cognitive biases narcissism

7 Biases That Hinder Your Recovery from Narcissistic Abuse

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It’s no secret that being in a relationship with a character disturbed individual affects one’s ability to think clearly and rationally.

When you’re dealing with gaslighting, blame-shifting, and narcissistic brainwashing, it’s fairly common to lose the capacity for logical thought mere weeks after involvement with someone who’s bent on bamboozling you.

But when you add cognitive biases to the mix, it’s no surprise that analyzing and leaving an emotionally abusive relationship can prove difficult. Although cognitive biases help us in some ways, they have many drawbacks.  They lead to poor choices, bad judgments, and flawed insights.

Cognitive Biases Explained

A cognitive bias is defined as a pattern of thinking that deviates from rationality in judgment. Inferences about other people and situations are woven in an illogical fashion, and individuals often create their own “subjective reality” from their respective perceptions.[1]

Put simply: A gap in between how we should think and how we do think.  In other words, making irrational judgments by assessing a person or event in an erroneous way.

Below are seven cognitive biases that targets of narcissistic abuse frequently engage in – often without even knowing it – and how to manage these biases in order to make educated decisions about your relationship and your future.

1 – Ambiguity Effect

When faced with choosing between two options, sometimes people have a good understanding of the probability of something happening while other times the situation is ambiguous…that is, the probability of the event is unknown. In such situations, people are more likely to choose the former situation, preferring a known probability over an unknown probability.

Example:  I know my partner has cheated several times, but I might not be able to find anyone who is faithful since commitment is so hard to find.  I may as well stay with my current partner because at least I know their patterns and feel I can handle any setbacks that arise.

How to manage the Ambiguity Effect:  While finding a partner who is entirely faithful isn’t guaranteed, the probability of finding someone who would be loyal in a relationship is much higher than people sometimes give credit to.  Further, creating a list of relationship deal breakers would improve one’s chances of finding a rewarding relationship in the future. 

2 – Informational Cascade

The more people that believe in something the more powerful it becomes and the more likely other people will come to believe it.

Example:  There is a new faux theory floating around that Empaths are narcissists.

How to manage Informational Cascade: In this example, it’s important to consider the DSM-5 criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, which includes these features [2]:

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating one’s achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • A person believing they are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with one’s expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others

While there are no entries in the DSM-5 for being empathic, it is widely understood that Empaths are the exact opposite of narcissists.  According to Dr. Judith Orloff:

Empaths are highly sensitive, finely tuned instruments when it comes to emotions. They feel everything, sometimes to an extreme, and are less apt to intellectualize feelings. Intuition is the filter through which they experience the world. Empaths are naturally giving, spiritually attuned, and good listeners. If you want heart, empaths have got it. Through thick and thin, they’re there for you, world-class nurturers[3]

It’s important to note that the chief similarity between empaths and narcissists is childhood wounding.  However, there exists the possibility that narcissists were either born that way or had parents who overpraised them.  Either way, their lack of empathy puts them in a different category than Empaths.

3 – Confirmation Bias

The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.

Examples:  1) Believing the narcissist is a hurt individual who needs your undying love, compassion, and understanding.  Consequently, you may search for information that confirms this belief, 2) Believing your situation is somehow unique and different from everyone else’s…that the manipulator in your life is truly capable of change.  Accordingly, you may follow sites or writers whose stance is that narcissists have the potential to change, although the manipulator in your life has given you no reason to believe this.

How to manage Confirmation Bias:  Unexpected or worrisome information is viewed as a threat, which leads people to restrict information processing. Confirmation bias causes people to prioritize information that supports what they already think.  One way to overcome confirmation bias when considering leaving an abusive relationship is to pay attention to a person’s actions instead of their words.  Keep journals and diaries if you need to.

4 – Reactance

The urge to do the opposite of what someone suggests out of a need to resist a perceived attempt to constrain your freedom of choice.  Reactance can cause a person to adopt or strengthen a view or attitude that is contrary to what was intended and increases resistance to persuasion.

Example:  Insisting on attending a social event when you know for certain your toxic ex will be there – ignoring the advice from experts who tell you it’s not a good idea – because you feel it violates your freedom of choice.

How to manage Reactance:  In this case, there’s a reason experts are recommending that you not attend a social event when a toxic ex will be there.  Typically, this advice originates from the expert’s personal experience and/or working with clients.  Hence, it’s important to realize that no one is trying to take away your personal liberties, but instead, has well-meaning reasons for recommending that you not go.  When it comes to overcoming Reactance, try to control your ego’s impulse to do the opposite of what is being proposed and, instead, explore reasons why the advice is beneficial. 

5 – The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Refusing to abandon something unrewarding because you’ve already invested in it.

Example: “I might as well stay in this bad relationship because I’ve already invested so much in it.”

How to manage Sunk Cost bias:  If you’ve invested years of your time, thousands of your hard-earned dollars, and made numerous sacrifices in the name of your relationship, you might as well hang in there, right?

Not if you’re the target of emotional abuse and manipulation. If you don’t feel you are getting anything out of it except disrespect and heartache, it’s time to leave. Write off the money and the time you spent, and save yourself from more exploitation. Remember to separate your emotional investment from the decision you’re making, and know when to cut your losses.

6 – Optimism Bias (Also wishful thinking, positive outcome bias)

A cognitive bias that causes a person to believe that they are at a lesser risk of experiencing a negative event compared to others.[4]

Examples: 1) Believing your toxic partner is somehow different from other toxic individuals, although they meet most or all of the criteria of narcissism or another form of pathology, 2) Believing you are immune from the effects of narcissistic abuse, even though you may already be experiencing some or all of the symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome, 3) Continuing to believe your partner will finally do the right thing when they consistently do all the wrong things.

How to manage Optimism Bias:  Optimism is not always a bad thing.  People have achieved many great things by maintaining high levels of optimism.  However, if you’re the target of psychological abuse and manipulation, maintaining high levels of optimism can prove dangerous, even fatal.  There’s a critical difference between trying to maintain healthy levels of optimism and ignoring red flags.

7 – Fading Affect Bias

A bias in which the emotion associated with unpleasant memories fades more quickly than the emotion associated with positive events.

Example:  Forgetting how horrible an emotional abuser has been to you, and instead focusing on the perceived good times as a reason to stay in a toxic relationship.

How to manage Fading Affect Bias:  In the context of being the target of narcissistic abuse, remembering the so-called good times while placing less focus on or “forgetting” abusive episodes is common.  Abuse victims often make the statement, “I can barely remember all the bad things they’ve done to me because the good times are so uncommonly good”.   If this sounds like your situation, keeping a journal would be an effective way of managing Fading Affect Bias.

While Fading Affect Bias is a genuine cognitive distortion, forgetting abuse could be the result of repressed memories, which are memories that have been unconsciously blocked due to high levels of stress or trauma.  If you’re enduring things that would cause you to be concerned for a friend or loved one if they were suffering the same things, you might be experiencing repressed memories of trauma.

Overcoming cognitive biases is a hard road: biases are part of who we are. But as much as possible, we can systematically take note of our own normal reactions to things or the decisions we make and analyze them (or enlist others to help us analyze them) for bias.

These are just some of the ideas for managing bias in order to leave an abusive relationship. Bias affects all of us, but with the right methods in place, we can learn to counteract its effects. 

If you want to feel free, here are some helpful tips and resources:  

1 – The Beginner’s Healing Toolkit is a free resource that includes everything you need to get started on healing your life after narcissistic abuse.  This is useful whether the narcissist in your life is a partner, friend, or family member.

2 – The Essential Break Free Bootcamp – Explore techniques derived from behavioral therapy (vetted by the psychological and neuro-psychological communities) to finally heal your life.

3 – The THRIVE program – Rediscover your lost self after narcissistic abuse (and prepare yourself for true love).


The Bottom Line

Everyone has the innate capacity to heal themselves. But, it’s likely you will need external support to heal the traumas that get in the way of your ability to tune into this gift.⠀It’s also important to avoid falling prey to the idea that there is a way to be ‘friends’ with the narcissist that isn’t tormenting beyond belief.  

If you are trying to leave a toxic relationship, my testament to you is that as horrible and crippling as it feels in the beginning to go No Contact, there is an end to it.  The body and mind have enormous wisdom.  They know how to heal themselves if you create the conditions in which they can do so. 

Give them that opportunity by working on yourself – healing your wounds and altering those of your traits that left you vulnerable to narcissistic abuse.

Resources

[1] Cognitive bias. (2017, July 15). Retrieved July 20, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias
[2] Narcissistic personality disorder: Overcoming your extreme esteem. (2014, November 18). Retrieved July 21, 2019, from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/basics/symptoms/con-20025568
[3] Dr Judith Orloffs Blog. (n.d.). Retrieved July 23, 2019, from http://www.drjudithorloff.com/_blog/Dr_Judith_Orloffs_Blog/post/How_to_Know_if_Youre_an_Empath
[4] Optimism bias. (2017, July 22). Retrieved July 23, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optimism_bias

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11 comments
Lisa Bouchard says September 6, 2021

I’m extremely thankful and appreciative for your help. I’ve read and watched most of your helpful YouTubes and articles regarding understanding and healing from narcissistic abuse. So kind of you to provided such healing and helpful information. You have helped so many of us via education on what we experienced and how to heal from this soul crushing experience. You have literally helped me survive and understand that I can recover and lead a wonderful life after this devastating experience of narcissistic abuse. I also loved your information on Empaths as empathy is my dominant personality trait and I identify with being an empath. Thank you for all you do to help others! You truly are an Angel on earth.

Reply
    Kim Saeed says September 8, 2021

    Thank you, Lisa! I am beyond moved to know that my material has helped you. Thank you so much for sharing and for stopping by!

    Kim ♥(ˆ⌣ˆԅ)

    Reply
Geraldine says January 14, 2021

Another bias I had was feeling that people were trying to stop me having a relationship with this person because they had their own agenda which was quite perverse. It came from interference in past relationships with “normal” people where outside influences (probably by disordered people) caused me alot of pain which had left me very defensive of interference. Again, goes back to being able to decipher good advice from bad.

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Ingrid Fisher, Certified Life Coach ( iPEC) says January 11, 2021

I had the same fear. Smearing people with a disorder. How nasty and not compassionate is that? In 12 step groups we were not allowed to ‘the someone’s inventory”. That was judging our loved ones when we were there t work only on ourselves. However there is also the slogan ‘ Take what you can use and leave the rest”. So, while agree that endless complaints about another does not heal you., I also say that when yo car is malfunctioning , or you are buying a new one–you had better take a darn good lo under the hood. It is not vilifying a NPD, when you become more aware about the mind set of NPD’s It is not judgment , but discernment.Would you not wish to be warned when you seek to adopt a dog from a pound that Bello has history of biting but Vicky is cuddly? I was in the compassion trap for most of my life. Good daughter, mother , wife, step mom. school and foundation volunteer, hostess etc. Giving was good, wanting that for yourself to was “selfish:” But that is partially my genetics, but also to LARGE degree my programming from the surrounding culture. Does that make sense to you ?

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Ingrid Fisher, Certified Life Coach ( iPEC) says January 11, 2021

Dear Kim
I have been a long time Alanon member and I have spent money on being member of Melanie Evans “survivor to thriver “ program and community. My opinion? She is right on with information but her healing methods and community do not work for me. Lisa Romano is really good, her You tubes are good, but their program way too expensive. nd both ladies make it clear they ow own expensive houses, cars, success etc., while many of us need to wal ka much slower path, are older and have physical limitations ( I have excruciatingly painful Lyme’s disease) and all this focus on you cab MANIFEST whatever you want in life, takes way from the painful path many of us need tp walk after 60 or so years of abuse , abandonment and deep losses from childhood on until maybe 2 years ago. I was not going to send another dollar on another healing program, but have been reading your articles.They are exceptionally well researched, clearly represented, .insightful, and I am really considering buying one or two. What I also like about you, is that you focus on us who are still working through pain and regret , and do not display your own success and thriving and how rich and successful you have become. Not that it is wrong to tell others they ca do it too, or to gain it all after losing it all, but truly some of us do not need all that right now. Your face is very kind and sweet and I feel connection with that ( I am a nurturer also),I am a warm mo and grand-mom, and fortunately have a kind daughter ( a therapist) and kind son-in and adorable grand kids ( 11 ad 13). I lost my mom at age 14, my grand-mom next ad was ke with a highly abusive father and siblings. I have been married to 2 narcissist, who were socially admired successful in their careers, so I had to be “lucky”… I am in fact intelligent and my sponsees love me. Does not mean I do not need to heal the physical pain of Lye disease, the grief o what my life might have been if I had had some replacement for my mom, and had therapist later in life who were the worst ( sorry, but my daughter agrees).
So, thank you for who you are! With love, Ingrid

Reply
    Catherine says January 12, 2021

    Dear Ingrid,
    I wanted to reach out to you, I was ‘discarded’ 3 days after I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease, my husband took off for 6 weeks only to return ~ I too am a member of Al-Anon ~ I always thought his erratic behavior was that of a ‘dry drunk’ ~ I have been reading Kim’s posts for over a year, after awakening to the fact I have been married to a narcissist for 15 years ~ I went to a naturopath Dr. who rid me of the Lyme bacteria after 4 crippling years of pain & mental fog ~
    I would like to send you his contact info ~ he has a 3 to 5 mo waiting list ~ if you are able to travel within the United States ~

    Kim, blessings to you for all that you do ~ love, light & peace to you all! 💖✨🕊️
    Warm Regards

    Reply
Brian says September 13, 2019

These posts and especially ( for me) this latest one on cognitive biases is just excellent — ties into my recently ended toxic relationship ( and relationship with myself) and my career interests around stress, mindfulness, meditation and faulty thinking-
If your course contains more material like this – I will need to seriously consider if I can make time to enroll.
Thank you for your posts and other content.
One of my concerns is that in the course we villify the narcissist.
Respectfully Brian

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Teri Klima says May 31, 2018

I want to thank you again and again for the reality check you regularly provide for me. My husband’s punishment-of-choice is the Silent Treatment, sleeping in separate beds, and lying – sometimes about the most minor things. But he also has spells of being nice-ish. Through your faithful emails I am reminded that my “normal” life (without arguments) is still a far cry from healthy and bears no lasting resemblance to love. Kim, that you have dedicated your life to supporting and educating women caught in sub-standard marriage is a precious and life-changing thing. 1000 thank yous

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Shirley Akpelu says May 31, 2018

Love this informative article.

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Are You Too Kind? | Health blog says November 13, 2017

[…] which is sincere efforts to help others that instead harms others or oneself. It is often caused by cognitive and/or emotional biases that blind people to the potentially harmful consequences of their decisions and […]

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ThePinch says July 24, 2017

This courageous article obliges me to look deep within myself at what drives my obsession with an abusive human being.

Obviously it’s way beyond cataloging the misadventures of the narcissist/disordered jerk adventures. Taking stock and responsibility for our own behaviour is what I call a “big girl” step. I can see myself in several of the examples.

It would be very easy to construe this article as victim-blaming, but Kim deftly managed to touch on owning it without disgrace.

To recovery! Bravo, Kim.

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