Cognitive Dissonance & Trauma Bonding
The Cognitive Dissonance and the Trauma Bond caused by abusive relationships are two of the most important topics to understand about the recovery process after narcissistic abuse. These concepts explain why victims stay in abusive relationship and why they return again and again to their abusers.
As of right now the top 2 episodes of my podcast are the ones on Cognitive Dissonance and the Trauma Bond. I keep seeing questions related to these topics on my YouTube videos and other social media. So I decided to make another episode combining and comparing these two topics for extra emphasis.
In this episode you’ll find out about what happens if you don’t work on dissolving the Cognitive Dissonance and breaking the trauma bond. You’ll find out how these 2 topics are related as well as where they show up during the recovery after narcissistic abuse. You’ll also get some tips to free yourself from both of these survival mechanisms caused by the trauma of abuse.
If you don’t work on healing from the Cognitive Dissonance (CD) and Trauma Bond (TB), you’ll get stuck in the repetition compulsion where you keep returning to past abusers (and remember the average is 7 times that a victim returns to their abuser). If you manage to go No Contact with that abuser but don’t heal from the CD and TB, you’ll still be at a higher risk of falling into another abuser who will likely just show up in a more covert form than the last one, more difficult to notice and identify as abuse.
The trauma bond is like a higher octave of the cognitive dissonance. The trauma bond is broken in the later part of Stage 2 of the recovery while the cognitive dissonance is dissolved during Stage 1. So the CD dissolves first and later as you work through the radical self-care required in Stage 2, you’ll eventually have the opportunity to break the trauma bond to the original abuser in your life.
In order to understand the trauma bond, first you’ll need to see the connection with the cognitive dissonance. These are both survival mechanisms built into the primitive part of the human brain. That means as messed up as it sounds logically to be loyal to someone who hurts you, your brain is wired to bond with the abuser and empathize with the abuser in order to keep surviving.
The Cognitive Dissonance occurs when we are trying to hold 2 opposing beliefs at the same time. This happens when we come across information that contradicts our beliefs or our worldview. The brain can’t reconcile the 2 opposing thoughts. That contradiction causes an overload of anxiety which then causes something like a short-circuit in the brain, inducing a state of denial. Denial is the most primitive psychological defense mechanism available to the human mind. Denial keeps us in the comfort zone of fantasy, illusion and toxic hope in order to avoid accepting the harsh reality we don’t want to see. Denial is temporarily beneficial but has long-term damaging effects when it’s an obstacle to our healing and growth.
How does the CD play out in an abusive relationship? Well let’s say, you’re with this abusive person or you were with them but recently left. Part of you knows that the person is abusive, manipulative, hurtful and toxic to your life. Another part of you wants to still believe in the “good” in the abuser, wants to reminisce about the “good” times at the beginning of the relationship or sprinkled throughout as the abuser dosed you just enough to keep you there, to keep you hoping that things were getting better, that they were changing and that your relationship had a future.
When you’re in the CD, you’ll find that your mind is going back and forth 180 degrees from it’s okay/it’s not okay, they love me, they love me not, this person is amazing and wonderful, this person is abusive and hurtful. Essentially you’re going back and forth from the loving fantasy to the abusive truth. The truth is ugly and no one really wants to see that so of course it’s easier to go into denial so we can hold onto the fantasy and hope.
The Cognitive Dissonance dissolves in a spontaneous breakthrough moment as a result of 4 practices:
- Relentlessly facing the truth — Write the Sobriety List with bullet points about every hurtful, manipulative, abusive thing that person ever did. Read it every time your mind wants to indulge in fantasy, illusion, toxic hope or denial. The list keeps your mind sober in the truth. This is the most important part of the work you’ll do do break free from the CD.
Integrate the mantra “It wasn’t your fault” — this sets you off the hook so you stop trying to fix the unfixable. The abuse was never your fault, no matter how much the abuser wanted you to believe that.
Label the abuser and the abuse — use whatever word/label you’re comfortable with (narcissist, psychopath, sociopath, abuser, manipulator, etc.) and understand that it’s okay to have good judgment. That doesn’t make you a judgmental person.
Speak your truth — with people who understand and support you and go No Contact with those who are offended by your truth.
If you’re in the early phases of Stage 1 of the recovery and you notice you’re still doing the back and forth thing (s/he loves me, s/he loves me not) then your primary work right now is to practice those 4 things I just mentioned in order to help yourself dissolve the Cognitive Dissonance.
Sometimes people dissolve the CD before they leave the abuser but most often it’s shortly after. You’ll know you’re still in the CD when you catch yourself going back and forth. One moment you might be very lucid and telling yourself or others how the person is abusive and their behaviors are unacceptable, and then before you know it, you’re feeling nostalgic for their touch or hoping that maybe they’ll finally change or maybe you can finally have the fantasy life with that person that you dreamt of.
Dissolving the CD is about accepting the external truth about what happened and who the abuser is. That’s everything outside yourself. In Stage 1, the Victim Stage, you’re focused outside yourself. That’s okay for right now because this is a phase you’re going through before you get to Stage 2, the Survivor Stage, when you’re able to start looking inward. The external acceptance of truth has to happen so you can stop investing yourself in trying to make the impossible work and instead you can use that energy to grab the reins of your destiny in order to cross the First Threshold and enter Stage 2.
You’ll sometimes see people years after leaving the abuser still stuck in the Victim Stage because they haven’t been able to look within yet and accept 100% self-responsibility for their life. That’s the First Threshold that you’ll cross from Stage 1 into Stage 2, when you empower yourself and understand that it wasn’t your fault the abuse that happened, but it is your responsibility to do something about it now. If that sounds like a blame to you or you want to call that victim-shaming, then understand that just means you’re still stuck in Stage 1. There’s no shame in being a victim. We’ve all been there. However, it’s important to understand that Victim is a stage that you pass through, not a diagnosis or life-sentence. You don’t have to stay there. Some people stay in the Victim Stage because they get narcissistic supply in the form of sympathy from others by being the perpetual victim. Others stay simply because they don’t know what’s going on so they keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again without learning the lesson.
So, first you work on dissolving the CD through the external acceptance of fully recognizing the abuse and the abuser for what they are. Then you can empower yourself into the Survivor Stage by understanding that it wasn’t fair what happened to you but you’re the only one who can do something about it now.
In Stage 2 you’re starting to look inward. You’re working on radical self-care. You're digging up and unpacking your own unhealthy patterns some of which were likely with you since childhood, so you can work on changing those into behaviors that support your self-healing. After a while, a turning point happens in Stage 2. It’s not at the end of Stage 2 but shortly before that. This is the Second Threshold where you have the opportunity to break the trauma bond to your original abuser.
The trauma bond is caused between the victim and abuser much like the bond that is formed between a hostage and captor. This is a survival mechanism for extreme situations like abusive relationships.
The trauma bond is also known as the Stockholm Syndrome. There are 4 criteria that cause this:
a perceived threat to the victim’s life (could be physical or psychological)
an act of perceived kindness (love-bombing/idealization)
isolation from outside perspectives (physical isolation or psychological isolation)
the perceived inability to escape (the learned helplessness of feeling like there’s no way out)
In real life situations, the trauma bond causes the victim to empathize with and defend the abuser. This is why Dr. Patrick Carnes, author of The Betrayal Bond also calls it “insane loyalty.” The victim is being loyal to someone who is betraying them. It sounds insane to defend someone who is hurting you but remember this isn’t caused by the rational, conscious parts of the brain. The trauma bond is caused by the primitive and emotional parts of the brain. The trauma bond causes a glue, which is fear, that keeps the victim stuck repeating the same self-destructive patterns.
It’s important to acknowledge that this does NOT mean the victim is stupid. This is not coming from the conscious, cognitive parts of the brain. I’ve worked with clients who had PhDs. I’ve even worked with clients who were therapists with advanced degrees, trained to recognize abuse. Abuse goes beyond the cognitive understanding of “this is wrong, this is unhealthy, this is not okay for me” and it targets the part of the brain that is simply concerned with survival.
Breaking the trauma bond takes longer than breaking free from the cognitive dissonance. In Stage 1 we aren’t ready to deal with the trauma bond because we aren’t ready to look within yet. First we have to resolve the CD by facing the external acceptance of truth. In Stage 2 through the process of self-care and self-discovery, we are able to really start looking within and owning self-responsibility. This usually means recognizing the people-pleasing and self-abandoning patterns of codependency. At this point the idea of self-responsibility doesn’t feel like blame or fault. It feels like empowerment. That’s the state that leads you to make powerful changes in your life, ending those old patterns of self-sacrifice so you can keep moving forward in your recovery. Eventually through this process you’ll be able to enter Stage 3, Thriver Stage.
Before that happens, there’s a turning point in Stage 2, a confrontation with your false self and what holds the ultimate power over your life. This moment will usually come about through an interpersonal experience. The other person will be the catalyst for the opportunity of transformation as long as you don’t get caught making it about the other person, which is going back to the external focus of Stage 1. Here in Stage 2, in order to break the trauma bond, you’ll need to turn your gaze inward and recognize what inside you that person is triggering. It’s usually about a feeling that’s connected to the core wound that you’ve carried since childhood, whether you were raised by a narcissistic parent or not. The crisis that appears at this point in the journey, is actually an opportunity.
You’ll need to face the internal truth if you want to break the trauma bond. This means connecting to your true self. Your authenticity is the sword that cuts through the denial and sets you free once and for all. As you choose your authentic self in this moment of opportunity you’ll be able to own who you are. The choice at this threshold is between your false self or your authenticity.
Your ego is going to want to make it about the other person or something outside yourself and that will lead you astray, back to repeat earlier stages of the recovery process. If instead you’re able to look honestly within yourself and recognize what in you, you want to shift, that’s when you’ll be able to drop the blanket of false security and stand bravely in your authenticity.
The false security is based on the Stage 1 beliefs and patterns that you adopted back then in order to feel safe. This could be about people-pleasing, silencing your truth or sacrificing self-worth in order to maintain a relationship, focusing externally for approval and validation, hiding who you truly are to fit in, or telling yourself everything is okay when it’s not. At this point, something inside you has to go so you can step into your authenticity and move forward.
Until this turning point you likely had a lot of fear about feeling your core wound so you used distractions and addictions in order to mask the feeling and keep it suppressed. It could’ve been food, alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, porn, social media, video games, care-taking people or workaholism. As you allow yourself to feel and face that which was holding the greatest power over your life and you choose your authenticity instead of the old ego defense mechanisms, that’s when the trauma bond spontaneously breaks and the shame dies with it.
By the way if you want to work on upgrading the 5 primitive defense mechanisms that are sabotaging your life, check out the mini course on my website called Ending Self-Sabotage
Abuse programming teaches you to internalize a sense of false shame. You end up carrying the shame of the abuse that does not belong to you. When you swallow that it makes you sick. That shame also distorts your sense of self-worth and replaces it with a feeling of worthlessness or not being good enough. The acceptance that takes place as the trauma bond breaks, is self-acceptance. Self-acceptance and self-worth are the opposite of shame.
This turning point where the trauma bond breaks might feel almost anti-climactic after everything you’ve been through. It’s like when you get used to the noise the refrigerator is making so you don’t hear it and then suddenly it stops and the silence is jarring. When the fear and shame of the trauma bond suddenly disappear, it’s like that!
Following this spontaneous turning point moment, is a delicate time when you will be tested based on the Law of Verification to see if you really want that new life or if you want to go back to who you were in the trauma bond. Expect the tests because they will come. Your response to those tests is how you tell the universe that you’re done being abused and manipulated. After breaking the original trauma bond, you’ll need to burn the bridges that lead you back to the people and situations that hurt you. If you don’t, you’ll risk getting back in the trauma bond and going backwards into the earlier stages of recovery. I stumbled around in darkness of that unproductive loop for years before I realized what was going on and how to set myself free.
If you’re wondering if you’re still in the trauma bond, here are some common signs:
you’re still emotional pulled into love-bombing and can’t recognize the shallowness, emptiness and hollowness of false praise
you still have hope for the future with the abusive person, hoping they’ll change or apologize
you’re still defending the abuser in your head (rationalizing, minimizing, justifying their behavior)
you still feel like there’s no way out
you’re still afraid of the abuser
you’re still hoping for or accepting contact from people who hurt you
you’re still helping people who hurt you (out of guilt or obligation)
you’re still extending trust to people who’ve shown you again and again they’re not trustworthy
you’re still trying to convince abusive people that something’s wrong with their behavior yet they’re not accepting self-responsibility
you’re still attracted to new abusive people (it’s the pull of familiarity because your nervous system is still programed to recognize abuse as love and home and it will be until you train your nervous system otherwise)
You’ll find that you’ll need to break the TB with the original abuser in your life, usually a family member. When you do that, like dominoes, all the other trauma bonds that formed with abusers in your adult life will break too. You’ll notice afterward that you’re repulsed by manipulators and abusers, even when they’re doing the love-bombing tactics that you used to fall so easily for. These are signs of growth.
You can’t blame yourself for people who are attracted to you. You’ll attract the good the bad and the ugly because that’s what’s out there. The key is, who you are accepting and tolerating into your life. That’s what you have control of, who you let in and who you let stay in your life. After breaking the TB, you’ll no longer accept manipulation and abuse unconsciously. As soon as another covert manipulator or abuser reveals themselves, you’re done. It’s no longer attractive to you to keep trying to teach someone how to act like a decent human being. You’re no longer trying to resolve past lessons of abuse with new abusive people. Your self-worth is growing, your self-trust is growing and you’re moving along toward the thriving stage.
Understanding these concepts about the cognitive dissonance and the trauma bond helps us understand why victims stay with abusers or go back and give them another chance. I hope this episode helped you to have more compassion for yourself for staying, for taking the person back when they made empty promises of change, for having hope that things would be different. Don’t beat yourself up for that. Don’t hang out around people who make you feel stupid for your past choices either. People who continually remind you of how you failed are usually people who like to see you down so they can feel superior. Sometimes they can disguise that ever so cleverly as “help” or altruism.
Remember the nature of transformation is that it’s not on our timing. It comes in spontaneous moments where the breakdown leads to the breakthrough. You might want to dissolve the cognitive dissonance and break the trauma bond right now, and while you need to do the work to help yourself get there, you also can’t force this spontaneous moment of breakthrough. The moments happen when they do. You can best prepare for the opportunity by doing consistent work over time so you will be ready when the moment shows up. All the effort and hard work that you put in is your training for the spontaneous moments of transformation when you make quantum leaps forward.
For those of you who are just starting on your journey of recovery, be sure to get your FREE copy of my Quick Start Guide to Recovery After Narcissistic abuse on the homepage, www.InnerIntegration.com. This quick read ebook will help you put into place the 3 most important first steps so you can launch yourself on your way to recovery!