Reference
Thompson, L. (2019). Cult Withdrawal and Cognitive Dissonance: When the Brain Bounces Away from the Truth. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 9, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 Apr 2019
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