Book Notes: The Drama of the Gifted Child

The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self , by Alice Miller

[Disclaimer:  This is not meant to be a book summary or book review. This is just stuff in the book that I found personally valuable or interesting at the time of reading. Most of these “notes” are actually highlights, i.e. directly copied lines from the book, but some notes are personal adaptations or added personal insights.]


– I do not necessarily agree with or endorse all the notes I’ve included here, even the notes in bold print. Some of this stuff I simply find intriguing, or entertaining (e.g. various claims about repression).

– Historical context: This book was originally written in 1979. The author, Alice Miller was a Holocaust survivor, and surely her childhood experiences had a significant impact on psychotherapeutic approach. Miller was a psychologist and, according to Wikipedia, “In 1953 Miller gained her doctorate in philosophy, psychology and sociology. Between 1953 and 1960, Miller studied psychoanalysis and practiced it between 1960 and 1980 in Zürich. … In 1985 Miller wrote about the research from her time as a psychoanalyst: “‘For twenty years I observed people denying their childhood traumas, idealizing their parents and resisting the truth about their childhood by any means”.”

– I heard about this book on Tim Ferriss’s podcast with Dr. Gabor Maté. Both men seemed to highly recommended this book, and their related discussion about sensitivity inspired me to read it. You can listen to this podcast episode here. ]

ANOTHER NOTE: This book is a fairly stark contrast with another book I read recently, The Courage to be Disliked. That book, based on the works of psychologist Alfred Adler, effectively denies the existence of universal trauma, at least in terms of various events having definite psychological impacts throughout a lifetime. (You can find those Notes here.) Whereas this book essentially attributes childhood trauma – especially unconscious/repressed early childhood trauma (prior to conscious memory formation) – as the universal cause of psychological pain and suffering throughout a lifetime. It’s an amusing dichotomy of extremes if you ask me!

FINAL NOTE: *Misleading title alert!* The book doesn’t exactly revolve around “gifted” children, nor does it directly elaborate throughout the book about what’s meant by “drama”. It’s almost as is if the book unnecessarily pigeonholes itself by the title — much of the book could actually apply to parent-child dynamics in general. Perhaps a more accurate title would be The Roots of Psychological Issues: How Parents Unknowingly Traumatize Their Children.

– Without realizing that the past is constantly determining their present actions, [most people] avoid learning anything about their history. … They are continuing to fear and avoid dangers that, although once real, have not been real for a long time. They are driven by unconscious memories and by repressed feelings and needs that determine nearly everything they do or fail to do.

– There are large numbers of people who enter therapy in the belief (with which they grew up) that their childhood was happy and protected. Quite often I have been faced with people who were praised and admired for their talents and their achievements, who were toilet-trained in the first year of their lives, and who may even, at the age of one and a half to five, have capably helped to take care of their younger siblings. According to prevailing attitudes, these people — the pride of their parents — should have had a strong and stable sense of self-assurance. But the case is exactly the opposite. They do well, even excellently, in everything they undertake; they are admired and envied; they are successful whenever they care to be—but behind all this lurks depression, a feeling of emptiness and self-alienation, and a sense that their life has no meaning.

– As a basis for a description of the [psychological condition] of these persons, some general assumptions should be made clear:

•   The child has a primary need from the very beginning of her life to be regarded and respected as the person she really is at any given time.

•   When we speak here of “the person she really is at any given time,” we mean emotions, sensations, and their expression from the first day onward.

•   If they are to furnish these prerequisites for the healthy development of their child, the parents themselves ought to have grown up in such an atmosphere. If they did, they will be able to assure the child the protection and well-being she needs to develop trust.

•   Parents who did not experience this climate as children are themselves deprived; throughout their lives they will continue to look for what their own parents could not give them at the appropriate time — the presence of a person who is completely aware of them and takes them seriously.

•   This search, of course, can never fully succeed, since it relates to a situation that belongs irrevocably to the past, namely to the time right after birth and during early childhood.

•   A person with this unsatisfied and unconscious need (as it is repressed) will nevertheless be compelled to attempt its gratification through substitute means, as long as she ignores her repressed life history.

•   The most efficacious objects for substitute gratification are a parent’s own children. The newborn baby or small child is completely dependent on his parents, and since their caring is essential for his existence, he does all he can to avoid losing them. (Thus the baby or small child necessarily remains vulnerable to manifestations of unmet needs of the parent’s past.)

– In my work with people in the helping professions, I have often been confronted with a childhood history that seems significant to me:

•   There was a mother who at the core was emotionally insecure and who depended for her equilibrium on her child’s behaving in a particular way. This mother was able to hide her insecurity from her child and from everyone else behind a hard, authoritarian, even totalitarian facade.

•   This child had an amazing ability to perceive and respond intuitively, that is, unconsciously, to this need of the mother, or of both parents, for him to take on the role that had unconsciously been assigned to him.

•   This role secured “love” for the child — that is, his parents’ exploitation. He could sense that he was needed, and this need guaranteed him a measure of existential security.

– On the basis of my experience, I think that the cause of an emotional disturbance is to be found in the infant’s early adaptation. The child’s needs for respect, echoing, understanding, sympathy, and mirroring have had to be repressed, with several serious consequences…

– One such consequence is the person’s inability to experience consciously certain feelings of his own (such as jealousy, envy, anger, loneliness, helplessness, or anxiety), either in childhood or later in adulthood.

– Throughout their later life, [children who have learned to not experience their true feelings] will have to deal with situations in which these rudimentary feelings may awaken, but without the original connection ever becoming clear. The connection can be deciphered only when the intense emotions have been experienced in therapy and successfully linked with their original situation.

– Take, for example, the feeling of abandonment – the original feeling in the small infant, who had none of the means of adult distractions (alcohol, drugs, telephones, movies, etc.) and whose communication, verbal or preverbal, did not reach the mother because his or her mother herself was deprived.

However paradoxical this may seem, a child is at the mother’s disposal. The mother can feel herself the center of attention, for her child’s eyes follow her everywhere. A child cannot run away from her, as her own mother once did. A child can be brought up so that it becomes what she wants it to be. A child can be made to show respect; she can impose her own feelings on him, see herself mirrored in his love and admiration, and feel strong in his presence. But when he becomes too much, she can abandon that child to a stranger or to solitary confinement in another room.

When a woman has had to repress all these needs in relation to her own mother, they will arise from the depth of her unconscious and seek gratification through her own child, however well-educated she may be. The child feels this clearly, and very soon forgoes the expression of her own distress. Later, when these feelings of being deserted begin to emerge in the therapy of the adult, they are accompanied by intense pain and despair. It is clear that these people could not have survived so much pain as children. That would have been possible only in an empathic, attentive environment, which was lacking. Thus all feelings had to be warded off. But to say that they were absent would be a denial of the empirical evidence.

The legacy of the parents is yet another generation condemned to hide from the true self while operating unconsciously under the influence of repressed memories. Unless the heir casts off his “inheritance” by becoming fully conscious of his true past, and thus of his true nature, loneliness in the parental home will necessarily be followed by an adulthood lived in emotional isolation.

It is one of the turning points in therapy when the patient comes to the emotional insight that all the love she has captured with so much effort and self-denial was not meant for her as she really was, that the admiration for her beauty and achievements was aimed at this beauty and these achievements and not at the child herself.

– The patient is surprised by feelings she would rather not have recognized, but now it is too late: Awareness of her own impulses has already been aroused, and there is no going back. Now the once intimidated and silenced child can experience herself in a way she had never before thought possible, and afterward she can enjoy the relief of having taken the risk and been true to herself. At first it will be mortifying to see that she is not always good, understanding, tolerant, controlled, and, above all, without needs, for these have been the basis of her self-respect.

– One can only remember what has been consciously experienced. But the emotional world of an [emotionally] tormented child is itself the result of a selective process that has eliminated the most important elements. These early feelings, joined with the pain of being unable to understand what is going on — which is part of the earliest period of childhood — are consciously experienced for the first time during therapy.

– An adult can be fully aware of his feelings only if he had caring parents or caregivers. People who were abused and neglected in childhood are missing this capacity and are therefore never overtaken by unexpected emotions. They will admit only those feelings that are accepted and approved by their inner censor, who is their parents’ heir.

True autonomy is preceded by the experience of being dependent. True liberation can be found only beyond the deep ambivalence of infantile dependence.

– A child can never see through unconscious manipulation. It is like the air he breathes; he knows no other, and it appears to him to be the only breathable air. What happens if we don’t recognize the harmful quality of this air, even in adulthood? We will pass this harm on to others, while pretending that we are acting only for their own good. The more insight I gain into the unconscious manipulation of children by their parents, the more urgent it seems to me that we resolve our repression. Not only as parents but also as therapists, we must be willing to face our history.

– Children who are intelligent, alert, attentive, sensitive, and completely attuned to the mothers well-being are entirely at her disposal. Transparent, clear, and reliable, they are easy to manipulate as long as their true self (their emotional world) remains in the cellar of the glass house in which they have to live — sometimes until puberty or until they come to therapy, and very often until they have become parents themselves.

– Because “cheerfulness” was the trait that [satisfied her own mother] in her own childhood, [it is now what she expects of her children]: her own child’s antagonism threatens her equilibrium.

– The tragedy is that the parents too have no defense against it, as long as they refuse to face their own history. If the repression stays unresolved, the parents’ childhood tragedy is unconsciously continued on in their children.

– Various studies have shown the incredible ability a child displays in making use of the smallest affective “nourishment” to be found in his surroundings.

The automatic, natural contact with his own emotions and needs gives an individual strength and self-esteem. He may experience his feelings — sadness, despair, or the need for help — without fear of making the mother insecure. He can allow himself to be afraid when he is threatened, angry when his wishes are not fulfilled. He knows not only what he does not want but also what he wants and is able to express his wants, irrespective of whether he will be loved or hated for it.

– What is missing above all is the framework within which the child could experience his feelings and emotions. Instead, the child develops something the mother needs, and although this certainly saves his life (by securing the mother’s or the father’s “love”) at the time, it may nevertheless prevent him, throughout his life, from being himself.

– In such cases the natural needs appropriate to the child’s age cannot be integrated, so they are repressed or split off. This person will later live in the past without realizing it and will continue to react to past dangers as if they were present.

What the mother had once failed to find in her own mother she was able to find in her child:  someone at her disposal who could be used as an echo and could be controlled, who was completely centered on her, would never desert her, and offered her full attention and admiration.

– If the child’s demands became too great (as those of her own mother once did), she was no longer so defenseless: she could refuse to allow herself to be tyrannized; she could bring the child up in such a way that he neither cried nor disturbed her. At last she could make sure that she received consideration, care, and respect.

– [The patient] realized that when her mother had felt insecure in relation to her, she had in fact often been cold and had treated her badly. The mother’s anxious concern for the child had served to ward off her aggression and envy. Since the mother had often been [under-appreciated] as a child, she needed to be valued by her daughter.

In what is described as depression and experienced as emptiness, futility, fear of impoverishment, and loneliness can usually be recognized as the tragic loss of the self in childhood, manifested as the total alienation from the self in the adult.

– For the sake of clarity, I shall describe two extreme forms [of “narcissistic disturbances], of which I consider one to be the reverse of the other:

Grandiosity and Depression.

– Behind manifest grandiosity (unbridled ego and lavishness) there constantly lurks depression, and behind a depressive mood there often hides an unconscious (or conscious-but-split-off) sense of a tragic/stressful history. In fact, grandiosity is a defense against depression, and depression is a defense against the deep pain over the loss of the self that results from denial.

– In contrast, there are those with great gifts, often precisely the most gifted, who do suffer from severe depression. For one is free from it only when self-worth is based on the authenticity of ones own feelings and not on the possession of certain qualities or attitudes.

– The grandiose person is never really free; first, because he is excessively dependent on admiration from others, and second, because his self-respect is dependent on qualities, functions, and achievements that can suddenly fail.

– Although the outward picture of depression is quite the opposite of that of grandiosity and has a quality that expresses the tragedy of the loss of self in a more obvious way, they have many points in common:

•   A false self that has led to the loss of the potential true self

•   A fragility of self-esteem because of a lack of confidence in one’s own feelings and wishes

• Perfectionism

• Denial of rejected feelings

• A preponderance of exploitative relationships

• An enormous fear of loss of love and therefore a great readiness to conform

• Split-off aggression

• Oversensitivity

• A readiness to feel shame and guilt

• Restlessness

Depression consists of a denial of one’s own emotional reactions. This denial begins in the service of an absolutely essential adaptation during childhood and indicates a very early injury. There are many children who have not been free, right from the beginning, to experience the very simplest of feelings, such as discontent, anger, rage, pain, even hunger—and, of course, enjoyment of their own bodies.

– Beatrice was not physically mistreated in her youth. She did, however, have to learn as a small infant how to make her mother happy by not crying, by not being hungry — by not having any needs at all. She suffered first from anorexia and then, throughout her adult life, from severe depression.

– Today I would say:

A child needs (and absolutely needs) unconditional love. We must give it to the children who are entrusted to us. We must be able to love and accept them whatever they do, not only when they smile charmingly but also when they cry and scream.

– In truth, mother love and maternal instinct do exist; we can see them at work when we observe animals that have not been mistreated by human beings. Women, too, are born with instinctual programming to love, support, protect, and nurture their children and to derive pleasure from doing so. But we are robbed of these instinctual abilities if we are exploited in our childhood for the substitute gratification of our parents’ needs.

– It happens quite often that a patient arrives complaining of depression and later leaves the consulting room in tears’ but much relieved and free from depression. Perhaps this patient has been able to experience a long-pent-up rage against her parent or has been able to express her mistrust. Perhaps she has felt for the first time her sadness over the many lost years of her life during which she did not really live, or has vented her anger over the impending holidays and separation from her therapist. It is irrelevant which of these feelings are coming to the fore; the important thing is that they can be experienced and that access is thereby allowed to repressed memories. The depression was a signal of both their proximity and their denial.

Everyone probably knows about depressive moods from personal experience since they may be expressed as well as hidden by psychosomatic suffering. It is easy to notice, if we pay attention, that they hit almost with regularity whenever we suppress an impulse or an unwanted emotion.

The true opposite of depression is neither gaiety nor absence of pain, but vitality — the freedom to experience spontaneous feelings.

Our access to the true self is possible only when we no longer have to be afraid of the intense emotional world of early childhood. Once we have experienced and become familiar with this world, it is no longer strange and threatening. We no longer need to keep it hidden behind the prison walls of illusion. We know now who and what caused our pain, and it is exactly this knowledge that gives us freedom at last from the old pain.

The strength within ourselves — through access to our own real needs and feelings and the possibility of expressing them — is crucially important for us if we want to live without depression and addiction.

– It is not only the “good” and pleasant feelings that make us really alive, deepen our existence, and give us crucial insight, but often precisely the unacceptable and unadapted ones from which we would prefer to escape: helplessness, shame, envy, jealousy, confusion, rage, and grief. These feelings can be experienced in therapy. When they are understood, they open the door to our inner world that is much richer than the [muted facade].

The suffering that was not consciously felt as a child can be avoided by delegating it to one’s own children—in much the same way as in the ice-cream scene I have just described (wherein the parents had ice cream but denied it to their fussy child):

You see, we are big, we may do as we like, but for you the ice cream is ‘too sweet / too much of a treat’. You may enjoy yourself as we do only when you get to be big enough.”

So it is not the frustration of his wish that is humiliating for the child, but the contempt shown for his person…

The suffering is accentuated by the parents’ demonstrating their “grown-upness” to avenge themselves unconsciously on their child for their own earlier humiliation. They encounter their own humiliating past in the child’s eyes, and they ward it off with the power they now have.

[The child’s fussiness is unconsciously and selfishly welcomed by the parent as an opportunity to exert control. Yet this desire to exert control is not primarily for the good of the child, instead it’s a way of coping with the demeaning control that was exerted upon the parent in his or her own childhood.]

– We cannot, simply by an act of will, free ourselves from repeating the patterns of our parents’ behavior — which we had to learn very early in life. We become free of the patterns only when we can fully feel and acknowledge the suffering they inflicted on us. We can then become fully aware of these patterns and condemn them unequivocally.

– Disrespect is the weapon of the weak and a defense against one’s own despised and unwanted feelings, which could trigger memories of events in one’s repressed history. And the fountainhead of all contempt, all discrimination, is the more or less conscious, uncontrolled, and covert exercise of power over the child by the adult.

Because the victims are “only children,” their distress is trivialized. But in twenty years’ time these children will be adults who will feel compelled to pay it all back to their own children.

It is absolutely urgent that people become aware of the degree to which this disrespect of children is persistently transmitted from one generation to the next, perpetuating destructive behavior.

– When our children can consciously experience their early helplessness and rage, they will no longer need to ward off these feelings, in turn, with exercise of power over others.

In most cases, however, people’s childhood stress/suffering remains affectively inaccessible and this forms the hidden source of new and sometimes very subtle humiliation for the next generation.

– Only if we become sensitive to the fine and subtle ways (as well as the more obvious but still denied ways) in which a child may suffer humiliation can we hope to develop the respect for him he will need from the very first day of life.

But we must, above all, come to have empathy for our own fate. Our feelings will always reveal our true story, which no one else knows and which only we can discover.

There are needs that can and should be satisfied in the present. Among these is every human being’s central need to express herself, to show herself to the world as she really is — in word, in gesture, in behavior, in art — in every genuine expression, beginning with the baby’s cry.

If we start from the premise that a person’s whole development is dependent on the way her mother experienced her expression of needs and sensations during her first days and weeks of life, then we must assume that it is here that the beginning of a later tragedy might be set…

If a mother cannot take pleasure in her child as he is but must have him behave in a particular way, then the first value selection takes place for the child. Against this background will follow further valuations of himself.

– What is unconscious cannot be abolished by proclamation or prohibition. One can, however, develop sensitivity toward recognizing it and begin to experience it consciously, and thus eventually gain control over it.

A mother cannot truly respect her child as long as she does not realize what deep shame she causes him with an ironic remark, intended only to cover her own uncertainty. Indeed, [under her sarcasm and subtle contempt] she cannot be aware of how deeply humiliated, despised, and devalued her child feels (often unconsciously/unnoticeably), if she herself has never processed these feelings, and if she tries to fend them off with irony.

Every child forms his first image of what is “bad” quite concretely, by what is forbidden — by his parents’ prohibitions, taboos, and fears. He will have a long way to go before he can free himself from these parental values and see without filters what he has believed to be “badness” in himself.

– Herman Hesse, like so many gifted children, was so difficult for his parents to bear not despite but because of his inner riches. Often a child’s very gifts — his great intensity of feeling, depth of experience, curiosity, intelligence, quickness — and his ability to be critical, will confront his parents with conflicts that they have long sought to keep at bay by means of rules and regulations.

– The patient’s plight is no doubt the result of social pressures, but these do not have their effect on the psyche through abstract knowledge; they are firmly anchored/rooted, at least to some extent, in the child’s earliest affective experiences with his or her mother.

– Many people suffering from severe symptoms are very intelligent. They read in newspapers and books about the absurdity of the arms race, about exploitation through capitalism, diplomatic insincerity, the arrogance and manipulation of power, submission of the weak, and the ignorance of individuals — and they have given thought to these subjects. What they do not see, because they cannot see them, are the absurdities — the irrationally insecure attitudes, purely self-satisfying expectations, and arbitrary exertions of control — enacted by their own mothers when they were still tiny children.

– Once our own reality has been faced and experienced, inner necessity to keep building up new illusions and denials in order to avoid the experience of that reality disappears…

We then realize that all our lives we have feared and struggled to ward off something that really cannot happen any longer:  it has already happened, at the very early stages of our lives while we were completely dependent.

– The aim of therapy, however, is not to correct the past, but to enable the patient both to confront his own history and to grieve over it. The patient has to discover early memories within himself and must become consciously aware of his parents’ unconscious manipulation and contempt, so that he can free himself from them.

Contempt inherited from parents will show itself in the patient’s human relationships … the contents of the unconscious remain unchanged and timeless. It is only as these contents become conscious that change can begin.

– The function that all expressions of defense have in common: the defense against unwanted feelings. Once we are able to feel and understand the repressed emotions of childhood, we will no longer need contempt [lack of compassion] as a defense against them.

– One is forced to realize that his or her parents’ understanding was not possible, since the repression of the parents’ own childhood needs made them blind to their own child’s needs.

– When the patient has emotionally worked through the history of her childhood and has thus regained her sense of being alive, the goal of therapy has been reached.

– When the patient has consciously and repeatedly experienced how the whole process of her upbringing manipulated and damaged her in her childhood, then she will see through manipulation more quickly and will herself have less unconscious need to manipulate.

Finally, a person who has consciously worked through the whole tragedy of there own fate will recognize another’s suffering more clearly. She will not be scornful of others’ feelings, because she takes her own feelings seriously and knows how to work with them. She surely will not keep the vicious circle of contempt turning.

– Once they dare to see who brought them to their plight, they will avoid acting unconsciously and will no longer behave like the mistreated children they were: children who must protect their parents and who therefore need a scapegoat for the buried emotions that torment them.

Consciously experiencing our genuine emotions is liberating, not just because of the discharge of long-held tensions in the body but above all because it opens our eyes to the reality of past and present and frees us of lies and illusions.