Unravelling The Cognitive Dissonance In A Toxic Family We use denial, rationalizing to survive abusive and inconsistent caregivers

To survive an abusive childhood one has to suppress the cognitive dissonance one regularly experiences. Depending on their moods our caregivers would swing from being a raging lunatic to a saccharine puppy, all in the course of a day. Sometimes the flip-flop could happen in minutes. More so with the arrival of an audience or if they wanted something from you.

This leaves a child in a state of mental confusion/conflict. Are they good? Or are they bad?  Being dependant, a  child is not able to wrap her mind around the fact that something could be wrong with the caregiver.

Nonetheless, living with these intermittent cycles of good and bad behavior conditions us to become trauma-bonded. Our need for love and acceptance makes us distort our reality.

Since there is no escape, our still immature brain tries to deal with these crazy-making inconsistencies by creating a false narrative. We adjust, deny, distort, select and repackage the situation.

Unravelling The Cognitive Dissonance In A Toxic Family
To deal with the cognitive dissonance a child creates a false narrative

Surviving The Confusion

In short, you delude yourself in order to survive the ever-changing chaos and confusion.

You walk on eggshells and are hypervigilant to their micro-expressions. You believe that if you go along with what they are selling, you will win their approval, acceptance, and affection.

Maybe it does for a short time. But gradually you realize that you cannot make someone love you by erasing yourself. You only invite their contempt and cause them to treat you like a doormat, worthy of no consideration at all.

It is at this moment of bitter resentment you are forced to take the blinkers off and unravel the cognitive dissonance you ignored for so long. That they are unstable jerks. I am not buying this crap anymore.

From this point of unbiased clarity, it is a long, arduous road to healing the damage that was done to your mind and body.

What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

American social psychologist, Leon Festinger first proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance centered on how people try to reach internal consistency.

According to Festinger inconsistency among beliefs or behaviors causes an uncomfortable psychological tension i.e., cognitive dissonance, leading people to find ways to alleviate their unease.

As a child of toxic parents, you have limited choices. All one can do is try to justify and rationalize the inconsistencies. The brain finds ways to protect you from your convoluted reality or one could go crazy.

Studies have shown that inconsistency and unpredictability undermine a child’s sense of reality, thereby increasing his chances of suffering from schizophrenia or other severe mental illness later in life.

Attachment and Cognitive Dissonance

Attachment to our caregivers is closely linked to our survival.  According to the Scottish psychoanalyst, Ronald Fairbairn, having a realistic view of an abusive parent is a psychologically terrifying prospect, akin to self-annihilation.

To stifle the dissonance a child unconsciously and reflexively finds a facile solution to this dire problem. They take in the bad part of the parent and internalize it. Instead of the parent being bad they are the bad one.

This allows children to retain their sense of having an adequate parent who can provide the love and protection necessary for their survival.

Unfortunately, this internalized bad part becomes the relational blueprint of our adult interactions. I am flawed. Not good enough. Damaged, Not worthy. It becomes our self-fulfilling prophecy, we expect to be treated badly.

What Is Real? Doubting Our Reality

When a caregiver behaves inconsistently your mind is in constant turmoil. You keep ruminating over your interactions. Is this bad parent real? Or is this good parent real?

The last time they treated me well and now they are treating me like shit. Am I imagining this? Did I do something wrong?  Your mind is confused trying to make sense of their behavior.

As a child it is not easy to think rationally, Your cognitive brain (frontal cortex) is still not developed and your limbic brain (emotional brain ) still craves attachment. The cognitive dissonance turns your brain into a fried mess.

Even though, you rationally feel you’ve been mistreated, emotionally you can’t process it. After all, they are family, they cannot do this to me. You’d rather doubt your own perception than deal with the actual reality.

It is particularly confusing when the abuse is covert like silent treatment, sarcasm, or gaslighting. Worse, when there’s plausible deniability – denying they did something and that you are imagining things.

Internalizing The Maltreatment

I tackled this inconsistency post my mother’s death with denial and internalizing the maltreatment. Maybe I am a lowly insect and don’t deserve to be treated well.

After all, I didn’t expect to be betrayed by people who are family. The very ones supposed to love and protect me.

I worked hard to override the cognitive dissonance I experienced to avoid the painful truth. This meant going along with the pretense and suppressing the real truth.

Our Brain Wired For Denial

Once the mechanism of denial, rationalization, and adjustment are wired in the brain, it becomes very hard to deprogram. We will do whatever it takes to maintain the mental representation of our caregivers. And anyone trying to dislodge this belief system is met with vehement anger and denial.

This was the reason,  it took me a long time to accept the fact that some key members of my mother’s family were extremely toxic. Their behavior post-my mother’s death was mean and abusive when there was no audience. But publicly showed the kind, caring soul they were not.

Their two-faced act nearly drove me crazy.

Suppressing The Cognitive Dissonance

My maternal grandmother who was the best grandmother in the world prior to my mother’s death became cold and rejecting. Without uttering a word she could make you feel like shit, a real covert operator. But when the rest of the family came to visit she would blow her own trumpet of how much she did for us.

My mother’s sister, an evil narcissist who accused me of trying to seduce her husband and then pretended nothing happened when the same creep asked what was the matter with me. He was never told about the blame game that had transpired.

And then there was that jerk, my mother’s brother who found every opportunity to unleash his vitriolic sarcasm onto me. But when he came over to my home, in front of my father he was so friendly and compassionate. It has taken me a long time to really understand his underhand meanness.

Or the aunt, who in front of my mother’s dead body put her arm around me and said, ‘think of me as your mother’, and then schemingly kept taking me to her place to do her housework and be her unpaid marriage counselor.

A Total Mind F**k

For an 11-year-old child who had just lost her mother, dealing with this new contradictory behavior was a total mind f**k.

My mind was in constant turmoil trying to find the best way to tackle my abusive father along with my crazy relatives.

The only way to deal with this terrifying situation was to completely repress my feelings. Scoliosis was the result. I tried to twist myself to fit into my baffling situation.

Anger – Why Did I Go along For So Long

I still feel angry at them but more at myself. Why did I go along with the deceit for so long? I know I was an innocent child. To survive I had to deny and rationalize the cognitive dissonance I experienced.

Moreover,  I had never experienced this kind of behavior earlier. How would I have known that they were just putting on an act when my mother was around.

Foolishly,  I kept going along in the hope their behavior would stabilize. But hoping a leopard is going to change its spots is akin to living in fool’s paradise.

My naivety and trusting nature kept me stuck in an alternate fake reality.  I wish my mother had enlightened me about the ways of the world. That evil exists and quite often the wolves could be lurking within the family.

Getting Over Denial and Shame

The shame of not being loved and accepted by our parents /caregivers is just too painful to deal with. The only way we survived was to pretend and deny the real truth.

It is overwhelming and scary to let go of years (or decades) of a particular narrative. Since 0ur core identity is closely linked to our attachment figures.  Primally, we cling to the false narrative that we are loved by our family. It feels so shameful to acknowledge the truth that we’d rather live in denial.

No doubt, denial protects us from harsh realities. But to heal we need to bring to light all that is hidden deep within one’s soul and let go of the false stories.

Changing The False Stories

Healing requires we face the truth and no longer accept the false stories we told ourselves. That we were the bad ones. That we are not worthy of care and respect.

Uncovering these false narratives we spun means breaking through the unconscious resistance that protected us from our painful reality. Truthfully, we have to face the facts head-on and deal with uncomfortable feelings which arise.

More importantly, it means addressing the cognitive dissonance and finding healthy ways to resolve it. Rather than rationalizing, or denying reality. We don’t have to accept or tolerate people who don’t truly love and care for us. Neither do we have to forgive and forget.

Additionally, we need to remind ourselves we are no longer dependant and helpless. We don’t have to put up with uncouth behavior or settle for crumbs in order to protect our connection to our parents/family. We can survive without them.

What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

Grieving, Self-Compassion,

In order, to heal you have to grieve for the illusion of what you thought your family was.  Don’t fall into the trap of trying to reconnect with people who disrespected you.

Most people don’t change. Stop being naive and stop tolerating disrespect. Learn to trust your intuition and not overlook the dissonance you experience.

Have compassion for yourself and pat yourself for surviving so much craziness. Self-compassion allows us to address our pain with kindness and not critical judgment. When we know better, we do better.

Honest Communication

Changing our ingrained interpersonal patterns of relating takes time and consistent effort.

Now, instead of ignoring, condoning, and tolerating crummy behavior, I am learning to call them out. ‘Hey, why are you treating me like this? ‘Stop, that’s not funny’. ‘I am leaving if you don’t stop the disrespect’.  Consistently, practicing assertive behavior causes neuroplastic brain changes and instills newer and better patterns of relating.

Furthermore, resolving cognitive dissonance often leads to positive changes. It means living authentically.  I don’t need to just accept the bullshit people shovel at me. I stand up and tell it as it is. At the same time, it also means me being open to feedback with regard to my own inconsistencies and discrepancies. Open, honest communication is the key to better relationships and a more decent world.

Image Source: Pixabay

Further Reading:

Remapping Your Mind: The Neuroscience of Self-Transformation through Story Lewis Mehl-Madrona

Surrounded by Idiots Thomas Erikson 

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Al w
Al w
1 year ago

I just found your blog and I’m really enjoying it. Where I found it I don’t know, but I’m new to the the process of learning co-regulation and you just have so many great links that I can’t wait to read!

1 year ago

Thank you for writing this. Being 27 and realizing that my family was condoning, excusing, and propogating abusive behavior against me and my siblings (resulting in a hightly disordered sister who now perpetrates the same callous cruelty against her children, by the guidance of our ‘covert incestuous’ ‘mother’) is a lot to take in. I am trying to read up as much as I can about ‘cognative disonance’ so I can get myself to stop excusing what has happened to me.

It is nice to have certain sentiments reflected back to me. Like, how I also feel this weird sense of, ‘But family can’t possibly hurt me like this.’ I hate that the manipulation runs so deep that I cannot even reason or un-reason with this thought. (I will keep working on it though. I mean, I’ve had my suspiciouns that I was in a bad perdiciment since childhood, and have been working on getting through this and escaping my abusers for years. Unfortunately, they have kept hurting me while telling me they care and I seamelessly have been falling back into place. ): )

I keep coming back to thoughts along the lines of; ‘but she is old now,’ or ‘I must be insane to feel that anyone could be treating ME this way. Obviously the issue is me!’ And one of the biggest issues is that most of the thoughts I have are easy to spot as abusive things my ‘parents’ have said to me, or faulty belief systems forced upon me. But then the ones that are hardest to prove wrong are the ones I do not fully comprehend.

I watched the series by Brad Shore, yesterday on Youtube about ’emotional incest’ (enmeshment), and to hear someone just flat out state the truth of my reality and the effects of how I have been sufferring was upsetting. I also recently read Adult Children of Emotionally Immature parents, and it is good, I think, to have professionals state so plainly what happened to me is wrong.

I think if I have any advice for anyone, it is to keep doing what you care about because once you start to ‘wake up’ (even though you may not yet be anywhere near the breakthrough to truly break free from the abusers in your life) that you will at least have something in the wake of the devestation you’ve been lied to about having had been your fault.

Also, if you’re like me, just because you are not where ‘society’ claims you should be in life, remember that there is a consistant reality where you’ve been hurt, over and over, and invalidated and lied to and told you should be perfectly fine. Also, there is this nice subreddit called Raised by Narcissists and another called Emotional Neglect and just reading on there has helped me a ton. Most of the resources I find are on there.

Best of luck, may you be well and thanks again to the author of this blog!!!!!!!!!!

2 years ago

Thank you for a very honest and genuine article that got right to the point, and gave real-world examples from your own life. Thank you as well for writing as an adult and not talking down to your audience.

Your advice is clear and easy to remember, making it actually practical. And your bibliography is very helpful and professional.

This is actually the most useful article I’ve the countless I’ve read on this painful subject. So, with deep sincerity and respect, thank you!