Cognitive dissonance & emotional pain when going ‘no contact’ from a parent

Today’s post comes after a very emotional therapy session. We had to press the pause button on starting EMDR with the trauma of my father’s suicide attempt, as I have been crying so much over the last week. For the last 5 days I have been struggling with the unfairness of having a narcissistic father who isn’t able to be a part of my life anymore. A lot of good memories have been popping up in between the recent bad ones. Looking through old photo albums, I saw the Dad I used to be incredibly close to when I was a little girl. The Dad who used to tell me bed time stories with me as the main character. The dad who took me to the park, the dad who played ball with me and entertained me on holiday.The dad who took me fishing and did the best that he could.

I am missing the kinder, happier dad I saw glimpses of as a young child. I am missing all those small and precious moments a dad spends with his children.

Going no contact is tough! I said it before and I will say it again. You have to grieve as your parent has just died, but he hasn’t! You remember the good and the bad and all you can do is cry because there isn’t any resolution.There isn’t any quick fix to the end of a relationship with a narcissistic parent.

It is especially tough when there was never a single apology or any ounce of understanding. The lack of love is the most painful part! The cognitive dissonance of ‘I know he loved me as he was my father and showed me in his own way’ to the reality of ‘no he didn’t genuinely love me, otherwise he wouldn’t have abandoned me’. These two beliefs contradict each other and are currently causing me so much pain.

As taken from the very useful website below, I am copying and pasting the following text as it has helped me immensely. It explains toxic bonding and cognitive dissonance extremely well.

Stockholm syndrome involves the victim paradoxically forming a positive relationship with their oppressor; this is called “Trauma Bonding”. When victims of narcissistic abuse are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, they are often seen by outsiders as somehow having participated in some bizarre way that seems to support their abuse. However, to understand how the trauma bonding occurs, it is especially relevant to understand what is involved in the decision-making and problem-solving process of the victim. This theory is known as Cognitive Dissonance.

If therapists are to understand the behaviour of clients who have been victims of narcissistic abuse, then it is crucial for them to appreciate why the victim combines the two unhealthy conditions of Stockholm Syndrome and Cognitive Dissonance as part of their survival strategy. When these two strategies are in place, the victim firmly believes that their relationship is not only acceptable, but also vital for their survival. They become so enmeshed in the relationship with the abuser, that they feel that their world (mental and emotional) would fall apart if the relationship ended. This explains why they fear those people who attempt to rescue them from their abuser, and how this causes the victim to develop cognitive dissonance and become protective of their abuser.

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term which describes the uncomfortable tension that results from having two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behavior that conflicts with one’s beliefs (Rational Wiki).  Cognitive Dissonance is a communication theory that was published by Leon Festinger in 1957, a theory that changed the way in which social psychology was to look at human decision-making and behaviour.  The concept of cognitive dissonance is almost self-explanatory by its title: ‘Cognitive’ is to do with thinking (or the mind); while ‘dissonance’ is concerned with inconsistencies or conflicts. Simply speaking, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort a person experiences whenever they are holding two conflicting ideas simultaneously (i.e. Shall I wear the red or the blue dress?). Naturally, people do not like the discomfort of conflicting thoughts; this theory proposes that when this happens, people have a motivational drive within them that allows them to rationalize and change their attitudes, beliefs, values and actions, anything that allows them to reduce or dissolve the dissonance they are experiencing (i.e Which makes my bum look smallest?) . When it comes to victims of abuse, there are several behaviours that a victim may use for reducing their cognitive dissonance. For a start they may try to ignore or eliminate it, or they may try to alter its importance, they may even create new cognitions, but most importantly they will try to prevent it from happening in the first place.

What part does Cognitive Dissonance play with victims of narcissistic abuse?

Victims living in a household where there is narcissistic abuse are living in a torturous war zone, where all forms of power and control are used against them (intimidation; emotional, physical and mental abuse; isolation, economic abuse, sexual abuse, coercion etc.). The threat of abuse is always present, and it usually gets more violent and frequent as time goes on. The controlling narcissistic environment puts the victim in a dependency situation, where they experience an extreme form of helplessness which throws them into panic and chaos. The narcissist creates a perverse form of relationship wherein the victim has no idea of what will happen next (alternating between acts of kindness or aggressive raging). This prolonged torturous situation is likely to trigger old negative scripts of the victim’s childhood internal object relations (attachment, separation and individuation). To survive the internal conflict, the victim will have to call on all their internal resources and defense strategies in order to manage their most primitive anxieties of persecution and annihilation. In order to survive, the victim has to find ways of reducing their cognitive dissonance, the strategies they employ may include; justifying things by lying to themselves if need be, regressing into infantile patterns, and bonding with their narcissistic captor. Most defense mechanisms are fairly unconscious, so the victim is unaware of using them in the moment; all they are intent on is surviving the madness they find themselves in.

As you can imagine, these states of mind throw the victim into any number of inner conflicts where defense mechanisms are called for, cognitive dissonance being one.


2 thoughts on “Cognitive dissonance & emotional pain when going ‘no contact’ from a parent

  1. No contact IS hard. Its hard to make sense of – all the unanswered questions, feeling like they have died because there is that gap in your life. But they haven’t died, they just don’t care. Its very, very difficult. I hope you are able to find a semblance of peace with the help of your therapy


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