Cognitive dissonance

In music, consonance is when a chord or progression is pleasant to hear. It is harmonious; it sounds nice. On the other hand, dissonance is associated with unpleasantness and instability. Dissonance is perhaps when a pianist makes a mistake and accidentally hits the wrong notes. The sound is harsh and jarring.

Similarly, the term “cognitive dissonance” refers to the uncomfortable feeling we get when our beliefs do not align – when they are not in harmony with each other. Individuals that tend to think in extremes (black and white thinking, idealization/devaluation, etc.) may do so in order to reconcile their cognitive dissonance. In BPD this may occur in the individuals unstable sense of self or relationships.

For example, an individual who has the habitual belief that they are worthless or unimportant may experience cognitive dissonance when receiving compliments or while experiencing success. Their beliefs about themselves are being challenged and this makes them uncomfortable. One way the individual may try to dissolve this discomfort and sticking to their beliefs is to tell themself that these compliments were untrue or insincere. “They didn’t mean it, they were just being polite”. Another way that the individual may try to rationalize their beliefs is by downplaying their success. “I got lucky. It wasn’t that hard in the first place. Given my situation, I probably should have done even better than I did”.

These thoughts may temporarily dispel that cognitive dissonance, but the individual will experience the same discomfort again and again. The BPD individual who sees themself as “all-bad” will struggle to change their thought patterns that have been so deeply ingrained into them.

Another example is when an individual is in a relationship (platonic or otherwise). Individuals with BPD are likely to experience idealization/devaluation in their relationships, meaning they may switch suddenly from seeing their friend or partner as “all-good” or “all-bad”. Perhaps a friend cancelled plans or did not respond in a way that was expected. The BPD individual may turn to devaluation and perceive their friend as being a terrible person. They may believe their friend hates them or is trying to avoid them. However, there may be underlying discomfort because there are many other times where the friend has shown loyalty, trustworthiness, and love. In order to remove this incompatibility, the BPD individual may experience “tunnel vision” and block out any past positive experiences with the friend.

If experiencing cognitive dissonance as above, here are guidelines that have worked for me personally.

  1. Observe the discomfort. Write down the thoughts you are having. Acknowledge the judgements and assumptions.
  2. Look at the facts. Next, write down any factual evidence that supports or disproves your thoughts. Remember: facts are facts. Facts are not “probably’s” or “maybe’s”. Facts are not judgements or assumptions.
  3. Compare the thoughts and the facts. Do they align? If they do not, reconsider other possibilities.
  4. Express gratitude or acknowledge achievements and successes.

Further reading: How Cognitive Dissonance Relates to Relationships