Beyond the Pairs of Opposites

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“All creatures are bewildered at birth by the delusion of opposing dualities that arise from desire and hatred.” —Bhagavad Gita, Seventh Teaching, verse 27

I’d like to try to unify all I’ve written on this blog so far, in order to sculpt an all-encompassing philosophy, if you’ll indulge me, Dear Reader.

If you have been reading my blog posts with an attentive eye, you’ll have noticed a recurring theme that has shown itself in many forms: the dialectical relationship between opposites. This will be apparent to you regardless of whether you’ve read my political posts, or my literary or film analyses. It can even be seen a little in my complaints about my family.

I mentioned duality and dualism in my Analysis of Romeo and Juliet, and how the opposites intermingle sometimes. I mentioned equivocation in my Macbeth analysis (how an idea can sway either to one opposite, or to another: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”), and the upside-down world in King Lear (to be good, one must be rude and blunt, as well as be disloyal to the established power structure; while evil Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall are polite, and those loyal to them are also evil). Hamlet delays his revenge because he is psychologically paralyzed by the paradox–in killing his uncle, the king–of the revenge’s extreme good (out of love for his murdered father) and evil (the prince will be as guilty of regicide as his uncle is). In Richard III, we see constant, swift shifts from good fortune to bad, and bad to good. I believe that one of the main reasons Shakespeare’s writing continues to resonate with us is his understanding of the paradoxical unity of opposites. Such understanding leads us all closer to the truth.

In The Graduate analysis, I mentioned the dialectical idea that the tightening chains, if you will, of parental authority forced Benjamin to fight to free himself of that authority. The sexual trap Mrs. Robinson set for him woke him sexually and helped him to mature. Her forbidding him to date her daughter, Elaine, on the one hand, and his own parents’ pressuring him to date her, on the other, were the tightening chains that made him defy both the Robinsons and the Braddocks, and free himself.

In my two Ouroboros posts, I wrote of how the dialectical relationship between opposites can be seen in the form of a circular continuum, symbolized by a serpent, coiled in a circle, biting its tail, the head and tail being those extreme opposites. I showed how this unity of opposites is seen in the history of class struggle and in the growth of the capitalist mode of production.

In writing of narcissism in the family, I wrote of the contradictions between the golden child (my sister) and the scapegoat (me); and how, in some ways, the former child has it worse, and the latter has it better, because the tightening chains around me, like those around Benjamin Braddock, freed me, while my older sister J.’s favoured position in the family has actually held her in stronger chains.

All of these unities-in-contradiction are manifestations of what I like to call The Unity of Action: what in one way goes well clockwise along the ouroboros’s tail, for example, goes badly counter-clockwise, and vice versa in another way. Another issue, particularly seen in some of my more recent posts, is alienation and fragmentation, the contradiction of self vs. other. The cure to this ill I see as what I call The Unity of Space, to be discussed below. A third dichotomy, that of the past vs. the future, can be reconciled by a focus on the present, a fading out of the past and a fading into the future, or The Unity of Time.

I believe a proper understanding of these Three Unities can help us solve a great many of the world’s problems. The Unity of Space can cure social alienation by helping us to see the other in ourselves and vice versa, thus creating and building empathy and compassion for others, instead of fighting and competing. The Unity of Time can help us to stop obsessing over either past pain or idealized past eras, as well as to stop worrying about a bad future or fantasize about an idealized one, and to focus on making the most of the eternal NOW. The Unity of Action can make us stop dichotomizing projects into absolute successes or failures, and instead monitor our slow but sure progress towards increasing levels of achievement (e.g., why we can’t have full communism immediately after a revolution…the transitional worker’s state must be allowed to run its course).

So many of us feel isolated and alienated, typically because of traumas from childhood abuse or emotional neglect. The aggressive authoritarianism in families in the US and around the world, resulting in all these forms of abuse and neglect, has been found by researchers to be almost universal. It isn’t a far leap to go from perpetrating abuse at home to shootings, from authoritarianism to police brutality and racism, to a fetishizing of religious fundamentalism and of the ‘free market’, and ultimately to viewing imperialist wars as ‘fighting for one’s country,’ rather than the unlawful invasion of sovereign states. Authoritarian abuse causes a split between the powerful and powerless.

This split is an example of the dichotomy of self vs. other. The alienation one feels from this split blinds one to the dialectical unity between self and other. Hegel understood this in his allegory of the lord and bondsman in The Phenomenology of Spirit (Hegel, pages 111-119). We experience self-consciousness only through a recognition of another person as a kind of reflection of ourselves, and the other recognizing us.

When two men meet, who will dominate whom? A death-struggle ensues, Hegel tells us, and the winner is the lord, getting his sense of self through himself independently, as well as knowing his bondsman acknowledges his existence; while his bondsman has a sense of self only through his relationship through his master, for whom he now works.

Over time, though, the fruit of the servant’s work, his creations, accumulates, giving him a sense of his own mastery of his art; while his master increasingly comes to depend on the slave’s work, since the lord isn’t really working. Thus, the lord and bondsman seem to switch roles in a way, a dialectical relationship that can be symbolized by the ouroboros, the biting head (lord) shifting to the bitten tail (bondsman), and vice versa. The bondsman’s journey (i.e., the accumulation of all the products of his work) from the bitten tail along the length of the serpent’s body, all the way up to the biting head, now makes the bondsman into a new kind of lord.

It’s easy to see how Marx could apply Hegel’s idea to the relationship of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat: one day, the workers would seize control of the means of production, where they’d produced so much, and create the dictatorship of the proletariat. This new workers’ state would, in turn, wither away eventually–once all pockets of counter-revolutionary capitalist resistance would be annihilated–and we would finally have anarchist communism, a reward for all our patience.

We must try to see how this interdependent self/other relationship applies to all human relationships. In so doing, we could be aided in dismantling authoritarian thinking, we’d kindle a sense of mutual empathy, and mend the social rifts that cause all our alienation.

Indeed, we must understand the ego to be an illusion, as Lacan did. The fragmented, ill-defined sense of self a baby has changes into a unified one when the infant sees his image in a mirror. This mirroring also comes in the form of a parent looking into the baby’s eyes and responding to him. This unified ego, however, is an illusion, a fake ideal to strive for. This is true not only of the mirror reflection, whose phoney ideal alienates us from it, but also of all those people whose faces we gaze into, people who mirror themselves back at us. These hellish others, as independent egos, are as fake as the self.

Recognizing this phoney sense of self and other, really just two fragmented sources of energy bouncing back and forth at each other (in the forms of projection, projective identification, and introjection), leads us to reject the alienating dichotomy of self vs. other, in favour of a Unity of Space, a dialectical monism where the boundary between self and other is much blurrier than one would assume.

The blurred boundary between self and other, the unity of all things in matter, is not just something believed by meditating mystics and practitioners of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc (or some users of LSD, for that matter). It is also seen in the notion of internalized object relations, as well as the notion of self-objects in self psychology.

What does it mean to be me, other than the sum of influences (as well as the sum all of those I’ve influenced) in my life? As I’ve argued elsewhere, the human personality is relational, an intermingling dialectic of self and other. I–the subject in a relationship with another, the object–am the serpent’s head biting the tail of the other, and vice versa.

As well as there being a dialectic of the self and the other, there’s also a dialectic of the fragmented parts within the self. Heinz Kohut wrote of the bipolar self (not to be confused with the cyclothymic ups and downs of sufferers of bipolar disorder), a self based, on one pole, on an inner child whose grandiosity wishes to be mirrored with an empathic parent, and on the other pole, an internalized parental imago to be idealized. Super-me at one end, and Super-Mom (and/or Dad) at the other.

If all goes well, the child’s grandiosity and idealizing are let down in gradual, bearable bits over time, a move from the narcissistic biting head of the ouroboros down the length of its body to the middle. The child will thus be able to form a cohesive self with mature, realistic narcissism, in which restrained grandiosity is integrated with bearable, circumscribed amounts of shame.

If such transmuting internalization and optimal frustration don’t occur, a result of parenting that’s lacking in sufficient empathy (or worse, child emotional neglect or even abuse), the child’s narcissism is split–vertically (through denial and disavowal, creating and maintaining a False Self, or, I believe, through projection) and/or horizontally (through repression)–into a dichotomy of pathological grandiosity vs. toxic shame. Here, one is suspended at the serpent’s biting head of narcissism and the bitten tail of shame. The result? Sometimes, people like Donald Trump, a poor little rich (overgrown) kid whose ego is fed by his religious-cult-like followers, and who’s shamed (through no one’s fault but his own) by the mainstream liberal media. More typically, though, the result is poor kids with impoverished egos, because they got little empathy from Mom and Dad.

The only way such a pathological narcissist can socially function is to deny his unique problem with grandiosity, by either projecting it onto everybody (“The only thing worse than immodesty is false modesty: pretending you’re humble, when secretly you really think you’re great,” my older brother, R., once said; I suspect his motive was to rationalize and project his own arrogance onto the world.), or to project it onto a particular target (as my probably narcissistic late mother tried to do to me with her autism lie, herself imagining autism to be essentially identical with narcissism, an idea as ridiculous as it is offensive). Here we see the internal dichotomy transforming itself into one of self vs. other.

So many of us live fragmented lives, alienated from each other, and alienated from ourselves within. We’re like a large window broken into hundreds of shattered pieces, lying strewn all over the ground, with jagged edges. If anyone approaches us, he or she risks cutting his or her feet on us, because we too often react with hostility to anyone trying connect with us. We’re shattered glass within as well as shards lying beside each other.

We need to recognize ourselves not as all these tiny fragmented shards of glass, but rather as drops of water in an infinite ocean. We move up and down in waves, those waves being the ever-shifting dialectic of the self and other, as well as pretty much everything else. All things in the infinite ocean we call the world can be conceived of as having the characteristics of both particles and waves. This wave metaphor can also represent the communist definition of equality: not a flat, straight line where everyone is forced to be the same, as the political right would straw-man our ideal; but instead as crests shifting into troughs, then back to crests, and to troughs, over and over again–from each according to his or her ability (crests), to each according to his or her need (troughs).

(The Unity of Space may sound like pantheism to some, though I’d describe it as a philosophy of dialectical monism. These kinds of ideas certainly do not have the backing of the scientific community; indeed, most physicists rightly scoff at writers like Fritjof Capra and Gary Zukav for sentimentally oversimplifying both science and Eastern philosophy, conflating particle/wave duality with a ubiquitous cosmic consciousness [whereas I’m more interested in the unconscious]. I’ll content myself with how Einstein praised Spinoza’s monism, an idea similar to mine. Appealing to those geniuses far from scientifically proves my case, of course [My knowledge of physics is at Bill Hicks‘s level!], but it’s good enough for me. Just as creationism isn’t and shouldn’t be mistaken for science, neither should my ideas; I do believe, however, that they can help people.)

When we come to see ourselves as united rather than fragmented, we can build mutual empathy and friendship, which can lead to community and finally to solidarity. With solidarity, we can begin to organize against the ruling class, the one other that we’ll never be reconciled with, because not only don’t they want to reconcile with us, but they also want us to be forever at odds with each other, and fragmented within. They use their media to divide us in this way.

But how can we heal our fragmentation within? First, we must take an honest look at our relationships with that primal other in our lives: our parent(s). No parent is perfect, or ever could be, of course, but by any reasonable measure, were our parents at least good enough? If they, and thus their corresponding internalized imagos, were more bad than good (i.e., non-empathic, authoritarian, manipulative, cruel, or abusive), we must replace these bad object relations with good ones, for those wounded primal relationships make up the blueprint for all subsequent relationships.

Well, how can we do this? If I may be so bold, I’ve found hope in one possible solution: hypnosis/meditation. In a state of hypnosis, the unconscious mind is on average more suggestible, more easily influenced (though more resistant people will be harder to hypnotize, of course). After getting oneself in a relaxed state by taking deep breaths in and out slowly, and relaxing every part of one’s body, one body part at a time, from the head to the toes, one begins to visualize the ideal mother and father. You can pick a good mother and father from inspiring scenes in movies (I like these examples), and after adapting the scenes in your thoughts in ways that are more fitting to you, you then imagine them treating you with the same love and kindness. In as vivid a visualization as you can make, imagine yourself as a little kid being loved and cared for by these idealized parents, who will be your new imagos.

What will they say to you? What kind, loving, supportive, encouraging words will they use, and in what kind of gentle tone of voice? How will they validate your experiences? How will they show patience and understanding when your foibles are apparent? Try to visualize this Edenic childhood in as much detail as your imagination, under hypnotic trance, can muster. Do this several times a day, every day, and feel the love and security wash all through your body. (Though not using hypnosis, Kohut tried to achieve a kind of empathic self-object relationship with his analysands in his narcissistic transferences.)

I’ve tried doing hypnotic meditations in Richard Grannon‘s Silence the Inner Critic course, which is rather expensive, but if you have even as mild a case of C-PTSD as I do, you’ll consider it money well spent. After only a few hypnosis sessions, I found my road rage, and propensity to blow up in anger over trifles, to be reduced to 10%-20% of what it had been before. It’s amazing! If I can do it, I’ll bet you can, too, because my bad habits are stubborn, and my tendency to make catastrophes of things is one of the most stubborn of all.

I plan on writing more about this kind of thing, so this introduction to such ideas is rather brief and sketchy; a more detailed, systematic elaboration of these ideas will follow.

This replacing of bad object relations with good ones, the introjection of an idealized parent imago to replace a traumatically frustrating, non-empathic imago, is something I believe that religions have unconsciously tried to do, using a loving sky-father god. Consider the sentimentality of such Bible verses as, “O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.” (Psalm 136:1); “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21); and “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:8) They all reflect this idea of the loving Spirit of God the Father, an internalized object relation, really, coming inside us, transforming us, and turning pain into inner peace. Though most of what Freud said about religion was wrong, I believe he was right about the idea that God is an illusion, based on a psychological need for a father figure.

Having said this, I must stress that my idea of The Three Unities is not meant to be the starting of a religion…in any conceivable sense. Some readers (insofar as anyone will be interested in reading this rather idiosyncratic post) may choose to think of my ideas in a religious sense if he or she wishes to; but that’s their doing, not mine. If by any microscopic chance in the remote future, my idea is institutionalized as some form of fanaticism, causing atrocities of the sort committed by the religious superstitions of the past, then I–right now, for the record–wash my hands of it. My idea is grounded in the philosophy of dialectical monism, in psychoanalysis, and in historical materialism; I say this in case some cretin gets the idea that this writing makes me–absurdity of absurdities!–into some kind of…prophet (!).

I want to use my ideas to help people gain a power for living, not to promise a panacea. We will always feel pain and frustration in life; The Three Unities won’t stop that from happening. They may help us all to cope much better, as I’m hoping, by helping us to go beyond the pairs of opposites–dichotomous thinking, alienation, fragmentation–to experiencing the undulating rhythms of everything, the waves of an infinite ocean.

Barbara Stoler Miller, trans., The Bhagavad Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War, Bantam Books, New York, 1986

The Golden Child

Sometimes in families, there are legitimate, practical reasons to favour one sibling over another, while the parents still love both. To take a convenient example from cinema, consider how, in The Godfather, Michael Corleone is chosen over his older brother, Fredo, to succeed Don Vito as the head of the family business. Feckless Fredo is too weak and stupid to run the dangerous business of a mafia family; his younger brother, however, has proven himself not only strong and smart, but also level-headed, unlike the oldest brother, Sonny, whose hot-headedness gets him killed.

Now, one of course would be hard-pressed to find examples of fairness in families even approaching perfection; but in families with narcissistic parents, sons and daughters are either favoured or slighted based on probably the most illegitimate reason one could think up–how much, or how little, narcissistic supply is given to the ego-driven parent.

Kids often learn early on how to get in the good graces of a narcissistic parent; what they don’t and cannot learn is that these good graces aren’t real love. Normal parents love their kids regardless of what their kids may say or do to frustrate them. The narcissistic parent, however, will hold grudges against his or her kids’ failure to provide narcissistic supply, or worse, the kids’ causing of narcissistic injury.

Narcissistic rage may prompt explosive anger in the pathological parent: all the child can understand is that Mommy or Daddy is angry, and it’s easier to believe that the rage is justified than to acknowledge that the parent is routinely being cruel and unreasonable, a scary thing for a child to contemplate, a child who has nowhere else to go to be safe. Thus, turning against oneself (blaming/attacking oneself instead of the parent) is actually an ego defence mechanism rather than masochism on the part of the child.

The rage may also prompt a vengeful attitude in the narc parent. One effective tactic a narc may use is to engage in triangulation, pitting one kid, or kids, against the offending child by speaking as a mediator between them (i.e., spreading lies and gossip), instead of the kids directly communicating with each other. Here is where narcissistic favouritism comes in. The kids who have learned the rules of pleasing Mom or Dad, at all costs, without understanding how abnormal this family dynamic is, will become golden children. Any kid who doesn’t learn, or refuses to go along with, those rules will be branded as the family scapegoat. Everyone else backs the narc parent in scapegoating the targeted child, partly out of the pleasure of ganging up on one victim, and partly to avoid being similarly targeted in the future.

These labels of ‘golden child’ and ‘scapegoat’ aren’t always absolute: some golden children are more golden than others, and scapegoats who occasionally give narcissistic supply to their disordered parents will enjoy some ‘vacations’ from emotional abuse, or they may enjoy the relief of seeing other family members get an even worse scapegoating. What does remain fairly constant, however, is the power imbalance that the narc parent and his or her flying monkeys have over the scapegoats.

It is truly nauseating, from the scapegoat’s perspective, to see the golden child(ren), GCs, suck up to the narcissistic parent, as I had to put up with in my older sister, J. My older brothers, R. and F., were moderate GCs, and they never really kissed our (probably) narcissistic mother’s ass…certainly not the way J. did, anyway; but Mom never had it in for them the way she did for me, the identified patient of the family. A fault of mine is my brutal honesty, not something our mother took kindly to.

My sister’s allegiance to our mother was cherished, though. She would back our mother up in any situation, and believe any nonsense Mom told her; even if testimony could be given to contradict Mom, J. would take Mom’s side, every time. It was all about proving that she was the worthiest of Mom’s love.

I recall two occasions, back when I was about ten or eleven years old, when J. saw me eating a lot of bad food (burgers and fries, etc.), then accused me of hypocritically “going on and on about following the Canada Food Guide.” I NEVER DID THAT. After I told her so, on the second occasion of her self-righteous accusing, I never heard that nonsense from her again (though I’ve continued, to this day, to eat lots of bad food!).

The question, however, needs to be asked: where did J. get this idea from, that I went around preaching about the virtues of eating right? I don’t think she’d been hallucinating.

In recent years, as I’ve increasingly come to see what a liar my mother was, I found a most likely explanation: Mom and J. had been engaging in one of their many smear campaigns against me behind my back, this time complaining about my bad eating habits, all the while pretending they were worried about my health, when really they were just bashing me for its own sake (on other occasions, J. would sneer at me and snort that she thought I’d eventually become a diabetic, ffs!).

Along with this, I suspect I had said or done something to cause Mom narcissistic injury–perhaps one of my less than enthusiastic reactions (<<<last three paragraphs of Part III) to her having bought me pants, yet presenting them to me (pulling them out of the bag in a dramatic reveal) as if she’d bought me a super-cool toy, one of her many mind games–and Mom wanted to get revenge on me (as all ‘loving’ mothers do, remember) by making up a story about me preaching about following the nutritional advice of the Canada Food Guide, all to hurt my reputation in the family by making me look like a hypocrite. J. has no idea how often she was duped by our mother.

To be fair, I have no way of proving for sure that the ‘Canada Food Guide story’ was one of my mother’s many lies. Maybe J. got the story from someone else. Maybe the lie was her own invention: like narc mother, like golden child daughter. But given my mother’s well-established track record, and that I’ve never caught any of the other family members lying…only in being too credulous with Mom’s fables…abductive reasoning has served me well so far. That Mom made up the lie is by far the best explanation.

My information on these matters is inescapably limited, so I can’t demand perfect explanations; I have to settle for those that leave the fewest holes. How could the alternative explanations, of all they put me through in my life, be any better than what I’ve concluded? Seriously, am I supposed to believe that an emotionally abusive family loves me, and that all their conflicts with me have been my fault? If so, how convenient for them.

It amazes me how often Mom and J. stuck up for each other. Those two were pals in the eeriest way. She was propped up as an exemplary mother, J. as the ideal daughter, always playing the role of ‘loving family woman’. I could retch at J.’s affectation.

Heinz Kohut wrote of how a narcissistically disordered person results from a failure in parental empathy, which is like nutrition for a child’s grandiosity and exhibitionism. When parents give sufficient empathy, and the child’s frustrations are bearable (i.e., given in small doses over time), the child’s resulting transmuting internalization can help him to tone down his wild grandiosity and develop healthy, realistic narcissism.

When, however, one parent fails to give a child the needed empathic mirroring, the child will turn to the other parent to compensate, perhaps in the form of an idealized parent imago; if neither parent mirrors or merges with the child’s grandiosity, his still-unrealistic, immature sense of narcissism could split vertically (disavowed and–I believe–projected narcissism) and horizontally (repressed narcissism). See Kohut, page 185, diagram and note, for more information.

In The Restoration of the Self, Kohut writes of a patient (Mr. X) whose pathological narcissism resulted from a conditionally empathic merging with his mother, provided that he always be no more than an extension of her (such a parent/child relationship being typical of narcissistic parents), and that he regard his father as inferior, a rejecting of his unconscious wish to have his father as an ideal introjected into his mind. As a result, Mr. X’s self was split vertically, with his grandiose merging with his mother, and horizontally, with his unrealized wish to idealize his father repressed into his unconscious (Kohut, pages 205-219).

I believe something similar happened with J., though she assuredly never developed Mr. X’s pathologies as described in Kohut’s book. I believe J., as a child, was traumatically disappointed in our grumpy, ultra-conservative father, possibly in part from our mother encouraging a derisive attitude towards him, however indirectly and subtly, in Mom’s usual mode (causing her to repress an Oedipal wish to idealize him–horizontal split; I believe Mom also did this to my brothers, R. and F.); then, J. found that the only way she could get empathic mirroring and merging with Mom was by allowing herself to be an extension of Mom’s ego (a vertical split, with J. disavowing and denying a grandiosity I saw her nonetheless display all the time, in proudly presenting herself as the ‘ideal daughter’ and ‘loving family woman’, while sneering in disgust at the conceitedness she saw in–or, rather, projected onto–other people).

I’ve complained before of J.’s sucking up to our mother at my expense, with numerous examples (see here for a few; see also Part IV of this). For other examples of her obnoxious attitude (and of that of my mother and brothers), see here.

I’ll give yet another example. Back in the early 1990s, the family restaurant went out of business, so naturally we were all unhappy about that. Until that time, we’d had a habit of, instead of buying our milk in stores, cleaning out empty liquor bottles from the restaurant bar, filling them up with milk, and taking them home. We joked on one occasion about the neighbours imagining we were “a bunch of boozers” after seeing so many liquor bottles among our garbage over the years. I, in my early twenties at the time of the demise of the restaurant, wanted to revive that old joke, but my timing was poor.

I tactlessly joked, at the sight of all those empty bottles in the kitchen, that we as a family “would make good derelicts.” This was right on the night that we’d closed up the restaurant for the last time, so I know, I know: I opened my mouth and inserted my foot. Mom and J. could have just said, in all firmness, “C’mon, Mawr, don’t joke about such things. We’re kind of down right now.”

Instead, J. gave me the most evil of dirty looks, and Mom told me to “Shut up.” They acted as if I’d meant to be hurtful, when surely they realized that I hadn’t meant to, as inappropriate as my remark obviously was.

I bring this up not to suggest I’d said nothing wrong, but rather to point out another example of J. and her virtue signalling at my expense, all to please our mother.

The phoniness of the golden child, as I’ve said above, is nauseating to witness; but the GC’s position in the family is not without its unenviable moments, too, and this phoney act the GC puts on is at the centre of his or her problem, for the GC is pressured into putting on this act.

Narcissistic parents assign roles like golden child or scapegoat for their kids. Not only do the parents treat their kids accordingly, but they also manipulate their kids into behaving in ways consistent with their roles; this manipulation comes in the form of projective identification.

The son or daughter who is meant to embody all of the narc parent’s worst qualities is made to introject those bad traits; my mother did that to me with such things as her autism lie, describing ‘my autism’ in the language of narcissism, and making me feel totally separate and alienated from the world. The GC is made to introject all the ‘virtues’ that the narc parent imagines him/herself to have; this is done partly by flattering the GC accordingly, but also partly by pressuring him or her to embody those virtues. Our mother did this to J., who’d suffer Mom’s wrath if ever she failed to measure up.

I’ll give a crushing example of J. displeasing our Mom. When she was about twenty or twenty-one years old (I would have been fifteen or sixteen at the time), she was dating a young man with long red hair, wearing jeans and a jean jacket. This was in about the mid-80s: he was a ‘metal-head’ or ‘rocker’, not someone my parents would ever accept as a boyfriend for J.

I remember seeing him with my sister on the living room sofa, getting in the mood, when our parents weren’t at home at night (J., studying in secretarial school, was still living at home). Obviously, I had to make myself scarce.

My bedroom was in our basement at the time. From there, I could hear my mother screaming, “I am ashamed of you!” repeatedly at J. on one of those nights; for our parents had come home unexpectedly early and found the young fellow lying naked in her bed. I don’t think you need any more details about what he and J. had been doing.

Along with Mom’s screaming, I could hear J.’s weeping and shame-laden attempts to explain herself. J. had failed to be the perfect daughter she was supposed to be, even though all she’d done was something that had become pretty standard among young adult dating couples by the 1980s…not that that made any difference to our socially-conservative parents, of course.

What is interesting about this is how our father reacted. Naturally, he didn’t approve of J.’s behaviour any more than our mom did, but his anger and shock at J. were much better controlled, as I recall. He focused more on the foolishness of what J. had done (i.e., risking pregnancy or disease), and less on the ‘shameful’ aspect of it. The unkindness of his words went to this extent: “What a donkey!” he said, twice, of J. Our near-hysterical mother, in contrast, seemed to be displaying narcissistic rage at J.’s failure to be her G.C.

Years later, J. was in a relationship with the man who would become her husband (he later died of cancer–<<<scroll down to Part VII). They were living together, and I doubt it was a platonic living arrangement. Though their relationship was getting serious, and the man was a clean-cut, respectable sort that our parents would have approved of, technically they weren’t yet married, and thus they were ‘living in sin’.

Our conservative father was the only disapproving one this time, though he grudgingly tolerated J.’s living with her then-boyfriend, acquiescing to how “that’s the way people do things these days.” Dad was playing the role of protective father, while our mother was all proud, in her smug and superior attitude, of being a ‘progressive thinker’, as against Dad’s sexist double standards for J. (while having allowed R. and F., my brothers, to live with any then-girlfriends, something I doubt our father approved of, either, by the way). This was an example of Mom doing a minor smear campaign on our father.

Mom’s hypocrisy is notable in how narcissism motivated both contradictory attitudes. Her daughter had ‘shamed the family’ by giving herself to a long-haired ‘punk’ (who, for all we know, could have cut his hair and become a ‘respectable’ member of society within a year of his breakup with J.); but now, Mom was a ‘good feminist’ for approving of this modern living arrangement with a man who–though he would prove himself a genuinely worthy husband–could have gotten J. pregnant and run off on her, for all we knew at the time.

Mom’s ‘feminism’ was nothing more than bourgeois progressivism; as long as bourgeois prejudices about ‘respectability’ weren’t challenged, J. and her not-yet husband could bonk away in bed as often as they liked. Years after J.’s ‘shame’ with the ‘punk’ in her bed, she spoke to me of the bad dating mistakes she’d made back in the 80s, with a frown of shame on her face for having displeased our mother.

J.’s haughty, self-righteous attitude toward me should be seen in light of her need to conform with our mother’s expectations of her. In my private thoughts, I always sent J.’s contempt of me back at her whenever I contemplated her chronic need to conform socially (while requiring me also to conform); now I can understand her psychological motivations for doing so. J.’s phoney virtue signalling was indeed an act she was putting on, the False Self she was required to adopt to fulfill Mom’s need for her to embody all the virtues Mom deluded herself into thinking she had. She needed J. to manifest them publicly, so Mom could watch and identify with her, and thus smile with pride at her daughter, her ‘mini-me’.

Similarly, I as the identified patient was also playing a phoney role our mother required of me, so she could be exorcised of her narcissistic demons by projecting them onto me. The scapegoat role is a False Self that I must dispel from my life; I must rediscover the real me that the family never wanted me to be.

Also, Dear Reader, if any of these issues apply to you, you must work to dispel the False Self you were required to be by your disordered parents or ex-partner, be that phoney role the scapegoat or the golden child (the good role of the idealize phase, or the bad one of the devalue/discard phase, respectively, if it was your ex who abused you). You get to decide who you really are, remember, not those people who programmed your brain for their not-so-noble purposes.

Stay authentic, my friends.

Psychic Bridges

One recurring theme I’ve noticed from reading a lot of writers on the subject of psychoanalysis is the idea that the human personality is relational, rather than an isolated, self-developing thing. A person is best understood in terms of how he or she interacts with and is influenced by the other people he or she is in regular contact with. The most crucial contacts one has for one’s development are, of course, one’s parents/primary caregivers and one’s (more usually elder) siblings.

Object relations theory is all about how one introjects imagos of one’s parents; we carry these imagos inside our psyche, like ghosts haunting a house, and they influence how we perceive the world, regardless of whether or not the imagos are an accurate representation of the early people we were in contact with as infants or children. These imagos help form psychic bridges between ourselves and our social environment, and are crucial parts of our personalities. The positive or negative energy that our primary caregivers send across those bridges to us cause us, in turn, to send positive or negative energy right back across to them, then it comes back to us again, and is sent back from us again, back and forth, and back and forth, throughout our lives.

When those early caregivers/influencers are loving and kind, they inspire us to be similarly good to others; when they are cruel and abusive, we learn to be cruel and abusive to others. After years of being bullied and psychologically abused by my siblings, along with my inability to fight back (for it’s in the nature of bullies not to allow you to fight back), I had a huge store of inner rage, all that negative energy that needed to be vented; so, when I became an English teacher to Taiwanese kids, the boys–whose pre-teen awkwardness reminded me of when I was an awkward, patience-trying boy–ended up being on the receiving end of all that rage.

I know intellectually that I shouldn’t be taking out my frustrations on those kids (the way my siblings shouldn’t have taken the rage they got from our parents all out on me, and the difference between my siblings and me is in how I recognize what I’ve done is wrong, whereas they don’t recognize their own wrongdoing), but to this day, I still find it a challenge to refrain from blowing up at them from time to time, for such is the nature of my poorly-built psychic bridges, my ‘mental programming’, if you will. So, you see, the importance of setting up the best psychic bridges that we can for children cannot be overstated.

In the self psychology language of Heinz Kohut, these good, empathic psychic bridges are called self-objects, in particular, early caregivers who provide an empathic response to childhood grandiosity and exhibitionism, encouraging it and letting it down in ways appropriate to whatever phase of development a child may be in at a given moment. For children must learn to deal with disappointments and reduced narcissistic gratification in amounts that they can bear.

When the self-objects fail to provide that needed empathy, the child experiences traumatic disappointments, causing his or her narcissistic energy to fail to be incorporated into a psychic context of healthy, realistic self-esteem. Instead, the child’s self-concept splits: there’s a horizontal split, with much of the narcissistic energy repressed–pushed down–into the unconscious; also, there’s a vertical split, with much of the narcissistic energy disavowed–pushed over to the side, as it were. The remaining core ego puts on the mask of an unassuming, genial personality, a likeable False Self to fool the world into thinking the pathological narcissist is a normal person.

For my part, I tend to modify Kohut’s ideas where it seems appropriate, necessary, and defensible. Now, please remember, Dear Reader, that I am no authority on these matters; I merely dabble in psychoanalysis and have no formal training in it. All I’m doing here is giving my personal opinions, so take them with a generous dose of salt. Don’t take them as gospel.

Part of my modifications of Kohut includes my belief that the vertical split/disavowal of narcissistic energy includes projecting the grandiosity onto other people; this projecting often goes as far as to lapse into projective identification. If the pathological narcissist can cause his or her victim–ideally, a sensitive type whose empathy and sweetness are things the narcissist envies–to manifest the grandiosity and self-centredness projected from the narcissist, he or she then can feel ‘cured’ of the pathology, the demons seem exorcized, as it were, and the narcissist can then feel comfortable in his or her False Self, deluded that the mask worn is his or her real face. I believe my late mother victimized me in this exact way.

So this split in the narcissist’s personality is a kind of dialectical split between hidden narcissistic grandiosity and an outward display of fake modesty.

The narcissist’s psychic bridges must be examined, too. We’ve already considered his or her grandiose self; now we must look across to the other side of the bridge of the bipolar self–his or her idealized parent, and how that parent’s imago influences the narcissist’s personality.

The lack of empathy the child suffered caused an injury to his or her grandiose self; that injury carries across to the other side of the bridge, causing a split image of the parent, between the idealized, all-good parent and the hurtful, empathy-denying bad parent. Healthy people, who have realistic self-esteem and recognize the coexistence of good and bad in themselves, also see the good and bad coexisting in their parents, for the psychic bridge reflects parallels of parents and children on both sides; hence, narcissists have a split of outward good (grandiosity) and secret self-hate, as well as a split of outward good seen in their parents (idealized parent imago) and a secret, unacknowledged resentment of the bad sides of their idolized parents.

I believe the preceding paragraph describes the personalities of my brothers R. and F., and especially my sister J., with respect to their own repressed/disavowed grandiosity, hidden behind a ‘respectable’ collective False Self, and to their idealizing of our late mother. She, in turn, had the same repressed/disavowed grandiosity for herself, as well as the same idealizing of her parents, especially her father, who died when she was a child, traumatizing her and not allowing her the opportunity to experience optimal frustration in him, which would have lead to a realistic sense of his strengths and faults.

Freud’s notion of the Oedipus complex needs to be modified, in my opinion, to mean not merely the love of the opposite-sex parent and the hate of the same-sex one (or, for that matter, in the case of the inverted, or negative, Oedipus complex, hate of the opposite-sex parent and love of the same-sex one), but rather an expanded notion, incorporating a mixture of love and hate for both parents. We all love Mom and/or Dad sometimes, and at other times we would love to kill both, or as least one, of them.

So these psychic bridges, with oneself on one side and one’s parents/primary caregivers/siblings on the other, are also like mirrors into which we see those primal people as reflections of ourselves (if you’ll indulge my piling of simile onto simile, Dear Reader). However we love or hate those other people is a reflection of how we love or hate ourselves; positive or negative energy is sent back and forth across the bridges.

Narcissists outwardly display grandiosity and excessive self-love while idealizing their parents; inwardly, though, they hate themselves and secretly resent their parents’ failed empathic responses to their childhood exhibitionism.

Failed parenting doesn’t necessarily result in narcissism: that tends to be the case for golden children, but what of scapegoats like me? To understand our psychic bridges, I recommend an examination of the ideas of WRD Fairbairn.

Fairbairn created his endopsychic structure, a relational model based on a libido of object-seeking (i.e., seeking out other people for love and friendships), to replace Freud’s inappropriately drive-based personality structure of id, ego, and superego. Freud thought it was all about a will to pleasure; Fairbairn thought it was all about a will to relationships, to connection with others.

So instead of Freud’s ego, we have Fairbairn’s similar concept of the Central Ego, linked to an Ideal Object (the link is the ‘psychic bridge’, as I call it). The id is replaced by the far-from-identical Libidinal Ego, psychically bridged with the Exciting Object; and the superego is replaced by the even-more-different Anti-libidinal Ego (formerly, the Internal Saboteur) and its Rejecting Object.

Everyone has all three configurations, according to Fairbairn, even the healthiest people, those whose Central Ego and Ideal Object, a seeking out of real relationships in the external world, is the dominant of the three. The less healthy we are, though, because of the poor empathy we got from our parents, the more predominant are our Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object (the urge to seek out pleasure in inappropriate, internalized, fantasied objects–idolizing of movie/pop/sports stars, consumption of pornography, etc.) and Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object (aggression and hostility towards other people).

The more predominant these latter two configurations are, the more of a ‘schizoid’ (i.e., split, fragmented–NOT to be confused with schizophrenic, though such could be the case in extreme cases) personality one has (Fairbairn, page 4). Here, the psychic bridges between oneself and others are damaged or broken.

Melanie Klein borrowed Fairbairn’s use of the word ‘schizoid’ (or, rather, he and she borrowed from each other) to describe these broken people in her use of the term ‘paranoid-schizoid position‘ to describe the hostility a baby (or, by extension, a son or daughter of any age) may feel towards his or her frustrating ‘bad mother‘ (Klein, page 3). Her contrasting term, the ‘depressive position’, describes the saddened state a child is in after fearing the loss of the temporarily-absent mother (after his hostile phantasies of hurting or killing her for having frustrated him), then wishing for reparation with her, a mending of the broken or damaged psychic bridge between him and his mother.

Some of us, like me, can never mend these broken bridges. Some of us were so severely emotionally abused, by Cluster B parents who were unrepentant right up to the grave, that we’ll never get that reparation with them. And if our siblings were the pathological parents’ flying monkeys, they will be every bit as impenitent as our parents. The psychic bridges between us and these primal people will always be damaged, if not irreparably broken; so we’ll need to establish bridges with a new set of people to replace them, new good objects to fill in the holes that the old bad objects broke into our bridges.

It should be a no-brainer to understand that the human personality is relational, based on bridges between oneself and one’s parents/primary caregivers/elder siblings, these elder people having related with one right from one’s birth, as opposed to younger people, or those one meets later in life, and who therefore haven’t had as foundational an influence on oneself.

Unfortunately, there are many who can’t grasp this idea, preferring to regard people as having a good or bad personality because they were ‘born that way’, instead of brought up that way. These people, like my elder siblings, for example, imagine a person to be an isolated particle of existence, as it were, generating himself with minimal, if any, influence from other people. My elder siblings have deluded themselves in this fashion, as did my mother, to evade taking responsibility for how their emotional abuse and bullying made me the man I am today, one who refuses contact with them.

To be sure, I must take responsibility for many of my faults: my wife, who has been only a good psychic bridge for me, has every right to complain of my faults. But one’s personality is more of a wave, a vibration connected with all surrounding vibrations, than a mere particle (to continue with the simile of the last paragraph) disconnected from everyone and everything else. Everything that I am, at my core, is the result of the pernicious influence of my mother, with her lies, gaslighting, and triangulating to ensure I’d never be friends with R., F., and J. These damaged primal psychic bridges ensured I’d go through life with mostly damaged relationships with other people.

My separation from that family gave me a chance to start again in my life here in East Asia, where I’ve made bridges with people on the other side who are kind, loving people. These are the good objects Klein and Fairbairn wrote of, rather like an adult version of a transitional object, in human form, that can link us with the external world in a healthy way. These are Kohut’s empathic self-objects, who give the needed mirroring to us damaged people, to help us build self-love.

If you are in relationships with people who give you damaged or broken psychic bridges, you must get out of those poisonous relationships as soon as you can. You must also mend what’s wrong inside yourself, either through therapy, or through self-compassion, self-care (I recommend ASMR, hypnosis, and meditation), and a greater awareness of how your own hostilities and aggressiveness to others (inspired, no doubt, by your abusers) stops you from building new bridges with others.

Remember, we people are not islands, cut off from each other and generating our own faults. If you’ll indulge more of my similes, Dear Reader, we are like the waves of the ocean, flowing into each other and affecting each other in ways we barely even notice. If someone is in a bad psychological state, he probably wasn’t ‘born that way’, he was probably raised that way.

W.R.D. Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Routledge, London, 1952

Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963, The Free Press, New York, 1975