Childhood Abuse Contradictions
Childhood abuse causes contradicting information to enter our brains. That contradicting information, or cognitive dissonance, can wreak havoc on development, behavior, and attitude. Cognitive dissonance “refers to a situation involving contradicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors.”1 The parent who is abusive to their child and then tells that child that she is loved is an example of cognitive dissonance.
While researching and writing about attachment theory‘s connection to childhood abuse and trauma, I began to wonder about cognitive dissonance. What role does it play a role in growing up abused? An infant’s brain is hard-wired to connect with a caregiver for safety, but what happens when that caretaker is not safe? How does the brain handle that information?
One of the ways the brain handles that contradicting information by interpreting and recognizing danger differently. In part, I imagine it is to create harmony within the brain, make sense of the contradicting information, and create consistency. Since the conflict is danger vs. safety, and the caretaker is supposed to represent safety but doesn’t, the brain decides that nothing is safe. Better to be safe than sorry, I guess.
Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving contradicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.1
Cognitive consistency can be defined as the concept that individuals prefer their thoughts, beliefs, knowledge, opinions, attitudes, and intents to be congruent, which is to say that they don’t contradict each other. Further, these facets should be congruent with how individuals see themselves and their subsequent behaviors.2
When a person is struggling with cognitive dissonance, you most likely will never know. The conflict occurs within the person. Although you may notice that person is contradicting themselves when you speak with them on a particular topic. If you think that something someone just said sounds hypocritical, well, that could be cognitive dissonance at play.
Saying opposing things out loud is what adults would do as they work out how to regain balance, but a child doesn’t have the language to express those opposing thoughts. In those situations, I would imagine that a child would display violent or angry outbursts. At least, that is what I remember doing. I am sure that I acted out for many reasons; I was a kid; after all, tantrums are typical.
The origins of mine were different. My tantrums would build over time, at least the ones that I remember. The feeling of not understanding what to believe would build up over time until I could not hold it in any longer. It was like a volcano erupting. All of that pressure, it had to go somewhere eventually.
Signs you might be experiencing cognitive dissonance include:3
- General discomfort that has no obvious or clear source.
- Feeling conflicted over a disputed subject matter.
- People are saying you’re a hypocrite.
- Being aware of contradicting views and/or desired but not know what to do with them.
A Life of Contradicting Information
Think about what it is like to grow up with consistent contradicting information about yourself, about the world, and those around you. It sucks. I could not identify that I was struggling with that contradicting information. I didn’t know how to tell people that I was so confused. I believed that I was stupid, and that was my problem. I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out.
Thinking that I was stupid was one of the primary conflicts that I remember struggling with. I still struggle with that now. I have to tell myself that it isn’t true consciously. Some contradicting ideas stay with you longer than they should. Maybe it isn’t a contradicting idea anymore. It is something that I incorporated into who I am. When teachers would tell me that I was smart, I didn’t believe them.
It went beyond that I didn’t believe those teachers that told me that I was smart; I couldn’t believe them. If they were right, then why couldn’t I figure things out? Why was I so confused about so many things all of the time? Other kids seemed to get something, to understand life, to know what they wanted to do, and who they would become as adults. Me? I was trying to figure out how to survive.
Survival as Cognitive Dissonance
It seems an odd situation that survival itself would be a conflict that causes stress. But it was. And I would bet that it is for others too. The brain develops with that survival instinct as the oldest part of the brain, the amygdala. It ensures our safety at the most basic level. Then add layers and layers of abuse that causes developmental changes in the brain, in how a person views themselves, a conflict is born.
I know that my brain is me, and I am my brain, meaning that my brain’s neural pathways are lighting up like city lights coming on at the onset of nighttime when I think something. It was me that stopped me from ending the nightmare of my life, but it felt like someone else back then. I was fighting with myself all of the time. My thought was to end it, but that survival instinct would kick in, and I wouldn’t.
Time and time again, that conflict continued for many years. I may not have physically taken steps to do anything, but that thought of ending it all, was there, sitting in the back, waiting for a time to step forward. And my brain knows that (after all, they are sections of a whole thing), so the conflict was there, and my brain would try to find consistency.
Cognitive Dissonance – Not All Bad
Cognitive dissonance has a useful purpose. It helps us figure things out and determine what we believe; what we want to think. It allows our brains to have discussions with ourselves, and in larger groups, to come to a common ground, a compromise. Contradicting information forces us to think about whatever is causing the conflict and finding consistency or equilibrium.
I wonder if extreme cognitive dissonance situations, like when abuse or trauma occurs, play a role in brain resilience? Resilience results from the brain developing new neural pathways to divert around areas modified because of abuse or trauma. Cognitive dissonance causes you to think about an idea or belief for consistency. The other thought process that cognitive dissonance requires may be what pushes the brain to develop resilient pathways.
Overall, I don’t think cognitive dissonance is a bad thing. I think it can be confusing and hard to understand. I certainly was not a fan of having such contradicting things swirling around in my brain. Because I was too young and hadn’t yet developed higher thinking skills at younger ages, it caused behavioral issues. As an adult, I can reason with myself and others, and it is at that point, I believe we can use cognitive dissonance to discover something new about ourselves and the world.
- Saul McLeod. (February 5, 2018). Cognitive Dissonance. Simplypsychology.org. Retrieved 12-11-2020 https://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html
- No Author. Cognitive Consistency. Psychology.iresearchnet.com. Retrieved December 12, 2020, http://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/attitudes/cognitive-consistency/
- Jennifer Tzeses. Tell Me Everything I Need to Know About Cognitive Dissonance. Psycom.net. Retrieved December 13, 2020. https://www.psycom.net/cognitive-dissonance