Friday, May 27, 2011

Clash of the Realities - Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance - is a psychological term for the discomfort that most people feel when they encounter information which contradicts their existing set of beliefs or values. People who suffer from personality disorders often experience cognitive dissonance when they are confronted with evidence that their actions have hurt others or have contradicted their stated morals.

“It’s is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions {or holding on to past beliefs, attitudes, and actions in favor of more logical, update, or fully functional ones}.  Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying. A closely related term, cognitive disequilibrium, refers to the experience of a discrepancy between something new and something already known or believed.

Experience can clash with expectations. In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. People are biased to think of their choices as correct, despite any contrary evidence**. This bias gives dissonance theory its predictive power, shedding light on otherwise puzzling irrational and destructive behavior. For instance it can lead to this pattern: one desires something, finds it unattainable, and reduces one's dissonance by criticizing it. Jon Elster calls this pattern ‘adaptive preference formation’.”

**People with personality disorders are not only biased, but their inability to relinquish previous choices is ingrained in their character. It’s not simply a choice to not change something. It’s a mental predisposition to create a steady, unalterable whole.

“Another overarching principle of cognitive dissonance is that it involves the formation of an idea or emotion in conflict with a fundamental element of the self-concept, such as "I am a successful/functional person", "I am a good person", or "I made the right decision." The anxiety that comes with the possibility of having made a bad decision can lead to rationalization, the tendency to create additional reasons or justifications to support one's choices. A person who just spent too much money on a new car might decide that the new vehicle is much less likely to break down than his or her old car. This belief may or may not be true, but it would reduce dissonance and make the person feel better. Dissonance can also lead to confirmation bias, the denial of dis-confirming evidence, and other ego defense mechanisms.”

This may be a big contributor to why it is so difficult for someone with a Borderline Personality Disorder to accept change, or why we fight against it so hard.

Constant confliction. When it’s so hard to make a decisions, finally having one set decision, a solid belief, even something small is like a little life raft, something stable to hold onto in a wash of turbulence. When you’re confronted by something that threatens to dislodge that stability it can be panic inducing.
Imagine standing in a river. The current is never steady. Sometimes it rushes faster, sometimes it pushes gently. You’re not ever sure what to expect, what resistance to offer; how to brace yourself.  Forming a solid belief, wanting to believe something definite, is like finding a big rock to hold onto in that river. No matter what the force of the current, that rock can keep you from drowning. When someone presents you with evidence contrary to the belief, it’s like applying an oily film to that rock. It’s like having someone slowly/quickly chip away at that rock. You may recognize that this rock is no longer going to provide that safety it had before but it’s held you up for so long, been the only thing keeping you from getting swept away so you instinctively try to hold on. The erosion of this belief means part of you is set adrift again and you’re not sure when or where your feet will touch bottom.

It may also lead to the degradation of our beliefs in general. At least temporarily. Because then it makes you question what other beliefs you held that may not be correct. And slowly everything starts to crumble. Question everything. All or nothing thinking. If I’m wrong about this, I must be wrong about everything. If I can be right about that, then I’m probably right about everything else. Everything fits. Everything has a place.

When you have one belief, and then are presented with another, it’s easy enough to see how the new belief logically applies so you may want to adopt it (let go of the rock in favor of one that’s not being chipped and eroded away), but at the same time you still want to hold onto the one that has made so much sense to you for so long.

Cognitive dissonance can explain a lot of the fear and anxiety in someone with a Borderline Personality Disorder. So much of our lives revolve around other people, our relationships to people, our own sense of identity, etc. All of which, normally, are constantly evolving and changing things. However someone with BPD, gets comfortable with one idea, one person, one trait, so when it changes it calls into question everything we knew about it, almost as if it left the course of natural continuum. Like, it’s not the same thing evolving, but one thing now being different, the old thing lost. Trying to hold onto the thought that this thing is still the same thing, but also different, and just because it’s different doesn’t mean we have no relevance with it, we do still have a place/hold with it, and change is not necessarily a bad thing… it’s so very difficult. When you’re used to, or afraid that changes will lead to abandonment, the abandonment of ideas and beliefs while also seeing the relevance of incorporating new ideas is one massive anxiety ridden conflict.


  1. waauw that just about sums up everything about my life I can't believe nobody commented to this post. I've read all off you're posts and some of them gave me the urge to comment. But this one pulled me over the edge. Keep up the blogging, it gave me the power to step up and finally deciding that I can't do it alone. And I can no longer hide who I am. So that means looking for help in various ways. I've opened up to a few people I hold close and never been so honest and direct about things in my whole life. Ofcourse I still can't be completely telling the truth all the time because if that was so I wouldn't having this massive anxiety ridden conflict. Thank you Haven.

  2. Thanks! It's been over a year and I still have the blogging bug so here's hoping it sticks around. I hear ya on the conflict though. I have a few close friends that know my issues, but I'm forever grateful for my Therapist. It really helps to have someone I can really let the feelings out with. I'm glad this helped!

  3. Thanks for responding so quickly. I think one of the reasons I hesitated to post a comment was because I wasn't so sure you would respond and that kind of freaked me out. So after I read most of your stuff over the past 2 months. I couldn't stop reading so some nights I stayed up up all night. I would almost say that your my therapist in a way cause you have helped me more than my own ever could. I just can't let my guard down around people who can't even acknowledge the fact that I have BPD and believe it is something that can be fixed with 2 months of therapy and voila I'm cured. Cause that is at least what she told me. That It was just a fase I was going through in my life and that It was because I'm an adolescent.

    1. I always try to respond. Interacting with the people that read what I write (even if it's just virtually over the internet), makes feel less alone and I like being able to help in any way that I can.

      I really understand what it is like to never be able to let your guard down. Most of my friends and family that know about my BPD don't understand it so I still can not truly be myself. I always feel like I have to hide part of me. That is part of why this blog is so important. I do not have to hide here. And I hope others will not feel they need to hide here either.

      These feelings and experiences we go through are NOT a phase. They are an actual problem that is very real. Not to be discouraging, but true healing takes a very long time, sometimes years! 2 months is not enough to overcome any kind of trauma (not even a bad break up for an emotionally normal person).

      Emotions, grief, mental health, are all very complicated things. Even moreso for those of us that feel on such a complex level. ::hugs:: I'm glad you decided to leave a comment. I'm glad to have you.

  4. correction * That it is just a fase I'm going through in my life and that's because I'm an adolescent. Excuse me for my English, I'm from the Netherlands.

  5. Haven, again a fantastic article giving me yet more clarity!! Thanks for tweeting this . . . I have not read about Cognitive Dissonance anywhere else and it's such a big part of life and a real frustration at times for me and those around me. I struggle to update the most basic things at times and things that I don't feel are particularly emotionally highly charged but I guess it's that need to grasp hold of any constant, any stability you can in what feels like such a scarily unstable existence.

    Does this part of experience, Cognitive Dissonance, relate to the whole lack of object constancy experience do you think? I feel as if there is a connection.

    I am getting so much from your blog, I'm working my way through all your articles, I've printed some and made notes!! (hope you don't mind!?) I just wish I could give something back to you!!

    Amazing!! Much appreciation!!

    Thanks again,


    1. Hi Matt =) I try to remember to tweet older posts that I think have value occasionally so they don't get lost to obscurity.

      I can see it having something to do with object constancy in the sense that "I have a huge desire to be close to certain people, but I also fear becoming too close at the same time". The desire for affection and love is high, but there is also an innate risk in allowing someone into that vulnerable place which allows for true intimacy. It definitely plays into that holding conflicting values and desires arena.

      ::smiles:: I'm really glad you get so much from my blog and my experience. I makes me feel good to know that despite having to deal with all of this, what I've gone through can help others.

    2. Yeah, I think it was the lack of a 'continuum of events' that you talked about on 18/01/11 that came to mind, events being single, individual, unrelated instances, compartmentalised and absolutely separate from one another.

      This is how I think the two overlap for me:

      Each experience is fresh, given this lack of continuum and is not readily associated with any previous related experience and I find that when I'm given new or additional information, about an experience or situation or concept or context etc. I don't add the new information to an open file of related events, but file it as a new isolated event and so I find that often I will relate to a situation according to the old compartmentalised event without the updated information.

      Ha! That paragraph was one long sentence . . . and what a sentence, hope it made sense? Can you relate to this?

      Ofcourse, when events take place when I'm in a dissociated state who knows where the f@*k they're filed!!? I rarely dissociate now, I think, at least not like I used to, I used to loose time and events altogether, weird experience but probably not as weird as for the 'normal' people around who can recall all the events together!! F@*ked up but amazing, all at the same time!!


    3. That makes a lot of sense actually.

      When I'm in a severe dissociated state those memories just sort of float off by themselves and they end up having no relevance at any point ever again. I think =(

      I envy those 'normal' people sometimes. I want a chronologically cohesive internal timeline!

  6. Yes that is what you do, make us feel less alone. ::hugs::
    It's such a relief for me that you feel the same way too.
    Even though you don't really know me, you still do understand me.
    You make me feel welcome here and I really appreciate you taking the time to write me.

    I know this might sound a bit strange but I'm really curious about how it would be like to meet you in person. You inspire me to become the best version of myself.

    1. We may be strangers in body, but we share similar emotional experiences and I think it's so important to know that there are others out there that can relate to what we go through.

      In real life I would probably seem a lot more pulled together. I put a lot of effort into hiding the things that I discuss so openly here. Sometimes though it's a lot of fun to let a little of the crazy loose ;) Becoming the best version of ourselves is the best goal to have! That's such a wonderful compliment you've given me. Thank you.

  7. Tell me about it!! How much more straight forward would life be!!

  8. I sent an email to your gmail account. Is this still your email?


    1. Yes, it is. I'll check it out as soon as I get home.

    2. Thanks. Looking forward to hearing from you. Hope all is well.

  9. This is absolutely wonderful. I have spent a long time struggling to assess my actions and emotions in a constructive way so as to minimise the damage, and often seek solace in labelling my "unhealthy" behaviour as one symptom or another. Those of us diagnosed as BPD-ers are very aware of the burden our instability places on those closest to us, and are grateful when we come across something like this post, which gives us the tools to better address our problems.
    I envy those who can confess to flaws or embarrassing personal details without being haunted by the choking, controlling shadow of shame. Too often I hide behind phrases like "back when I was a child" or "this wasn't me, but someone I knew" to distance myself from my own traits. My opinions - opinions I know are valuable and insightful - are now rarely voiced for fear I may contradict them later. For months at a time I lock myself away in a room in the basement to avoid those I fear judge me for my lack of consistency.
    Your words have done what few medical journals I've scoured have managed to do. While I was able to tell my partner about my abandonment issues and everything they bring about, I had no way of describing the absolute disgust with myself whenever I "spiked". Cognitive dissonance had always been something pertaining to religious disillusionment for me, never applicable in my life. Thank you for taking the time to remind us that internal conflict can be normal, and that there doesn't always have to be a logical progression between love and hate. I have bookmarked this page, and I'm certain this won't be the last time I read it.
    Please keep up what you do. Your efforts have probably saved my life.
    Thank you.


Leave me a comment! It makes me feel good and less paranoid about talking to myself =)

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