A Painful Incredulity: Psychopathy and Cognitive Dissonance

Almost everyone involved with a psychopath goes through a phase (and form) of denial. It’s very tough to accept the sad reality that the person who claimed to be your best friend or the love of your life is actually a backstabbing snake whose sole purpose in life is humiliating and dominating those around him. Rather than confront this reality, some victims go into denial entirely. They aren’t ready to accept any part of the truth, which, when suppressed, often surfaces in anxiety, projection and nightmares.

At some point, however, the evidence of a highly disturbed personality shows through, especially once the psychopath is no longer invested in a given victim and thus no longer makes a significant effort to keep his mask on. Then total denial is no longer possible. The floodgates of reality suddenly burst open and a whole slew of inconsistencies, downright lies, manipulations, criticism and emotional abuse flows through to the surface of our consciousness.

However, even then it’s difficult to absorb such painful information all at once. Our heart still yearns for what we have been persuaded, during the luring phase, was our one true love. Our minds are still filled with memories of the so-called good times with the psychopath. Yet, the truth about the infidelities, the constant deception, the manipulation and the backstabbing can no longer be denied. We can’t undo everything we learned about the psychopath; we cannot return to the point of original innocence, of total blindness. The result is a contradictory experience: a kind of internal battle between clinging to denial and accepting the truth.

Cognitive dissonance is a painful incredulity marked by this inner contradiction in the victim’s attitude towards the victimizer. In 1984, perhaps the best novel about brainwashing that occurs in totalitarian regimes, George Orwell coined his own term for this inner contradiction: he called it doublethink. Doublethink is not logical, but it is a common defense mechanism for coping with deception, domination and abuse. Victims engage in doublethink, or cognitive dissonance, in a partly subconscious attempt to reconcile the contradictory claims and behavior of the disordered individuals who have taken over their lives.

The denial itself can take several forms. It can manifest itself as the continuing idealization of the psychopath during the luring phase of the relationship or it can be shifting the blame for what went wrong in the relationship from him, the culprit, to ourselves, or to other victims. In fact, the easiest solution is to blame neither oneself nor the psychopath, but other victims. How often have you encountered the phenomenon where people who have partners who cheat on them lash out at the other women (or men) instead of holding their  partners accountable for their actions? It’s far easier to blame someone you’re not emotionally invested in than someone you love, particularly if you still cling to that person or relationship.

Other victims project the blame back unto themselves.  They accept the psychopath’s projection of blame and begin questioning themselves: what did I do wrong, to drive him away? What was lacking in me that he was so negative or unhappy in the relationship? Was I not smart enough, virtuous enough, hard-working enough, beautiful enough, sexy enough, attentive enough, submissive enough etc.

When one experiences cognitive dissonance, the rational knowledge about psychopathy doesn’t fully sink in on an emotional level. Consequently, the victim moves constantly back and forth between the idealized fantasy and the pathetic reality of the psychopath. This is a very confusing process and an emotionally draining one as well. Initially, when you’re the one being idealized by him, the fantasy is that a psychopath can love you and that he is committed to you and respects you. Then, once you’ve been devalued and/or discarded, the fantasy remains that he is capable of loving others, just not you. That you in particular weren’t right for him, but others can be. This is the fantasy that the psychopath tries to convince every victim once they enter the devalue phase. Psychopaths truly believe this because they never see anything wrong with themselves or their behavior, so if they’re no longer excited by a person, they conclude it must be her (or his) fault; that she (or he) is deficient.

Because you put up with emotional abuse from the psychopath you were with and recently been through the devaluation phase–in fact, for you it was long and drawn-out–you have absorbed this particular fantasy despite everything you know about psychopaths’ incapacity to love or even care about others. But with time and no contact, the rational knowledge and the emotional will merge, and this last bit of illusion about the psychopath will be dissolved.

Cognitive dissonance is part and parcel of being the victim of a personality disordered individual. It doesn’t occur in healthy relationships for several reasons:

1) healthy individuals may have good and bad parts of their personalities, but they don’t have a Jekyll and Hyde personality; a mask of sanity that hides an essentially malicious and destructive self. In a healthy relationship, there’s a certain transparency: basically, what you see is what you get. People are what they seem to be, flaws and all.

2) healthy relationships aren’t based on emotional abuse, domination and a mountain of deliberate lies and manipulation

3) healthy relationships don’t end abruptly, as if they never even happened because normal people can’t detach so quickly from deeper relationships

4) conversely, however, once healthy relationships end, both parties accept that and move on. There is no stalking and cyberstalking, which are the signs of a disordered person’s inability to detach from a dominance bond: a pathetic attempt at reassertion of power and control over a relationship that’s over for good

Cognitive dissonance happens  in those cases where there’s an unbridgeable contradiction between a dire reality and an increasingly implausible fantasy which, once fully revealed, would be so painful to accept, that you’d rather cling to parts of the fantasy than confront that sad reality and move on.

Relatedly, cognitive dissonance is also a sign that the psychopath still has a form of power over you: that his distorted standards still have a place in your brain. That even though you may reject him on some level, on another his opinions still matter to you. Needless to say, they shouldn’t. He is a fraud; his opinions are distorted; his ties to others, even those he claims to “love,” just empty dominance bonds. Rationally, you already know that his opinions and those of his followers should have no place in your own mental landscape.  

But if emotionally you still care about what he thinks or feels, then you are giving a disordered person too much power over you: another form of cognitive dissonance, perhaps the most dangerous. Cut those imaginary ties and cut the power chords that still tie you to a pathological person, his disordered supporters and their abnormal frame of reference.  Nothing good will ever come out of allowing a psychopath and his pathological defenders any place in your heart or mind. The schism between their disordered perspective and your healthy one creates the inner tension that is also called cognitive dissonance. To eliminate this inner tension means to free yourself– body, heart and mind–from the psychopath, his followers and their opinions or standards. What they do, say, think or believe –and the silly mind games they choose to play–simply does not matter.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

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Moving On: Life After the Psychopath

Most of my posts have been about how to identify psychopathic traits and patterns of behavior and about understanding what drew the psychopath to you–and you to him–originally. I have also written several posts emphasizing the importance of no contact of any kind, passive or active, in being able to recover from the toxic relationship. But let’s say you now can recognize the features of psychopathy and narcissism. You are maintaining no contact. Yet you still ruminate obsessively about the relationship and you still feel trapped, somehow, inside of it. What do you do then?

My answer may sound somewhat circular: you’ve got to do everything possible to move on with the rest of your life. Fill your life with interests and activities other than thinking about the psychopathic ex. Focus on the relationships with people in your life who genuinely care about you and support you. Make new, genuine, friends. Find renewed energy in your job or in life goals, even those you might have given up on during the toxic relationship. Coming to terms with the truth about the psychopath and your relationship with him is essential to being able to let go of that person and your past together. But staying trapped in your past and ruminating endlessly about it–at the expense of other relationships or life goals–can become just another prison.

It can also foster negative personality traits that you may not wish to have, like paranoia or extreme distrust of all other human beings. In my last post, the review of Robert Conquest’s book on Stalin, I alluded to the atmosphere of mutual distrust cultivated under by a totalitarian dictatorship, where people started accusing family members and friends of deviationism–or of being traitors to the communist society and principles–and turning against each other. This phenomenon can happen anytime and anywhere, even if it’s more acute in dictatorships led by psychopathic tyrants.

Yes, it’s important to be cautious. Yes, it’s important to be aware of red flags in new relationships, or even older ones. Yes, it’s important to be aware of the signs of personality disorders. Yes, it’s important to cut off pathological individuals from your life. But what you want to avoid is you, yourself becoming pathological and living in an atmosphere of paranoia, pointing fingers at others left and right, and becoming consumed by the underlying hatred and distrust that characterized your relationship with the psychopath.

Moving on means, as Aristotle and other Greek philosophers urged, leading a well-rounded life. It means finding support and information about what you’ve gone through, both here and elsewhere, without neglecting all the other aspects of your life–family, friends, job, goals, exercise, enjoyment–that can free you from your painful past and help you escape the mental prison in order to live again.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

 


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