Dizzy on the Merry-Go-Round: Cognitive Dissonance After Narcissistic Abuse
There’s no earthly way of knowing/Which direction we are going/There’s no knowing where we’re rowing/Or which way the river’s flowing/Is it raining?/Is it snowing?/Is a hurricane a-blowing?/Not a speck of light is showing/So the danger must be growing….” Willy Wonka, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Cognitive Dissonance: In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values (Wikipedia, 2017). Survivors of psychological abuse (specifically narcissistic abuse), are impacted by cognitive dissonance all along in their relationships with abuser ( in family, romance and work), as well as in the aftermath when doing the work of trauma recovery. Many have described cognitive dissonance as akin to being on a merry-go-round, where their head is spinning with a sensation of unreality, dizzy with trying to understand that the person that claims to love them also has abused them.
Example of Cognitive Dissonance: The Willy Wonka quote above illustrates what the passengers might be feeling as they sail on Willy Wonka’s candy-encrusted ship through a nightmarish tunnel which garishly projects horrifying images of insects and macabre bloodied objects. The passengers appear initially to be excited to travel through Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and yet at the same time they unexpectedly succumb to a frightening tunnel of terror before landing safely at dock for further factory exploration. This movie scene is an example of cognitive dissonance. Charlie and company simultaneously felt anticipation, joy, horror and shock as they wrestled with their sense of excitement and potential doom, all wrapped up into one bizarre boat ride. Willy Wonka could be the master tour guide of saccharine good times, or he could be a psychopath hidden behind his expressive facade. The result for the passengers is a sense of holding both a positive and negative feeling towards Willy Wonka. They are uncertain what to expect, and are thus rendered disempowered as they wrestle with their own internal confusion, feeling off center. Charlie and company proceed forth on the tour with some hesitation and reticence, unclear if they can trust their gut instincts that they will be safe, moving forward. Besides, children keep disappearing in chocolate tubes and other trap doors. The tour leans in to depend moreso on Willy Wonka, as their all-knowing (and slightly diabolical, one could argue) chocolate factory guide. A trauma bond is forming, where there is an uneven power differential between Willy Wonka and the tour participants.
What To Do If You Suspect You are Experiencing Cognitive Dissonance: Firstly, although you likely have not taken a tour with Charlie at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, if you suspect you may be experiencing cognitive dissonance in the aftermath (or in the throws of) an abusive relationship, help is available. If you are No Contact with your abuser, that’s the optimal time to do trauma work. You aren’t being exposed to further trauma, so having the opportunity to engage in compassionate and competent trauma-informed and strengths-focused psychotherapy with a qualified clinician would be ideal.
In a psychotherapy session, the clinician (therapist) will ideally provide a “safe holding environment” (Winnicott, 1957) to for the survivor to narrate their traumatic relationship(s). When the survivor is empowered to narrate their story, empowerment ensues. Often through gaslighting, blame-shifting, projection, silent treatment, and other abuse tactics, the abuser creates in their victim a state of cognitive dissonance, or a doubting of the survivor’s reality of what went down in the relationship. Having the story narrated and witnessed empowers the client to “master” the trauma, and release any residual symptoms that are tied into exposure to psychological abuse (Walker, 2013).
Other interventions for survivors of relational trauma include brain-wise interventions such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), mindfulness based cognitive behavioral therapy, expressive arts therapies and other modalities which allow release of trauma (van der Kolk, 2015). Cognitive dissonance can be diminished with qualified and competent support of a trained clinician. Survivors heal and moving into a place of thriving.
van der Kolk, Bessel (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma, Penguin Books.
Walker, Pete (2013). Complex-PTSD: from surviving to thriving; , CreateSpace Independent Publishing.
Winnicott, D.W. (1957). The child and family, Tavistock:London.
Retrieved from December 6, 2017: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance
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Schneider, A. (2017). Dizzy on the Merry-Go-Round: Cognitive Dissonance After Narcissistic Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 23, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/savvy-shrink/2017/12/dizzy-on-the-merry-go-round-cognitive-dissonance-after-narcissistic-abuse/