[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]
Whatever energy, positive or negative, that we send out into the world, in one way or another, it comes back to us. For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction: even physics, in its own way, acknowledges the reality of karma.
The funny thing about narcissists, though, is their adamant refusal to acknowledge the consequences of their own actions. They can mistreat you, over and over again, and when you react in any way that displeases them, instead of being introspective and contemplating how it is possible that they either caused your displeasing reaction, or at least contributed to it in some way, they will assume your reaction is just further proof that you ‘deserve’ all the mistreatment you get.
This is what that collective of narcissists called my family-of-origin did to me. My siblings bullied me as a child, and my mother subjected me to the most cruel gaslighting. My father did far less of either evil to me, but he also did far too little to protect me from either evil. If you’re interested, Dear Reader, in the whole story, detailed with examples, you can read all about it in these posts.
To get to my basic point, though, my late (probably narc) mother lied to me, starting when I was about nine or ten years old, as I can remember, that I supposedly have an autism spectrum disorder.
That I have no such thing was established, beyond a reasonable doubt, by three things: 1) two psychotherapists I’d been seeing during the mid-1990s told me they saw no signs of autism in me; 2) I did the Autism Spectrum Quotient Test, and got a score of only 13/50, far below the minimum of 26-32/50, which would at least raise questions of having a form of autism; and 3) Mom described ‘my autism’ in such absurdly extreme terms (I seemed “retarded” to the mythical shrinks observing me as a little kid; would I “even make a good garbageman?” and, they apparently recommended locking me away “in an asylum and throwing away the key!”) that her improbable account of my early childhood is totally unreliable.
This notion, that I was “born” with my irritating problems (for that’s how ‘autism’ has been understood in my family–a vice to be groaned about and sneered at, not a condition to be pitied in someone) served two purposes for the family: they could avoid taking any responsibility for the effects their bullying and gaslighting were having on me; and they could project their personal issues onto me, then go about their lives kidding themselves that they have few personality problems of their own.
The kind of projection I’m talking about is a special one worthy of examination: it’s called projective identification, first discussed by Melanie Klein, then developed by Wilfred Bion. Projective identification goes a step further than normal projection in that one tricks the receiver of the projections into actually manifesting the projected traits, thus creating the illusion that those traits were never projected, but rather are innate in their receiver.
Bion further elaborated on this process through his conception of container and contained, each respectively represented by the feminine and masculine symbols. The container, symbolized by a yoni, receives the projections, which are the phallic contained.
When treating psychotic patients, Bion found them projecting their hostility and aggression onto him, which he then manifested himself. He found that if he could use his skill as a therapist and receive the aggression patiently, then neutralize it, the energy could be returned to the analysand in a softer form, thus calming the analysand. [See also Mitchell and Black, pages 103-105.]
A mother, in a state of what Bion called reverie, could do the same thing with her baby’s projection of its frustrations; that is, she could be a patient, long-suffering container–like Bion for his analysands–of the baby’s projected anger, anxiety, and frustration, the contained. When the baby’s hostile energy is neutralized in the container of the kind, loving mother, it can be returned to the baby in a benevolent form, giving the baby peace and a capacity for mental growth.
A capable mother, like a skilled therapist, can be such a container. Many mothers, however, don’t have this ability. They fail to contain their babies’ projected anxieties and fears, thus unwittingly worsening them instead of easing them.
I have no way of knowing for sure, of course, but I suspect my maternal grandmother–dealing with the stresses of World War II in England, the death of my maternal grandfather, and her move to Canada soon after with my then-7-or-8-year-old mother–was never able to be my mom’s container. With neither her idealized father nor a mirroring mother to give stability and structure to her bipolar self (<<not bipolar disorder!), my mom–I believe–developed a pathological, even malignant, level of narcissism as a defence against fragmentation, which is a disintegration of the personality.
And without a mother to be a container of her projected anxieties and hostilities, my mother needed to search elsewhere for that container. At first, I believe that my father, older brothers R. and F., and my older sister J., were those containers…then I was born.
I believe she used the autism lie, always describing the condition in the language of narcissism (an antiquated definition of the word autism—auto [“self”] + ism–denoted excessive self-absorption or self-admiration back in the first half of the 20th century, when Mom was a child, and–I suspect–she was often called ‘self-absorbed’ and ‘autistic’ [by this old definition] by her mother), to project her feelings of shame–on contemplating her own egotism–onto me. Thus, we can see how her insistence on my being ‘autistic’ served her own emotional needs rather than mine.
One should never use an impressionable child as a container for one’s own projections, especially if they’re harsh and shameful. As I noted above, only a skilled therapist or a loving, empathic mother can be such a container for, respectively, a deeply disturbed analysand or for a frightened, frustrated baby. Nonetheless, I’m convinced my late mother did exactly this psychic violence to me when I was a kid.
Not knowing what I was doing, I received the contained from her, accepted it as a part of me, and returned her now neutralized energy back to her, allowing her to function normally and enabling her use of a False Self of altruism and benevolence.
R., F., and J. quickly learned how to use me as their container, too; and I received all their viciousness, me being powerless to repel it (recall, I was a child at the time), and like Mom, they became able to function normally. The three of them now go about with False Selves, secure in their delusion that I’m containing all their pathologies.
To put the above crudely, I took all their shit, and in spite of that fact, they’re all full of shit.
You see, here’s the thing: a narcissist never fully rids himself of what’s internally wrong with him, no matter how much projecting he does onto his victims. When I left Canada for Taiwan over twenty years ago, they lost their container, and now needed a new one they could project onto on a daily basis. My cousins, L. and especially G., became Mom’s new targets, and R., F., and J. eagerly went along with Mom’s machinations.
Still, she didn’t have all that much regular contact with her nephews; on top of that, she knew I was going to marry my then-girlfriend in the early 2000s, meaning I’d presumably stay here in East Asia for the rest of my life. So Mom fabricated a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (AS) for me, so I’d still be her container, along with L. and G. I also suspect she was hoping that by labelling me with AS, I’d feel emotionally dependent on her, then return home to Canada one day, so she’d have me around her every day again.
It was how strident she was being with this fake AS labelling, something she–lacking the psychiatric expertise to be authoritative about–insisted was a preordained, proven fact, that made me, for the first time, question her motives. This, combined with how consistently uncaring her attitude was about how much she was hurting me, is what turned me against her.
So, during the 2010s, I grew distant from her and her flying monkeys, R., F., and J. All I was doing at the time was being an agent of karma; they’d created this intolerably toxic environment for me, so I simply sought an escape from it. Because they fail to recognize the karmic effects of their own actions, they misattribute my coldness to them as yet another personal fault of mine, rather than a fault of theirs, however indirectly their fault was projected onto me.
I’ve explained the exact circumstances that led to my unwillingness to talk on the phone to my Mom when she was on her death bed in this post (Part 6: Is My Mother Dead?). The family considers my reaction to her dying as monstrously unfilial, when they know nothing she did that led up to my reaction (Part 5: More Elaborate Lies). Given all she’d done to me over the decades, the enormity of it all, it isn’t difficult to see how my punishment of her was quite mild: I just didn’t want to talk to her.
When I was bullied by R., F., and J. as a child, I was never allowed to fight back in any way (much of this being Mom’s stopping me and justifying them). Despite J.’s occasional paid lip service to the idea that I should assert myself and tell them off whenever they upset me, none of them ever heard me out, especially hypocritical J. You can’t assert yourself to people, or tell them off, if they won’t listen to a word you say.
This non-listening mentality of theirs was nurtured by Mom, who told them, in some form or another, that I was just one of those stupid “autistic” people, who know nothing outside themselves (or however she’d worded it, in any case, that was the message she gave R., F., and J.). It’s never occurred to any of them that they’ve known little outside their own inner social circle, the one Mom circumscribed for them, their folie à quatre.
As for my own karmic burdens, I’ll let my wife, Judy, define my faults, not R., F., or J. The difference? Judy has actually been good to me throughout our relationship of over two decades now; not a perfect relationship, of course, but one a mountain’s height above even the very best my family ever was to me, and I thank my lucky stars for Judy. I’ve been far less than an ideal husband to her, though, so she has the right to complain about me.
I won’t go into the details of how I’ve been a flawed husband (to put it mildly), since obviously that is a private matter. But this confession, however brief, should suffice to show that I’m not kidding myself about being a blameless man. Judy, such a wonderful wife, and deserving of so much better a husband than me, has the right to judge me, not R., F., or J.
Bullying older siblings and toxic parents have no moral authority over their victims (and that goes double for amateurish self-proclaimed ‘psychiatrists’ like my late mother), however morally flawed those victims may be. I’ve gone over the usually minor things I did as a kid to frustrate them in older posts–links in the third paragraph above (slamming doors, eating all the cereal, maladaptive daydreaming, taking too long to wash the dishes, etc.); all of these can easily be explained as karmic reactions–and very mild ones, at that!–to all the hurt they caused me (verbal abuse [all of the family], insults [all of them], name-calling [all of them], gaslighting [Mom], physical threats [F.], shoving [F.], actual hitting me [F.], certain inappropriate games [J.]…remember, I was a kid when much, if not most, of this was happening).
That they would be so upset that I merely stopped communicating with them, given all I’ve explained above, is an indication of their narcissistic injury. That R. would be so upset about my reciting, obviously with the family in mind, of “This Be the Verse” on YouTube (a video I never sent him, one he never had to watch) shows that the family can dish it out but can’t take it. That he found my bitter recitation “disturbing” merely means he was disturbed by the truth of what I’d said.
[Recall, from a previous post, how Mom had bragged several times, decades after the incident, that–when R. was a little kid–she’d pulled his pants down and spanked him in a public place for behaving badly, humiliating him. How was he behaving badly, I wonder? Was he shouting and being bratty? Possibly. But recall her propensity for lying. In her version of what happened, she’d naturally want to present herself in the best possible light and him in the worst, justifying her actions instead of admitting her reaction was excessive. Maybe he’d just done something to cause her to feel narcissistic rage–I don’t know what really happened, of course, but her blowing up at him over a trivial slight is a real possibility. That’s what I mean by my disturbing truth.]
To get back to the present time, I’m guessing that J. is going through a deep depression at the loss of not only our mother almost three years ago, but also of her husband (about a decade and a half ago), and of her younger brother…this last one due to her (as well as R.’s and F.’s) unwillingness to consider my side of the story.
Her sadness over losing me isn’t so much about losing a ‘loved’ family member: if she really loved me so much, why did she so often want to change huge chunks of who I am in order to be the ideal little brother she wanted me to be? (Love is about accepting people as they are, J., not demanding that they be custom-made for you.) She’s mainly upset that her fantasy family is no more. Every time she looks at a family photo with me in it, she is reminded of how she and the others failed to keep us all together.
(Insofar as I mean anything at all to her, I’ll bet she’s mad as hell at R. for the snarky comment he made on my YouTube video, which of course just deepened my estrangement from the family. It would amuse me–in a Schadenfreude kind of way–to imagine those two fighting over the issue.)
In my siblings’ inability to be introspective, they assume the problem is all about me being a jerk. They’ll never consider the possibility that the sadness they feel over their falling out with me is just karma finally coming back to haunt them.
And now, Dear Reader, enough of my complaining: let’s talk about you. If you are in as impossible a situation as I was with regards to your toxic family or ex-partner, don’t feel guilty about taking care of yourself. Get help if you’re being mistreated; if that doesn’t help, get out! Any suffering they’re going through from your absence, assuming they are as awful as you feel they are (i.e., don’t jump to any rash conclusions about your family if you’re a teenager!), is just their bad karma biting them in the ass.
Writing about your pain is a good idea, too. It’s great therapy, especially if you can’t afford a therapist (let alone find one who speaks your language, as is the situation with me here in East Asia!). The toxic people in your life never respected your side of the story, so in your writing, feel free to focus as much on your side of the story as you like. That’s what I’ve done above, while acknowledging their side of the story, and my own real faults, as appropriate. Your ‘bias’ is just the karmic reaction to their bias.
It is no crime to refuse to be the container of toxic people’s projections. In many ways, removing yourself from their lives is the best thing for them; for it will force them to look at themselves in the mirror and wrestle with their own demons, instead of force-feeding them to you.
4 thoughts on “Karma and Narcissistic Abuse”
Very interesting post. My narc mother was not a container for me. The bullying, gaslighting, and humiliation are all too familiar. There was always “something seriously wrong” with me mentally. Things have never been better since I cut off contact in 2016. Luckily my brother understands and is not sucked in by her narc behaviour. Thanks for your honesty sharing such an important topic.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, too! By imagining there was “something seriously wrong” with you mentally, your narc mom seems to have made you a container for her projections, as my mom made me. I’m sorry you had to go through that.