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.
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