The freedom to feel your feelings and think your own thoughts : some reflections on overcoming cognitive dissonance

One of the most interesting aha moments I had years ago was when I realised that a lot of what I thought was feeling was actually thinking disguised as and mimicking feeling. I remember catching myself trying to figure out how I should feel in a situation and then thinking myself into feeling it, but it wasn’t real feeling, it wasn’t how I truly felt in that situation and the difference between how I truly felt and what my mind had decided I should feel was so stark in contrast that it made me stop, observe the process and take stock of how often I may have been doing this with ‘feelings’.

Comment by blogger An Upturned Soul

How safe or secure do you feel feeling what you feel?   Can you trust the feeling, know it is part of you and that you have a reason for having it?  One of the most confusing sayings I heard in 12 step groups is the saying “feelings aren’t facts”.  On one level I get this we may be feeling scared in a situation in which there isn’t any thing to fear, but does that take into account that in the past we went through something really terrible in a similar situation so the past feeling was real, it might just not apply to this new situation?  There is also the tendency we can have to project feelings on others and think they are real when they may not be what the other person is feeling.

We may often be told by others “aren’t you over that by now?”,  or “haven’t you moved on?” or “what’s wrong with you?” That last one sparked the end of a very close AA friendship many years ago.  It didn’t address the emotions that were being triggered or the complexity of the situation and many years later the sayer of it has owned their own narcissism.    Is it other people’s right to say how we feel or should feel?  Is it really helpful for us to question our own feelings too much?  Are others right if we still don’t find ourselves in a space where we have fully digested the experience of loss or betrayal or something else? No, we have not been shown empathy.

Self doubt is not something we are born with.  Self doubt is something that gets sewn deep into the fabric of us in an invalidating environment.  The term cognitive dissonance is one that describes what survivors of emotional, mental and sexual abuse go through in and outside of the relationship.  It is a painful state of being that causes torment and agony in victims.  Here is an explanation from the brilliant and informative site of Kim Saeed who herself survived such a relationship.

Abusive relationships often reshape your entire belief system. If you are like most victims of narcissistic abuse, you experienced a distorted sense of reality throughout the majority of the relationship with your partner. When your partner’s alternating sweetness and rage suddenly defied everything you believed about him or her, you experienced an internal conflict known as cognitive dissonance. This created great self-doubt about your ability to predict a partner’s abusive potential in the future. As human nature asserts, you began to seek ways to remove the cognitive dissonance, most likely by denial.

Prior to the abusive relationship, you always thought you were not the type to fall under somebody’s psychological manipulation, but you did. When your awareness of the relationship first changed from feeling loved to feeling mistreated, you may have told yourself that he or she was just in a bad mood. As your partner began to exhibit more frequent bouts of gaslighting behavior, where he or she would deliberately confuse you and accuse you of acts against them, you felt very conflicted about your partner’s feelings for you. Early attempts to leave your abuser may have resulted in blaming and threats against you for daring to leave the “best” partner you ever had. This created a lot of cognitive dissonance.

When you act in ways that contradict your beliefs, it is another form of cognitive dissonance. Subconsciously, you will remove the dissonance with the same thought patterns that caused your dissonance to begin with.

Evasion of what you don’t want to acknowledge creates a sense of denial, and the dissonance it creates is known to destroy lives.

Twisting the truth eliminates the facts that you don’t want to accept, so it reduces the dissonant feeling.

Seeking validation from others can be good if they have your best interest at heart. If they are a negative influence in your life – such as your toxic partner – the removal of cognitive dissonance through these harmful methods will only reinforce your denial.

Refusing change of your current thoughts and beliefs allows you to adhere to them, removing the dissonance.

According to Kim the above are all negative ways of dealing with cognitive dissonance.  They play into the hands of our abuser who gaslights and tries to deny the fact they are acting in unloving ways.  It may be a way we seek to hide from a painful truth that would enable us to grow and separate.

The following are some positive ways to deal with cognitive dissonance taken from Kimis post:

Speak to a trusted friend. If you keep your troubles to yourself and continue contradicting your own thoughts and feelings, it only serves to perpetuate your confusion and self-doubt. Like it or not, you have learned through psychological manipulation how to abuse yourself in a similar way that your narcissistic partner inflicted upon you. The important aspect of this is to have at least one friend or relative whom you can count on for positive and unbiased support. Don’t seek support from friends and family who may be well-meaning, but only offer placebo advice such as, “Why don’t you just break up?” and “I don’t know why you stay with him or her, anyway!”

Keep a written journal. Express the confusion and conflict going on in your head and in your heart by just pouring those thoughts on paper. In doing this, you liberate the trauma and become more self-aware of your inner thoughts, allowing you to consciously shift your thinking. Go back to read your entries about once a week to observe the patterns of your thoughts. Observe whether they are becoming more positive, or if they are slipping back into denial.

Experiment with reading and writing poetry. Poetry can help you to remove your cognitive dissonance much like the journal, letting go of the trauma. It helps you connect to and express your deepest feelings and inner conflicts, fostering a sense of inner peace and tranquility.

Try to become more extroverted. Introverts are more apt to emphasize negative outcomes of trauma, whereas extroverts are more apt to seek positive outcomes. In addition, extroverts tend to seek input from others, broadening their perspective on life and situations, while introverts go out of their way to avoid the input. If you are introverted, it would be very beneficial to join some positive social groups in your community. Socializing with positive people who share your interests both personally and professionally can reduce cognitive dissonance.  (Remember to choose company that will emphasize new beginnings and positive outlooks).

Source :  https://letmereach.com/2015/08/07/cognitive-dissonance-removal-strategies-harmful-vs-healthy-ways/

I find the last recommendation very interesting.  If we can increase positive connections with those who are not emotionally abusive and with those who don’t foster our cognitive dissonance we are able to feel a lightening of mood which affects our entire being, in my experience.  Just yesterday I had coffee with a trusted friend who I could talk to about what was going on and who affirmed and believe me, it was such a nurturing experience.

When we choose recovery we need to limit contact with people who create cognitive dissonance within us.  Once we start to feel confused we slide back and lose the valuable ground we have had to work hard to gain if we have suffered emotional abuse and invalidation.  Knowing we have a right to feel what we feel and know what we know is very important.   As a close friend said to me recently, “our emotions come from our spirit”, so a spiritual awakening for me as spoken of in recovery is no mystical experience is it a case of being able to trust, act on and be guided by our real feelings and thoughts.

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