Abusers’ Cloud of Willful Unknowing

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In my post, Absence Makes the Mind Go Fonder, I wrote of how the low emotional intelligence of abusers in the family will cause them to say and do foolish things that go totally against their interests as far as maintaining family unity is concerned, because they value controlling the abuse victim over healing old wounds and trying to rebuild a relationship with him or her.

The abusers’ narcissistic, inflated sense of self, a False Self, causes them to have no sense of introspection. One could call it ‘the Dunning-Kruger effect of abusers,’ where the more abusive they are, the more they’re committed to a delusional belief that they are not only not abusive, but are an especially kind and loving group of people.

I have to be blunt and call these people who they are: pardon my French, but they are assholes. In fact, they are worse than assholes, for they don’t even know they’re assholes. They refuse to contemplate the very possibility that they’re assholes. At least with those of us who are victims of emotional abuse, our cruel inner critic keeps us aware of our faults; the abusers, on the other hand, seem to go through their lives thinking they’ve done nothing wrong.

I discovered this reality about my late, probably narcissistic mother, my golden child older sister, and my two older bullies…er, brothers. This group of emotional abusers actually think they’re an exemplary family.

It doesn’t matter how nice the abusers are to each other, or to their own kids, or to other people they meet out there in the world. If they scapegoat even one family member (in my family’s case, me, as well as my three cousins), they are already abusive assholes from that fact alone, because even a half-decent family would never treat their own flesh and blood, for all of his or her admitted faults, in that way.

They don’t, however, seem to know the truth of their dysfunction. Some kind of mental mechanism, some cloud, must be what they use to protect themselves from ever knowing.

Wilfred Bion, in his book, Learning From Experience, wrote of something he called -K (‘negative knowledge’), which represents a stubborn refusal to gain knowledge. He says that the origin of -K is an infantile form of envy, as Melanie Klein described it–the wish to spoil the good breast of the mother by projecting bad things into it.

This infantile envy, as with Klein’s notions of the paranoid-schizoid (PS) and depressive (D) positions, only starts with the baby; these mental states continue throughout life. Just as there’s an oscillation back and forth between PS and D (Bion notates this oscillation more or less as PS <-> D), so can there be an oscillation back and forth between envy and gratitude throughout life.

So this envy, as exacerbated in such dysfunctional families as those run by narcissistic parents, can be the source of a stubborn refusal to learn (-K) from previous mistakes, the low emotional intelligence I mentioned up at the beginning of this article. Now, according to Bion, the acquisition of knowledge (K) starts in the commensal relationship between mother and baby, the soothing container/contained relationship. As the child grows, he or she learns how to do the containing, essentially, for him- or herself, the processing of irritating raw sense data from outside into tolerable experiences and thoughts. (See here for a thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

Sometimes, however, we need others’ validation, or containing, as we grow older. Then, the acquisition of K is a symbiotic relationship between the self and other people.

When one grows up in a family with narcissistic parents, with golden children for siblings (either relatively so in comparison to the scapegoat, as my elder brothers were compared to me, or in the absolute sense, as with my elder sister), and oneself is made into the scapegoat, or identified patient, no such symbiotic relationship of people helping each other grow in K will exist to any substantial extent. No empathy is felt between family members competing for the love of the narcissistic parents, so there’s little containment, or soothing, of each other’s agitations and anxieties.

Instead of soothing forms of communication, which Bion described as a passing back and forth of energy through projective identification, family members pass back and forth negative energy, or negative container/contained projections and introjections. Feelings of anxiety and agitation then metastasize into what Bion called a nameless dread, or what I would simply call trauma.

Instead of communicating, family members fight, which increases mutual alienation and an aversion to learn anything from each other, to grow in K. This mutual alienation has been caused by the machinations of the narcissistic parent, who envies the sensitivity of one of his or her children, and who thus spoils the goodness of that child by using gaslighting techniques and by teaching the siblings to despise him or her.

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The contempt that the golden children have for the scapegoat is rewarded with the ‘love’ that the narcissistic parent gives them for their loyalty. This ‘love’ and reassurance causes them to be smug and self-satisfied in their attitude; they never suspect that they’ve misunderstood the scapegoat, and they’re convinced of the ‘morality’ of their despicable treatment of the victim. This is the essence of -K as derived from envy.

As I would extrapolate from Bion’s explanation in Learning From Experience, the abusers, instead of cultivating a superego and having a proper sense of right and wrong, they develop a “super ego,” an inflated sense of their own worth, which makes them believe they’re too superior to learn anything with regards to their relationship with their victim…a relationship of -K and negative containment.

Bion says, “It is a super-ego that has hardly any of the characteristics of the super-ego as understood in psycho-analysis: it is a “super” ego. It is an envious assertion of moral superiority without any morals. In short it is the resultant of an envious stripping or denudation of all good…” (Bion, page 97)

The negative containment “shows itself as a superior object asserting its superiority by finding fault with everything. The most important characteristic is its hatred of any new development in the personality as if the new development were a rival to be destroyed. The emergence therefore of any tendency to search for the truth, to establish contact with reality and in short to be scientific in no matter how rudimentary a fashion is met by destructive attacks on the tendency and the reassertion of the ‘moral’ superiority…” Negative containment “asserts the moral superiority and superiority in potency of UN-learning.” (Bion, page 98)

Anything unpleasant about the abusers is projected outward and onto the victim instead of properly dealt with. This is negative containment, a passing on of negative energy, not in the hopes of having it soothed, but with the aim of making others suffer it, so the abuser doesn’t have to suffer.

The abusers imagine the negativity to be all on the shoulders of the victim, so the abusers can now kid themselves that they are normal, mentally healthy, and fully-functioning, respectable members of society.

Abusers thus don’t even know they’re assholes.

That cloud of willful unknowing protects them from contemplating the truth about themselves.

Ignorance is bliss.

One way this refusal to know things shows itself is in how the abusers refuse to acknowledge the consequences of their own actions. My mother’s lies about my supposedly having an autism spectrum disorder, described in the language of narcissism (an obvious projection of her own pathologies), resulted in the family taking the attitude it had towards me that I, with all of my own faults and peculiar childhood behaviour, was ‘born this way,’ rather than manipulated and bullied into behaving as I did.

Telling me, about nine or ten at the time, that the psychiatrist who’d examined me (or so Mom’s legend went) said I was, apart from being autistic, so extremely retarded that I should have been locked away in an asylum and they should have “thrown away the key,” my mother didn’t want to take any responsibility for the psychological damage she’d done to me. My ‘having grown out of’ this extremely inauspicious mental state was, according to her, “a miracle from God.” (She wasn’t ever religious.)

Instead of confronting how her tactless choice of words had affected the psyche of an impressionable child, she decades later modified her lie with a new and equally phoney, amateur diagnosis (in the early 2000s, when I was in my early thirties) that I have Asperger Syndrome, since it was obvious that I’ve always been far from mentally incompetent. This refusal of hers to learn from past mistakes not only proves my point about her and -K, but it was one of the things that caused my permanent estrangement from the family.

One of the other major causes of this estrangement was her insistence, back in the mid-2000s, that I–having lived in East Asia since the summer of 1996–not fly back to Canada to visit my sister and her then-terminally-ill husband because, apparently, I’m so “tactless and insensitive” that I might put my foot in my mouth and inadvertently say something to agitate and upset the already grieving couple. It seemingly hadn’t occurred to my mom that simply telling me to be careful of what I said would have sufficed; or more accurately, she didn’t seem concerned about how tactless and insensitive her own rejecting words were to me.

That infuriating, estranging incident was followed ten years later, in the mid-2010s, with a kind of reversal of roles for her and me. By this time, I’d realized just how horrifyingly habitual her lies, triangulation, smear campaigns, and divid-and-conquer tactics were that I knew I never wanted to fly home to visit her in Ontario ever again. I told her so, right after she’d told me a string of about seven lies, in a brief and blunt email. As if she’d completely forgotten having had the same rejecting attitude towards me ten years earlier, she put on this melodramatic reaction of having been so “hurt” by my email, which was really just me trying to protect myself from further mind games. Really, though, that “hurt” had just been my having caused her narcissistic injury.

Once again, she let -K come between herself and her last-born son.

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My older brother, F., used to bully and terrorize me all the time when I was a kid in the 1970s and 80s. One doesn’t need to be a psychologist studying stress in early childhood to know that bullying children will cause them to develop dysfunctional, self-isolating habits; it should be common sense that constant bullying of a child will make him or her fear the world and self-isolate in order to feel safe. Emboldened by having heard Mom’s nonsense about ‘my autism,’ F. many years later, when both he and I were adults (and he, over six years older than I, therefore should have had the maturity to know better), attributed my solitary tendencies to an intrinsic vice I’d been born with rather than admitting to himself that he had always been one of the chief causes of my self-isolating.

-K strikes again!

Similarly, my elder brother, R., and elder sister, J., said and did mean, hurtful things to me over and over again throughout my adolescence and young adulthood, never contemplating the damage they were slowly but surely doing to their relationship with me, abuse usually provoked either by relatively minor things I did to annoy them (slamming doors, eating all the cereal, procrastinating with washing the dishes, or…my idiosyncratic musical tastes, FFS!!) or the desire just to have fun making me feel worthless.

J., as the chief golden child of the family, chooses to blot out all the bad things she did from her memory because of how unflattering it is to her; on the other hand, she magnifies the significance of this or that memory of her having done favours for me, as evidence of her ‘boundless love’ for me…all to flatter herself. The fact is, people tend to remember the hurtful stuff more than the helpful stuff, by a wide margin. Still, it’s inconceivable to her, R., and F. that I would remember their majority of nasty moments over their minority of nice ones.

Because of this skewed perception of how they treated me, they’ll assume my estrangement from them is based on an ‘ungrateful attitude’ on my part, rather than my having no illusions about how ‘helpful’ they’ve all been to me. J. fancies that she, during my adolescence and young adulthood, was trying to help me build self-confidence and assertiveness skills; that she constantly spoke condescendingly to me and barked verbal abuse at me whenever I tried to stick up for myself, to silence me, makes me doubt the sincerity of her ‘intentions.’

This kind of puffing up of their pride at my expense–Mom’s amateur psychiatry, J.’s trying to remake me in her image (as Mom had done to her), and R.’s and F.’s imagined superiority to me–is what I mean when I talk about the ‘Dunning-Kruger effect of abusers.’ The more vicious abusers are, the more they delude themselves into thinking they’re being kind to their victims.

Charles Bukowski once said, “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” I’d say the same thing can be said about the relationship between the smug, self-satisfied abusers and the abused, who engage in endless second-guessing.

I say it’s high time that we victims of emotional abuse stopped doubting ourselves and our experience of our tormentors. If they can be cocky and over-confident, blissfully unaware of what assholes they are, then we can be reasonably confident of our understanding about what was done to us.

Just because we may have never told our bullies that they’re assholes, doesn’t mean they aren’t assholes. Their -K, and their refusal to link their mistreatment of us to our natural, estranged reaction to them, is their fault, not ours.

We didn’t deserve to be bullied just because we may have this or that fault. Legitimate anger doesn’t translate into the illegitimacy of abuse. We weren’t bullied because of defects in ourselves, but because of defects in our bullies.

Their not knowing of their defects doesn’t make those defects non-existent. In fact, their cloud of willful unknowing is what makes their defects especially apparent.

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