The Drama of the Gifted Child — Alice Miller

Amazon link

In Mihir Desai’s chapter (and which I found the most fascinating) on the principal-agent problem in the Wisdom of Finance, Desai references this book. Desai briefly explores how though parents believe themselves to be the agents acting in the interest of their children (the principals), that in fact the situation is often the reverse — and to disastrous consequences…

Most parents, myself included, like to think of ourselves as dutiful agents on behalf of our children. We want them to be “all that they can be” and the “best versions of themselves.” When we speak like that, we are thinking of our children as our principals whom we are merely helping toward their own self-realization.

But in practice I find that version of parenting pretty superficial. Inevitably, children become agents of our agendas as well. Sometimes, that happens innocently—the children become accustomed to choices that reflect parental preferences and then internalize those preferences. They’re much more likely to follow our professions and enjoy the things that we like, relative to some random draw from the general population. In fact, for many of us, the chief responsibility of parenting is the act of imprinting a set of values on our children—if that’s the case, who’s the agent and who’s the principal in parenting?

Sometimes the reversal of principal and agent roles happens not so innocently or consciously. Many of us parent with the best of intentions but are guilty of projecting our unrealized ambitions or hopes onto our children. In those situations, we pretend to be agents of our children’s dreams and potential, but we are actually the principals trying to force our agents/children into a mold…

Miller describes what happens when intuitive and sensitive children are coupled with a demanding parent. These children become extremely well attuned to the signals and needs of those around them, as it has historically been the key for them to receive love. But they grow up unable to project their own desires and agendas onto the world because they have become so accustomed to fulfilling the needs of others. These children grow up to be exemplary agents, engines of achievement as they seek to be admired. But they can’t figure out how to be principals when they are adults. Never having had to formulate their own agenda, they find themselves deeply unsatisfied and frustrated as they only know how to fulfill the needs and dreams of others. They are trapped in the role of agents who don’t know how to become principals.

Reading Miller’s book for myself led to many “aha” moments, and I think that most people (corroborated by reviews on Amazon) would be able to relate if they pick it up for themselves. One thing to note, with regards to the below highlights, is that Miller non-exclusively defines “mother” as the person closest to the child during the first years of life, which need not be the biological mother, or even a woman.

One thing that worried me was the possibility that Miller, a practicing psychologist known for her work on child abuse, might have exhibited confirmation bias in writing this book, which may have led to (invalid) over-generalizations. Ultimately, however, I think her book does offer crucial insight into the unintended consequences of parenting (the most important job in the world carried out by the least experienced people, i.e. new parents), but most importantly what we can do about it — neither intellectualization nor ignorance/avoidance are the answer. She writes:

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…

It greatly aids the success of therapeutic work when we become aware of our parents’ destructive patterns at work within us. But to free ourselves from these patterns we need more than an intellectual awareness: we need an emotional confrontation with our parents in an inner dialogue.

And one particularly striking statement:

The mistreatment, humiliation, and exploitation of children is the same worldwide, as is the means of avoiding the memory of it. Individuals who do not want to know their own truth collude in denial with society as a whole, looking for a common “enemy” on whom to act out their repressed rage.

Notebook for
The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self, Third Edition
Alice Miller

Highlight (yellow) - Location 69
EXPERIENCE has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery of the truth about the unique history of our childhood.
Highlight (yellow) - Location 75
The damage done to us during our childhood cannot be undone, since we cannot change anything in our past. We can, however, change ourselves.
Highlight (yellow) - Location 97
In reading the biographies of famous artists, for example, one gains the impression that their lives began at puberty. Before that, we are told, they had a “happy,” “contented,” or “untroubled” childhood, or one that was “full of deprivation” or “very stimulating.”
The Poor Rich Child
Highlight (yellow) - Location 146
•  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.
Highlight (yellow) - Location 152
This ability is then extended and perfected. Later, these children not only become mothers (confidantes, comforters, advisers, supporters) of their own mothers but also take over at least part of the responsibility for their siblings and eventually develop a special sensitivity to unconscious signals manifesting the needs of others.
The Lost World of Feelings
Highlight (yellow) - Location 181
However paradoxical this may seem, a child is at the mothers 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 his 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.
Highlight (blue) - Location 192
Intellectualization is very commonly encountered as well, since it is a defense mechanism of great power. It can have disastrous results, however, when the mind ignores the vital messages of the body (see my reflections on Nietzsche’s illness in The Untouched Key [1990] and Breaking Down the Wall of Silence [1991]). All these defense mechanisms are accompanied by repression of the original situation and the emotions belonging to it.
In Search of the True Self
Highlight (yellow) - Location 221
The paradise of preambivalent harmony, for which so many patients hope, is unattainable. But the experience of one’s own truth, and the postambivalent knowledge of it, make it possible to return to one’s own world of feelings at an adult level—without paradise, but with the ability to mourn. And this ability does, indeed, give us back our vitality. 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.
Highlight (yellow) - Location 275
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. Depression and a sense of inner emptiness are the price they must pay for this control. The true self cannot communicate because it has remained unconscious, and therefore undeveloped, in its inner prison.
The Therapist’s History
Highlight (pink) - Location 291
I think that our childhood fate can indeed enable us to practice psychotherapy, but only if we have been given the chance, through our own therapy, to live with the reality of our past and to give up the most flagrant of our illusions. This means tolerating the knowledge that, to avoid losing the “love” of our parents, we were compelled to gratify their unconscious needs at the cost of our own emotional development. It also means being able to experience the resentment and mourning aroused by our parents’ failure to fulfill our primary needs.
Highlight (yellow) - Location 302
When he presents material that fits the therapist’s knowledge, concepts, and skills—and therefore also his expectations—the patient satisfies his therapists wish for approval, echo, understanding, and for being taken seriously. In this way the therapist exercises the same sort of unconscious manipulation as that to which he was exposed as a child. 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.
Highlight (yellow) - Location 316
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.
Highlight (yellow) - Location 327
If the repression stays unresolved, the parents’ childhood tragedy is unconsciously continued on in their children.
The Golden Brain
Highlight (yellow) - Location 359
Does not mother love belong to the “smallest,” but also indispensable, things in life, for which many people paradoxically have to pay by giving up their living selves?
Highlight (yellow) - Location 361
*By “mother” I here refer to the person closest to the child during the first years of life. This need not be the biological mother, or even a woman. In the course of the past twenty years, many fathers have assumed this mothering function (Mütterlichkeit).
Healthy Development
Highlight (yellow) - Location 378
If a child is lucky enough to grow up with a mirroring, available mother who is at the child’s disposal—that is, a mother who allows herself to be made use of as a function of the child’s development—then a healthy self-feeling can gradually develop in the growing child. Ideally, this mother should also provide the necessary emotional climate and understanding for the child’s needs. But even a mother who is not especially warmhearted can make this development possible, if only she refrains from preventing it and allows the child to acquire from other people what she herself lacks. Various studies have shown the incredible ability a child displays in making use of the smallest affective “nourishment” (stimulation) to be found in his surroundings. I understand a healthy self-feeling to mean the unquestioned certainty that the feelings and needs one experiences are a part of one’s self. This certainty is not something one can gain upon reflection; it is there like one’s own pulse, which one does not notice as long as it functions normally. The automatic, natural contact with his own emotions and needs gives an individual strength and self-esteem.
The Illusion of Love
Highlight (yellow) - Location 444
I have witnessed various mixtures and nuances of so-called narcissistic disturbances. For the sake of clarity, I shall describe two extreme forms, of which I consider one to be the reverse of the other—grandiosity and depression. Behind manifest grandiosity there constantly lurks depression, and behind a depressive mood there often hides an unconscious (or conscious but split off) sense of a tragic history. In fact, grandiosity is the defense against depression, and depression is the defense against the deep pain over the loss of the self that results from denial.
Highlight (yellow) - Location 449
The person who is “grandiose” is admired everywhere and needs this admiration; indeed, he cannot live without it. He must excel brilliantly in everything he undertakes, which he is surely capable of doing (otherwise he just does not attempt it). He, too, admires himself, for his qualities—his beauty, cleverness, talents—and for his success and achievements. Beware if one of these fails him, for then the catastrophe of a severe depression is imminent.
Highlight (yellow) - Location 460
In a field study conducted at Chestnut Lodge, Maryland, in 1954, the family backgrounds of twelve patients suffering from manic-depressive psychoses were examined. The results strongly confirm the conclusions I have reached, by other means, about the etiology of depression:         All the patients came from families who were socially isolated and felt themselves to be too little respected in their neighborhood. They therefore made special efforts to increase their prestige with their neighbors through conformity and outstanding achievements. The child who later became ill had been assigned a special role in this effort. He was supposed to guarantee the family honor, and was loved only in proportion to the degree to which he was able to fulfill the demands of this family ideal by means of his special abilities, talents, his beauty, etc.* If he failed, he was punished by being cold-shouldered or thrown out of the family group, and by the knowledge that he had brought great shame on his people. (Eicke-Spengler 1977, p. 1104)
Highlight (yellow) - Location 481
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.
Depression as the Reverse of Grandiosity
Highlight (yellow) - Location 485
Depression sometimes appeared when grandiosity broke down as a result of sickness, disablement, or aging. In the case of an unmarried woman, external sources of approval gradually dried up as she grew older.
Highlight (yellow) - Location 495
For example, at the height of his success an actor can play before an enthusiastic audience and experience feelings of heavenly greatness and almightiness. Nevertheless, his sense of emptiness and futility, even of shame and anger, can return the next morning if his happiness the previous night was not only due to his creative activity in playing and expressing the part but was also, and above all, rooted in the substitute satisfaction of old needs for echoing, mirroring, and being seen and understood. If his success the previous night serves only to deny childhood frustrations, then, like every substitute, it can bring only momentary satisfaction. In fact, true satisfaction is no longer possible, since the right time for that now lies irrevocably in the past. The former child no longer exists, nor do the former parents. The present parents—if they are still alive—are now old and dependent; they no longer have any power over their son and are perhaps delighted with his success and with his infrequent visits. In the present, the son enjoys success and recognition, but these things cannot offer him more than their present value; they cannot fill the old gap.
Highlight (pink) - Location 505
Continuous performance of outstanding achievements may sometimes enable a person to maintain the illusion of the constant attention and availability of his parents (whose absence from his early childhood he now denies just as thoroughly as his own emotional reactions). Such a person is usually able to ward off threatening depression with increased displays of brilliance, thereby deceiving both himself and those around him. However, he quite often chooses a marriage partner who either already has strong depressive traits or, at least within their marriage, unconsciously takes over and enacts the depressive components of the grandiose partner. The depression is thus kept outside, and the grandiose one can look after his “poor” partner, protect her like a child, feel strong and indispensable, and thus gain another supporting pillar for the building of his own personality. Actually, however, that personality has no secure foundation and is dependent on the supporting pillars of success, achievement, “strength,” and, above all, the denial of the emotional world of his childhood.
Depression as Denial of the Self
Highlight (yellow) - Location 555
No wonder, then, that even well-intended moral appeals—to be loving, caring, generous, and so forth—are fruitless. We cannot really love if we are forbidden to know our truth, the truth about our parents and caregivers as well as about ourselves. We can only try to behave as if we were loving.
Highlight (pink) - Location 587
Vera is right. As adults we don’t need unconditional love, not even from our therapists. This is a childhood need, one that can never be fulfilled later in life, and we are playing with illusions if we have never mourned this lost opportunity.
Highlight (yellow) - Location 627
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.
A Social Aspect of Depression
Highlight (yellow) - Location 830
Both the depressive and the grandiose person completely deny their childhood reality by living as though the availability of the parents could still be salvaged: the grandiose person through the illusion of achievement, and the depressive through his constant fear of losing “love.”
Humiliation for the Child, Disrespect for the Weak, and Where It Goes from There
Highlight (yellow) - Location 892
We can only solve this riddle if we manage to see the parents, too, as insecure children—children who have at last found a weaker creature, in comparison with whom they can now feel very strong. What child has never been laughed at for his fears and been told, “You don’t need to be afraid of a thing like that”? What child will then not feel shamed and despised because he could not assess the danger correctly? And will that little person not take the next opportunity to pass these feelings on to a still smaller child?
Highlight (pink) - Location 927
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.
Highlight (pink) - Location 931
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.
Perpetuation of Contempt in Perversion and Obsessive Behavior
Highlight (pink) - Location 1060
If we start from the premise that a person’s whole development (and his balance, which is based upon it) is dependent on the way his mother experienced his expression of needs and sensations during his 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. Now “good” is differentiated from “bad,” “nice” from “nasty,” and “right” from “wrong.” Against this background will follow all his further valuations of himself. Such an infant must learn that there are things about him for which the mother has “no use.” She will expect her child to control his bodily functions as early as possible. On the conscious level his parents apparently want him to do so in order not to offend against society, but unconsciously they are protecting their own repression dating from the time when they were themselves small children afraid of “offending.”
Highlight (pink) - Location 1074
Many people suffer all their lives from this oppressive feeling of guilt, the sense of not having lived up to their parents’ expectations. This feeling is stronger than any intellectual insight they might have, that it is not a child’s task or duty to satisfy his parent’s needs. No argument can overcome these guilt feelings, for they have their beginnings in life’s earliest period, and from that they derive their intensity and obduracy. They can be resolved only slowly, with the help of a revealing therapy.
Highlight (yellow) - Location 1129
If a person can see through to the goals and compulsions behind this sort of provocation, then the whole decayed building collapses and gives way to true, deep, and defenseless mourning. When this happens, all the distortions are no longer necessary. This is a clear demonstration of how mistaken the attempt is to show a patient his “sexual conflicts” if he has been trained from earliest childhood on to feel nothing. How can these conflicts be experienced without feelings of rage, abandonment, jealousy, loneliness, love? In the last ten years I have received many letters from readers who wrote to me to say that as teenagers they had been sexually abused, seduced, and emotionally exploited by adult men, without ever being able to recognize this fact because of their blindness stemming from repressed childhood memories. It was not before they read my book Thou Shalt Not Be Aware that they began to have doubts and suspicions. For the first time in their lives, they dared to question the behavior of their perpetrators. The idea that they had been betrayed, that their longing for love and affection had been exploited, never before occurred to them, because they were unable to feel. The only path available to them was to idealize the seducer, the big friend, savior, teacher, master, and to become addicted to a special form of sexual behavior, or to drugs, or to both. Struggling for social acceptance of special forms of addictions, sexual and nonsexual, is one of the many ways to avoid confrontation with our own history.
Highlight (pink) - Location 1160
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, she cannot be aware of how deeply humiliated, despised, and devalued her child feels, if she herself has never consciously suffered these feelings, and if she tries to fend them off with irony.
The Mother as Society’s Agent During the First Years of Life
Highlight (yellow) - Location 1267
If we were to tell a patient that in other societies his perversion would not be a problem, that it is a problem here only because it is our society that is sick and produces constrictions and constraints, we would certainly be telling him at least a partial truth, but it would be of little help to him. He would feel, rather, that as an individual, with his own individual history, he was being passed over and misunderstood, for this interpretation makes too little of his own very real tragedy. What he most needs to understand is his compulsion to repeat, and the state of affairs behind it to which this compulsion bears witness. His plight is no doubt the result of social pressures, but these do not have their effect on his psyche through abstract knowledge; they are firmly anchored in his earliest affective experience with his mother. Thus his problems cannot be solved with words, but only through experience—not merely corrective experience as an adult but, above all, through a conscious experience of his early fear of his beloved mother’s contempt and his subsequent feelings of indignation and sadness. Mere words, however skilled the interpretation, will leave unchanged or even deepen the split between intellectual speculation and the knowledge of the body, the split from which he already suffers.
Highlight (pink) - Location 1276
One can therefore hardly free an addict from the cruelty of his addiction by showing him how the absurdity, exploitation, and perversity of society cause our neuroses and perversions, however true this may be. The addict will love such explanations and eagerly believe them, because they spare him the pain of the truth. But things we can see through do not make us sick, although they may arouse our indignation, anger, sadness, or feelings of impotence. What makes us sick are those things we cannot see through, society’s constraints that we have absorbed through our parents’ eyes. No amount of reading or learning can free us from those eyes. To put it another way: 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 impotence of individuals—and they have given thought to these subjects. What they do not see, because they cannot see them, are the absurdities enacted by their own mothers when they were still tiny children.
Highlight (yellow) - Location 1296
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.
Achieving Freedom from Contempt and Respecting Life
Highlight (yellow) - Location 1375
It greatly aids the success of therapeutic work when we become aware of our parents’ destructive patterns at work within us. But to free ourselves from these patterns we need more than an intellectual awareness: we need an emotional confrontation with our parents in an inner dialogue.
Highlight (yellow) - Location 1385
When the patient has consciously and repeatedly experienced how the whole process of her upbringing manipulated and damaged her in her childhood, and with what desires for revenge this has left her, then she will see through manipulation more quickly than before and will herself have less need to manipulate others.
Highlight (pink) - Location 1419
The mistreatment, humiliation, and exploitation of children is the same worldwide, as is the means of avoiding the memory of it. Individuals who do not want to know their own truth collude in denial with society as a whole, looking for a common “enemy” on whom to act out their repressed rage.