Excerpts from Must Read Books & Articles on
Mental Health Topics
Books, Part XXIII
The Drama of the Gifted Child:
The Search for the True Self
Chapter II Depression & Grandiosity: Two Forms of Denial
THE VICISSITUDESOF THE CHILD'S NEEDS
EVERY child has a legitimate need to be noticed, understood,
taken seriously, and respected by his mother. In the first weeks and
months of life he needs to have the mother at his disposal, must be
able to avail himself of her and be mirrored by her. This is beautifully
illustrated in one of Donald Winnicott's images: the mother gazes
at the baby in her arms, and the baby gazes at his mother's face and
finds himself therein ... provided that the mother is really looking
at the unique, small, helpless being and not projecting her own expectations,
fears, and plans for the child. In that case, the child would find
not himself in his mother's face, but rather the mother's own projections.
This child would remain without a mirror, and for the rest of his
life would be seeking this mirror in vain.
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
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.
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.
If a woman is to give her child what
he will need throughout his life, it is absolutely fundamental that
she not be separated from her newborn, for the hormones that foster
and nourish her motherly instinct are released immediately after birth
and continue in the following days and weeks as she grows more familiar
with her baby. When a newborn is separated from his mother--which
was the rule not so long ago in maternity hospitals and still occurs
in the majority of cases, out of ignorance and for the sake of convenience--then
a great opportunity is missed for both mother and child.
The bonding (through skin and eye contact)
between mother and baby after birth stimulates in both of them the
feeling that they belong together, a feeling of oneness that ideally
has been growing from the time of conception. The infant is given
the sense of safety he needs to trust his mother, and the mother receives
the instinctive reassurance that will help her understand and answer
her child's messages. This initial mutual intimacy can never again
be created, and its absence can be a serious obstacle right from the
The crucial significance of bonding
has only recently I peen proved scientifically. One hopes that it
will soon be taken into account in practice, not only in a few select
maternity hospitals but in larger hospitals as well, so that everyone
will benefit from it. A woman who has experienced bonding with her
child will be in less danger of mistreating him and will be in a better
position to protect him from mistreatment by the father and other
caregivers, such as teachers and babysitters.
Even a woman whose own repressed history
has been responsible for a lack of bonding with her child can later
help him overcome this deficit, if she comes to understand its significance.
She will also be able to compensate for the consequences of a difficult
birth if she does not minimize their importance and knows that a child
who was heavily traumatized at the beginning of his life will be in
particular need of care and attention in order to overcome the fears
arising out of more recent experiences.
What happens if a mother not only is unable to recognize and fulfill
her child's needs, but is herself in need of assurance? Quite unconsciously,
the mother then tries to assuage her own needs through her child.
This does not rule out strong affection; the mother often loves her
child passionately, but not in the way he needs to be loved. The reliability,
continuity, and constancy that are so important for the child are
therefore missing from this exploitative relationship. What is missing
above all is the framework within which the child could experience
his feelings and emotions. Instead, he 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.
People who have asked for my assistance
because of their depression have usually had to deal with a mother
who was extremely insecure and who often suffered from depression
herself. The child, most often an only child or the first-born, was
seen as the mother's possession. 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.
Barbara, a mother of four children,
at thirty-five had only scanty memories of her childhood relationship
with her mother. At the beginning of treatment, she described her
as an affectionate, warmhearted woman who spoke to her "openly
about her own troubles" at an early age, who was very concerned
for her children, and who sacrificed herself for her family. She was
often asked for advice by others within the sect to which the family
belonged. Barbara reported that her mother had always been especially
proud of her. The mother was now old and an invalid, and the patient
was very concerned about her health. She often dreamed that something
had happened to her mother and woke up with great anxiety.
As a consequence of the emotions that
arose in Barbara through therapy, this picture of her mother changed.
Above all, when memories of toilet-training entered her consciousness,
she experienced her mother as demanding, controlling, manipulative,
cold, petty, obsessive, easily offended, and hard to please. Many
subsequent childhood memories of her mother confirmed these characteristics.
Barbara was then able to connect with the real reasons for her long
suppressed anger and to discover what her mother was really like.
She 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 humiliated as
a child, she needed to be valued by her daughter.
Barbara experienced in therapy for the
first time the agonizing fear and rage she had had to repress when
she was ten years old and came home from school on her mother's birthday
to find her lying on the floor with closed eyes. The child cried out,
thinking her mother was dead. The mother then opened her eyes and
said, delighted, "You gave me the most precious birthday gift.
Now I know that you love me, that somebody loves me." For decades
pity and compassion hindered Barbara from realizing the cruelty with
which she had been treated. Triggered by a later event, this memory
could finally emerge, accompanied by feelings of rage and indignation.
Gradually, the different pictures of
the mother were united into that of a single human being whose weakness,
insecurity, and oversensitivity made her do everything she could to
keep her child at her disposal. The mother, who apparently functioned
well with others, was herself basically still a child cut from her
real emotions. The daughter, on the other hand, took over the understanding
and caring role until she discovered, with her own children, her previously
ignored needs. Before she recognized the story of her past, she had
been compelled to press her children into her service, as her mother
THE ILLUSION OF LOVE
Over the years, my work has included many initial consultations with
people whom I saw for one or two sessions before referring them to
a colleague. In these short encounters, the tragedy of an individual
history can often be seen with moving clarity. 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.
I have witnessed various mixtures and
nuances of socalled 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.
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.
It is usually considered normal when
sick or aged people who have suffered the loss of much of their health
and vitality or women who are experiencing menopause become depressive.
There are, however, many people who can tolerate the loss of beauty,
health, youth, or loved ones and, although they grieve, do so without
depression. 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-esteem is based on the authenticity of
one's own feelings and not on the possession of certain qualities.
The collapse of self-esteem in a "grandiose"
person will show clearly how precariously that self-esteem has been
hanging in the air-"hanging from a balloon," as a patient
once dreamed. That balloon flew up very high in a good wind but was
suddenly punctured and soon lay like a little rag on the ground, for
nothing genuine that could have given inner strength and support had
ever been developed.
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) *Italics added
With today's mobility of families
and family members, adapting to a different ethnic culture is essential
to survival, but it is threatening to the child's autonomy. Unfortunately,
the only "alternative" seems to be a clinging to, or return
Without therapy, it is impossible for
the grandiose person to cut the tragic link between admiration and
love. He seeks insatiably for admiration, of which he never gets enough
because admiration is not the same thing as love. It is only a substitute
gratification of the primary needs for respect, understanding, and
being taken seriously--needs that have remained unconscious since
early childhood. Often a whole life is devoted to this substitute.
As long as the true need is not felt and understood, the struggle
for the symbol of love will continue. It is for this very reason that
an aging, world-famous photographer who had received many international
awards could say to an interviewer, "I've never felt what I have
done was good enough." And he does not question why he has felt
this way. Apparently, it has never occurred to him that the depression
he reports could be related to his fusion with the demands of his
A patient once spoke of the feeling
of always having to walk on stilts. Is somebody who always has to
walk on stilts not bound to be constantly envious of those who can
walk on their own legs, even if they seem to him to be smaller and
more "ordinary" than he is himself? And is he not bound
to carry pent-up rage within himself, against those who have made
him afraid to walk without stilts? He could also be envious of healthy
people because they do not have to make a constant effort to earn
admiration, and because they do not have to do something in order
to impress, one way or the other, but are free to be "average."
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
In many of the patients I have known, depression was coupled with
grandiosity in many ways.
1: 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. She no longer received constant confirmation of her
attractiveness, which earlier had served a directly supportive function
as a substitute for the missing mirroring by her mother. Superficially,
her despair about getting old seemed to be due to the absence of sexual
contacts but, at a deeper level, early fears of being abandoned were
now aroused, and this woman had no new conquests with which to counteract
them. All her substitute mirrors were broken. She again stood helpless
and confused, as the small girl once did before her mother's face,
in which she found not herself but only her mother's confusion.
Men often experience becoming older
in a similar way, even if a new love affair may seem to create the
illusion of their youth for a time and may in this way introduce brief
manic phases into the early stages of the depression brought to the
surface by their aging.
2: In the combination of alternating phases of grandiosity
and depression, their common ground can be recognized. They are the
two sides of a medal that can be described as the "false self,"
a medal that was once actually won for achievement.
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. Again, as long as he is able
to deny this need with the help of illusion--that is, with the intoxication
of success--the old wound cannot heal. Depression leads him close
to his wounds, but only mourning for what he has missed, missed
at the crucial time, can lead to real healing.*
*Let me cite a remark by Igor Stravinsky as an example of
successful mourning: "I am convinced that it was my misfortune
that my father was spiritually very distant from me and that even
my mother had no love for me. When my oldest brother died unexpectedly
(with my mother transferring her feelings from him onto me, and my
father, also, remaining as reserved as ever), I resolved that one
day I would show them, now this day has come and gone. No one remembers
this day but me, who am its only remaining witness." This is
in marked contrast to a statement by Samuel Beckett: "One could
say that I had a happy childhood, although I showed little talent
for being happy. My parents did all that can be (lone to make a child
happy, but I often felt very lonely." Beckett's childhood drama
had been fully repressed, and idealization of the parents had been
maintained with the help of denial, yet the boundless isolation of
his childhood found expression in his plays. (For both quotations,
see Mueller-Braunschweig, 1974.)
3: 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.
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
* Denial of rejected feelings
* A preponderance of exploitative relationships
* An enormous fear of loss of love and therefore a great readiness
* Split-off aggression
* A readiness to feel shame and guilt
Depression as Denial of the Self
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, fifty-eight, the daughter
of missionary parents and a sufferer of deep depression, never knew
whether she was hungry or not. Her mother had written proudly in her
diary that at the age of three months Beatrice had already learned
to wait to be fed and to suppress her hunger, without crying. Discontent
and anger aroused uncertainty in her mother, and her children's pain
made her anxious. Her children's enjoyment of their bodies aroused
both her envy and her shame about "what other people would think."
Under such circumstances, a child may learn very early in life what
she is not supposed to feel.
If we have thrown away the keys to understanding
our lives, the causes of depression--as well as those of all suffering,
illness, and healing--must remain a mystery to us, regardless of whether
we call ourselves psychiatrists or authorities in the sciences or
both. When psychiatrists with decades of experience have never dared
to face their own reality and have instead spent their time (and their
parents' time) talking about "dysfunctional families," they
will need a -concept like a "Higher Power" or God to explain
to themselves the "miracle" of healing. They will then behave
like people who are faithfully trying to follow a map, without realizing
that the first step they took was in the wrong direction. Because
they have lost the way from the very start, their "scientific"
fidelity to the map doesn't give them the expected results and doesn't
take them where they want to go. I would like to illustrate this with
A psychiatrist whose book was sent to
me by a reader argues that mistreatment, neglect, and exploitation
in childhood cannot be the only causes of psychic illnesses. There
must, he feels, be other, irrational reasons that can explain why
one person apparently escapes the catastrophic effects of abuse--or
at least is able to heal more quickly--while another seems to suffer
more intensely or for a longer time. It must, he suspects, be "grace."
He reports the story of a patient who
lived with his single mother in extreme poverty for the first year
of his life and who was then taken away from her by the authorities.
He was placed in one foster home after another, and in all of them
the child was severely mistreated. But when he became a psychiatric
patient, he healed faster than many others with less obvious stories
of abuse. How could this man, who had endured unspeakable cruelty
in his childhood and youth, liberate himself so readily from his symptoms?
Was it with God's help?
Many people love this type of explanation,
without raising a very significant question: Shouldn't we ask why
God was willing neither to help other patients of this psychiatrist
nor to help this man when he was being beaten mercilessly as a child?
Was it really God's grace that helped him as an adult, or is the explanation
mote prosaic? If this man had a mother who, in spite of her poverty,
gave him real love, respect, protection, and security in his first
year, he would have had a better start in life and would then have
been better able to deal with later abuse than would a patient whose
integrity was injured from the first day of her life--as was Beatrice,
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. Psychiatrists are
denying this type of damage when they talk about "grace"
and other "spiritual" qualities. In order to acknowledge
the consequences of such early, hidden trauma, they would first have
to do some hard work on themselves. Once they become willing to face
the facts--their own facts--they will lose interest in teaching
others about grace and other "mysteries" in the name of
Clinging uncritically to traditional
ideas and beliefs often serves to obscure or deny real facts of our
life history. Without free access to these facts, the sources of our
ability to love remain cut off. No wonder, then, that even wellintended
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. But this hypocritical
behavior is the opposite of love. It is confusing and deceptive, and
it produces much helpless rage in the deceived person. This rage must
be repressed in the presence of the pretended "love," especially
if one is dependent, as a child is, on the person who is masquerading
in this illusion of love.
We could make great progress in becoming
more honest, respectful, and conscious, thus less destructive, if
religious leaders could acknowledge and respect these simple psychological
laws. Instead of ignoring them, they should open their eyes to the
vast damage produced by hypocrisy, in families and in society as a
whole. Vera's letter to me, from which she asked me to quote, gives
a clear example of this confusion and damage. And Maja's history shows
how spontaneous love for a child eventually became possible for her,
once the repression of her past had been resolved. Vera, age fifty-two,
I had been a chronic alcoholic since adolescence, and I finally became
sober thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous. I was so grateful for this liberation
from my alcohol addiction that I attended every weekly meeting for
eleven years. For a long time I managed to ignore and override my
own critical thoughts concerning the moral issues represented there.
I even succeeded at first in not taking any notice of the serious
illness I began to develop (eventually diagnosed as multiple sclerosis)
and in making light of the symptoms. It was only when my depressive
moods became longer and refused to disappear that I began to face
It was very hard at first. When I succeeded
in retrieving some repressed memories, they were close to unbearable.
I wanted to stop. But my curiosity and my pain were stronger than
my fear, and I decided to continue. During the first year of intensive
work some of my symptoms disappeared. Now, after three years of work
with this method, I understand that these symptoms had to develop
in order to wake me from my dangerous sleep so that I could finally
take seriously my feelings, perceptions, and thoughts.
I knew, for instance, that I had often
become angry when "unconditional love" was discussed in
the group meetings. I was apparently supposed to perceive and appreciate
that all the members were giving me unconditional love. I was supposed
to learn to trust them, and I felt guilty if I couldn't. It was explained
to me that I could not trust and believe that love existed at all
because I hadn't received love in my dysfunctional family of origin.
I took these explanations for granted because I was longing so much
for love and wanted to believe that I actually was loved. I was unable
to question what I was told, because hypocrisy had been the food I
was fed daily by my mother--it was so familiar to me, though never
questionable. But today I do question things that do not make sense
Today I would say: Only 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. But to pretend to love an adult unconditionally--that
is, independently of his or her deeds--would mean that we should love
even a cold serial murderer or a notorious liar if only he joins our
group. Can we do that? Should we even try? Why? For whose sake? If
we say that we love an adult unconditionally, we only prove our blindness
and/or dishonesty. Nothing else.
This is only one of many glimpses through
the fog of religious heritage I tolerated in those meetings for much
too long. I owe these insights to my lonely work. This ability to
reason developed in me as I talked to my parents in my inner dialogue.
It never occurred to me to have any conscious doubts when I was sitting
in the meetings. I so desperately wanted to be loved--and that meant,
of course, to comply, to be obedient. It was actually a very, very
conditional "love" that was being offered there.
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. But
there are other things we can get from good therapists: reliability,
honesty, respect, trust, empathy, understanding, and an ability to
clarify their emotions so that they need not bother us with them.
If a therapist promises unconditional love, we must protect ourselves
from him, from his hypocrisy and lack of awareness.
Vera was able to make an important discovery
during her lonely work, thanks not only to the method she used but
also to her determination to find the truth and not allow herself
to be deceived again. The changes in her body, once she paid attention
to it, supported her on her path.
Maja, thirty-eight, came to me several
weeks after the birth of her third child and told me how free and
alive she felt with this baby, quite in contrast to the way she had
felt with her two previous children. With them she had constantly
felt that excessive demands were being made upon her, that she was
a prisoner, and that the babies were taking advantage of her and exploiting
her. Thus she rebelled against their justified demands and, at the
same time, felt that this was very bad of her: as in depression, she
was separated from her true self. She thought these earlier reactions
might actually have been rebellion against her mother's demands, for
this time she was experiencing nothing of the sort. The love she had
then struggled to feel now came of its own accord. She could enjoy
her unity with this child and with herself. Then she spoke of her
mother in the following words:
I was the jewel in my mother's crown. She often said: "Maja
can be relied upon, she will cope." And I did cope. I brought
up the smaller children for her so that she could get on with her
professional career. She became more and more famous, but I never
saw her happy. How often I longed for her in the evenings. The little
ones cried and I comforted them but I myself never cried. Who would
have wanted a crying child? I could only win my mother's love if I
was competent, understanding, and controlled, if I never questioned
her actions or showed her how much I missed her; that would have limited
her freedom, which she needed so much. It would have turned her against
me. At that time, nobody ever would have thought that this quiet,
competent, useful Maja could be so lonely and have suffered so much.
What could I do but be proud of my mother and help her? The deeper
the hole in my mother's heart, the bigger the jewels in her crown
needed to be. My poor mother needed these jewels because, at bottom,
all her activity served only to suppress something in herself, perhaps
a longing, I don't know.... Perhaps she would have discovered it if
she had been fortunate enough to be a mother in more than a biological
And how all of this repeated itself
with Peter! How many empty hours my child had to spend with mother
substitutes so that I could get my "freedom," which only
took me further away from him and from myself. Now I know that I was
looking for a way to avoid my feelings when I deserted him--without
seeing what I was doing to him, because I had never been able to experience
my own sense of being deserted. Only now do I begin to realize what
motherhood without crown or jewels or a halo can be like.
A German women's magazine (which tries
to speak openly of truths that have been taboo) published a reader's
letter in which the tragic story of her experience of motherhood was
told without disguise. Her report ends with the following passage:
And then the breast-feeding! The baby was put to the breast
all wrong and soon my nipples were all bitten. God, how that hurt.
Just two hours and then it was back: another one ... the same. While
it was sucking there, I was crying and swearing above it. It was so
terrible that soon I couldn't eat any more and had a temperature of
40 degrees [Celsius]. Then I was allowed to wean and suddenly felt
better. It was a long time before I noticed any maternal feelings.
I wouldn't have minded if the baby had died. And everybody expected
me to be happy. In despair I telephoned a friend who said that I'd
get fond of him in time through being busy with him and having him
around all the time. But that did not happen either. I only began
to be fond of him when I could go back to work and only saw him
when I came home, as a distraction and toy, so to speak. But
quite honestly, a little dog would have done just as well. Now that
he is gradually getting bigger and I see that I can train him and
that he is devoted to me and trusts me, I am beginning to develop
tender feelings for him and am glad that he is there.* I have
written all this because I think it is a good thing that someone should,
at last, say that there is no such thing as mother love--not to speak
of a maternal instinct. (Emma, July 1977) * Italics added.
This woman could not really experience
either her own tragedy or that of her child, since her own emotionally
inaccessible childhood was the real beginning and the actual key to
this story. Her negative statement is thus incorrect. 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. Fortunately, however, as Johanna's story shows, we can also
restore these abilities as soon as we are determined to face our truth.
Johanna, age twenty-five, began her
therapy just before she became pregnant. She was well prepared for
the birth and enjoyed bonding with her healthy newborn. She was happy
that her milk was abundant and was anticipating the joys of breast-feeding
when suddenly, apparently without reason, her breasts became hard
and painful and she developed a high fever. She was distraught when
the nurse had to feed the baby with a bottle.
In her nightmares during the fever states,
Johanna dreamed repeatedly and with many details of being sexually
exploited in infancy by both of her parents and their friend. Thanks
to the feelings that had been awakened in her selftherapy, she was
able to feel her rage about the rape, the betrayal, and the damage
to her instinctual capacity to fulfill her child's needs. This last
of her parents' crimes was what made her most furious. She said later:
"They robbed me of my maternal instincts when I was three months
old. Because of what happened then, I was unable to breast-feed my
child, although I wanted it so desperately." It took a long time
for her to confront her parents in an inner dialogue, to express all
the feelings of rage and indignation that were stored up in her body,
and finally to overcome the effects of these violations.
Even before this complete healing could
take place, Johanna's willingness to face the horrible truth brought
about a decrease in her temperature and an improvement in the condition
of her breasts. She was able to feed her baby, who very quickly learned
to dispense with the bottle. This came as a surprise to the nurse,
who had been absolutely certain it "would never work."
Johanna was happy with her child. She
enjoyed being able to love, to protect, to nurture, to hold her child,
and to guess his needs. But this well-being was again and again interrupted
by phases of doubt and fear that she would be confronted by catastrophic
events if she continued to do what was simply a pleasure for her.
As she had studied psychology, she wondered whether she suffered from
an obsession and was just compelled to use her son for her own satisfaction,
out of pure egoism. This painful self-condemnation was supported by
her friends, who warned her about too much "permissiveness"
and instructed her that a child needs to learn his limits from the
beginning. Otherwise he will become a tyrant. Although Johanna rejected
these opinions for a long time, with her own child she was surprisingly
sensitive to them and became quickly confused.
Therapy helped her to find orientation,
again and again. And she found repeatedly how important it was to
her just being able to love, to express her love without being afraid
that she could be betrayed, exploited, violated. This love gave her
the feeling of being whole, as she had been before her integrity had
been injured. In her inner confrontation with her parents eventually,
I love Michael, I want to love him. My soul needs this love like
my body needs air. But I am so often in danger of suppressing my need
with the help of my whole energy and my intellect. I think that I
must "free" myself from this attachment, that it is "wrong."
Why? How have you brought me to feel these silly things? Maybe, by
teaching me so early that a child doesn't deserve respect, that he
is not a person, that he can be used as a toy to play with, that he
can be ignored, mistreated, threatened without any consequences. It
is this message, your message, that confuses me still from time to
time, that makes me sometimes feel overdemanded and under stress,
but I still do not dare to feel my rage toward you and become impatient
with Michael. It seems easier to feel that it is Michael who hinders
me to be free because he needs so much of my time. But it is not him.
I only need to look at his eyes, to see his innocence and his honesty,
and I know it: I have used him again as a scapegoat to protect you.
A loved child learns from the beginning
what love is. A neglected, exploited, and mistreated child like me
can't know it; she never had the chance to learn it. But I do learn
it now, from Michael, very slowly, and I know that I will succeed,
in spite of your messages. Because now I know how much I need to be
able to love and no longer to have doubts about my ability.
I think that Johanna's struggle for
her true feelings saved not only her child's future but also her own.
Ann's story shows what can happen later to a molested child without
this struggle, without therapy. Ann, fifty years old, wrote to me
a few days before her death:
I had a visit from my adult children today and realized
for the first time in my life that I have been loved by them, the
whole time, and I never felt this love until today. I have abandoned
them so often with various men and have actually been fleeing constantly
from my children and my love for them, from my true feelings, into
sexual pleasure with men who caused me so much pain and never gave
me what I really needed: love, understanding, acceptance. As an infant
I was conditioned by my father to look for pleasure connected with
pain and rage and to avoid true love. Was it not a perversion? I was
unable to escape it my whole life. And now, I can see it, but it is
It was too late because, although
Ann could see and understand what had happened to her, she was able
to feel the rage and indignation only toward her partners, not toward
her father. As she wrote in her letter, she still "loved"
and respected him.
DEPRESSIVE PHASES DURING THERAPY
A grandiose person will look for a therapist only if depressive episodes
come to his aid and force him to do so. As long as the grandiose defense
is effective, this form of disturbance exerts no pressure through
visible suffering, except when other members of the family (spouse
or children) have to seek psychotherapeutic help for depression or
psychosomatic disorders. In therapeutic work, we encounter grandiosity
only when it is coupled with depression. On the other hand, we see
depression in almost all our patients, either in the form of a manifest
illness or in distinct phases of depressive moods. These phases can
have different functions.
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. A present event
enabled the feelings to break through, and then the depression disappeared.
Such a mood can be an indication that parts of the self that had been
rejected (feelings, fantasies, wishes, fears) have become stronger,
without being discharged in grandiosity.
Suppression of Essential Needs
Mary, age thirty-nine, would sometimes leave a session feeling content
and understood after having come close to the core of her self. But
then she would distract herself with a party or something equally
unimportant to her at that moment, which would make her feel lonely
and inadequate again. After a few days she would complain of self-alienation
and emptiness, of once more having lost the way to herself. In this
way she was actively, though unconsciously, provoking a situation
that could demonstrate what used to happen to her as a child: Whenever
she began, through her imaginative play, to have a true sense of herself,
her parents would ask her to do something "more sensible"--to
achieve something--and her inner world, which was just beginning to
unfold, would be closed off to her. She reacted to this interference
by withdrawing her feelings and becoming depressed, because she could
not take the risk of a normal reaction--rage, perhaps.
If as an adult this person allows herself
to face such reminders and work with them, she will be able to feel
the old rage, rebel against the way she was treated, and find the
repressed need. The depression will then disappear, because its defensive
function is no longer needed. She will no longer have to flee into
such activities as parties if she allows herself to know what she
really needs at that very moment--possibly to avoid distraction and
spend some time alone with herself in her plight.
The Accumulation of Strong, Hidden Feelings
Depressive phases may last several weeks before strong emotions from
childhood break through. It is as though the depression has held back
the affect. When it can be experienced, insight and associations related
to the repressed scenes follow, often accompanied by significant dreams.
The patient feels fully alive again until a new depressive phase signals
something new. This may be expressed in the following fashion: "I
no longer have a feeling of myself. How could it happen that I should
lose myself again? I have no connection with what is within me. It
is all hopeless ... it will never be any better. Everything is pointless.
I am longing for my former sense of being alive." An emotional
outbreak may follow, accompanied by strong, legitimate reproaches,
and only after this outbreak will a new link with repressed experience
become clear and new vitality be felt. As long as these reproaches
are directed toward those who are responsible for harming us, a great
relief is the result. If, however, they are unjust, or transferred
onto innocent persons, the depression will continue until full clarification
Confronting the Parents
There will be times of depressive moods even after a person has started
to resist the demands of his parents, as many things remain unconscious,
repressed. He may, for example, resist their demands for achievement,
although he has not yet fully freed himself from them. He will land
again in the dead end of making pointlessly excessive demands upon
himself and will become aware that he doing so not only when a depressive
mood rises. He might for example, report the following experience:
The day before yesterday I was so happy. My work went easily--I was
able to do more work for the exam than I had planned for the whole
week. Then I thought I must take advantage of this good mood and do
another chapter in the evening. I worked all evening but without any
enthusiasm, and the next day I couldn't do any more. I felt like such
an idiot. Nothing stayed in my head. I didn't want to see anyone,
either; it felt like the depressions I used to have. Then I "turned
the pages back" and found the very moment it had begun. I had
spoiled my pleasure as soon as I made myself do more and more. But
why? Then I remembered how my mother used to say: "You have done
that beautifully, now you could surely do this, too. . ." I got
very angry and left the books alone. Then, later, I trusted myself
to know when I was ready to work again. And, of course, I did know.
But the depression went away sooner--at the point when I got angry
and realized how, and why, I had once again exceeded my limits.
THE INNER PRISON
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.
Then, suddenly, a depressive mood will stifle all spontaneity. If
an adult, for example, cannot experience grief when he loses somebody
dear to him but tries to distract himself from his sadness, or if
he suppresses and hides from himself his indignation over an idealized
friend's behavior out of fear of losing his friendship, he must reckon
with the probability of depression (unless his grandiose defense is
constantly at his disposal). When he begins to pay attention to these
connections, he can benefit from his depression and use it to learn
the truth about himself.
Once we have experienced a few times
that the breakthrough of intense early-childhood feelings (characterized
by the specific quality of noncomprehension) can relieve a long period
of depression, this experience will bring about a gradual change in
our way of approaching "undesired" feelings--painful feelings,
above all. We discover that we are no longer compelled to follow the
former pattern of disappointment, suppression of pain, and depression,
since we now have another possibility of dealing with disappointment:
namely, experiencing the pain. In this way we at last gain access
to our earlier experiences--to the parts of ourselves and our fate
that were previously hidden from us.
A child does not yet have this possibility
open to her. She cannot yet see through her mechanism of self-deception,
and, on the other hand, she is far more threatened than an adult by
the intensity of her feelings if she does not have a supportive, empathic
environment. Moreover, she can be in actual external danger. In contrast
to the child, the adult is not in danger when she dares to feel, although
she may, of course, fear the danger of her former situation (for the
first time) as long as the reasons for her fear remain unconscious.
The extreme intensity of childhood feeling
is to be found nowhere else, except in puberty. The recollection of
the pains of puberty, however--of not being able to understand or
to place our own impulses--is usually more accessible than the earliest
traumas, which are often hidden behind the picture of an idyllic childhood
or even behind an almost complete amnesia. This is perhaps one reason
why adults less often look back nostalgically to the time of their
puberty than to that of their childhood. The mixture of longing, expectation,
and fear of disappointment that for most people accompanies the remembrance
of festivities from childhood can perhaps be explained by their search
for the intensity of feeling they lost back then.
It is precisely because a child's feelings
are so strong that they cannot be repressed without serious consequences.
The stronger a prisoner is, the thicker the prison walls have to be,
and unfortunately these walls also impede or completely prevent later
emotional growth. In the closing phase of his therapy with me, a patient
described the new understanding that came with the dismantling of
his inner wall:
It was not the beautiful or pleasant feelings that gave me new insight,
but the ones against which I had fought most strongly: feelings that
made me experience myself as shabby, petty, mean, helpless, humiliated,
demanding, resentful, or confused; and, above all, sad and lonely.
It was precisely through these experiences, which I had shunned for
so long, that I became certain that I now understand something about
my life, stemming from the core of my being, something that I could
not have learned from any book!
This patient was describing the process
of gaining insight. Interpretations from therapists who ignore their
own childhood history can disturb, hamper, and delay this process,
or even prevent it or reduce it to mere intellectual insight. A person
seeking help is all too ready to give up his own pleasure in discovery
and self-expression and accommodate himself to his therapist's concepts,
out of fear of losing the latter's affection, understanding, and empathy,
for which he has been waiting all his life. Because of his early experiences
with his mother, he cannot believe that this need not happen. If he
gives way to this fear and adapts himself, the therapy slides over
into the realm of the false self, and the true self remains hidden
and undeveloped. It is therefore extremely important that the therapist
not allow his own needs to impel him to formulate connections that
the patient himself is discovering with the help of his own feelings.
Otherwise he is in danger of behaving like a friend who brings a good
meal to a prisoner in his cell, at the precise moment when that prisoner
has the chance to escape--perhaps to spend his first night hungry
and without shelter, but in freedom nevertheless. Since this first
step into unknown territory would require a great deal of courage,
the prisoner may comfort himself with his food and shelter and thus
miss his chance and stay in prison.
Recognizing the fragility of the healing
process obviously does not mean that the therapist must adopt a mostly
silent and hurtful attitude, but merely that he must exercise care
in this respect. It will then become possible for old, unremembered
situations to be experienced consciously in their full tragedy for
the first time and be mourned at last. Apparently, for many people
that works more effectively without the help of therapists.
It is part of the dialectic of the grieving
process that the experience of pain both encourages and is dependent
on self-discovery. If the psychotherapist invites the patient to share
in his own "grandeur," or if the patient is enabled to feel
powerful as part of a therapeutic group, he will experience relief
from his depression for a while, but the disturbance will still exist,
appearing in a different guise for a time. Because grandiosity is
the counterpart of depression within the narcissistic disturbance,
the achievement of freedom from both forms of disturbance is
hardly possible without deeply felt mourning about the situation of
the former child. This ability to grieve--that is, to give up the
illusion of his "happy" childhood, to feel and recognize
the full extent of the hurt he has endured--can restore the depressive's
vitality and creativity and free the grandiose person from the exertions
of and dependence on his Sisyphean task. If a person is able, during
this long process, to experience the reality that he was never loved
as a child for what he was but was instead needed and exploited for
his achievements, success, and good qualities--and that he sacrificed
his childhood for this form of love--he will be very deeply shaken,
but one day he will feel the desire to end these efforts. He will
discover in himself a need to live according to his true self and
no longer be forced to earn "love" that always leaves him
empty-handed, since it is given to his false self-something he has
begun to identify and relinquish.
The true opposite of depression is neither
gaiety nor absence of pain, but vitality--the freedom to experience
spontaneous feelings. It is part of the kaleidoscope of life that
these feelings are not only happy, beautiful, or good but can reflect
the entire range of human experience, including envy, jealousy, rage,
disgust, greed, despair, and grief. But this freedom cannot be achieved
if its childhood roots are cut off. 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.
A good deal of advice for dealing with
depression (for example, turning aggression from the inner to the
outer world) has a clearly manipulative character. Some psychiatrists,
for instance, suggest that the therapist should demonstrate to the
patient that his hopelessness is not rational or make him aware of
his oversensitivity. I think that such procedures will not only strengthen
the false self and emotional conformity but will reinforce the depression
as well. If therapists want to avoid doing so, they must take all
of the patients' feelings seriously. How often depressive patients
are aware that they have reacted oversensitively, and how much they
reproach themselves for it. It is precisely their oversensitivity,
shame, and self-reproach that form a continuous thread in their lives,
unless they learn to understand to what these feelings actually relate.
The more unrealistic such feelings are and the less they fit present
reality, the more clearly they show that they are concerned with unremembered
situations from the past that are still to be discovered. If the feeling
that begins to arise is not experienced but reasoned away, the discovery
cannot take place, and depression will triumph.
Pia, age forty, after a long depressive
phase accompanied by suicidal thoughts, was at last able to experience
and justify her long-suppressed rage toward her father, who had severely
mistreated her. This experience was followed immediately not by visible
relief, but by a period full of grief and tears. At the end of this
period she said:
The world has not changed. There is so much evil and meanness all
around me, and I see it even more clearly than before. Nevertheless,
for the first time I find life really worth living. Perhaps this is
because, for the first time, I have the feeling that I am really living
my own life. And that is an exciting adventure. On the other hand,
I can understand my suicidal ideas better now, especially those I
had in my youth--when it seemed pointless to carry on--because in
a way I had always been living a life that wasn't mine, that I didn't
want, and that I was ready to throw away.
A SOCIAL ASPECT OF DEPRESSION
One might ask whether adaptation must necessarily lead to depression.
Is it not possible, and do we not sometimes see, that emotionally
conforming individuals may live quite happily? There were perhaps
many such examples in the past. Within a culture that was shielded
from other value systems, an adapted individual was, of course, not
autonomous. He did not have an individual sense of identity (in our
sense) that could have given him support, but he felt supported by
the group. Today it is hardly possible for any group to remain completely
isolated from others with different values. The individual must therefore
find his support within himself if he is to avoid becoming the victim
of various interests and ideologies.
The so-called therapeutic groups try
to but cannot provide or replace this maturational process. Their
goal is to "empower" their members by providing them with
support and a sense of belonging. Since the suppression of childhood
feelings is the rule within these groups, however, the individual's
depression cannot be resolved. Moreover, a person can become addicted
to the group itself, as the group provides the illusion that
the unmet needs of the former child can eventually be fulfilled (by
the group) in the adult. With such illusions, no one can truly heal.
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.
Some children have latent powers to
resist adaptation and become partially adapted. Older children, particularly
as they reach puberty, may attach themselves to new values, which
are often opposed to those of the parents. An adolescent may accept
and conform to the ideals of a group of youths just as he did to those
of his parents when he was younger. But since this attempt is not
rooted in an awareness of his own true needs and feelings, he is again
giving up and denying his true self in order to be accepted and loved,
this time by a peer group. His renewed sacrifice will therefore not
relieve his depression. He is not really himself, nor does he know
or love himself: Everything he undertakes is done in hope of making
somebody love him in the way he once, as a child, so urgently needed
to be loved; but what could not be experienced at the appropriate
time in the past can never be attained later on.
There are innumerable examples of this
dilemma. I will describe two of them:
1: Paula, age twenty-eight, wanted to
free herself from her patriarchal family in which the mother was completely
subjugated by the father. She married a submissive man and seemed
to behave differently from her mother. Her husband allowed her to
bring her lovers into the house. She did not permit herself any feelings
of jealousy or tenderness and wanted to have relations with a number
of men without any emotional ties, so that she could feel as autonomous
as a man. Her need to be "progressive" went so far that
she allowed her partners to abuse and humiliate her, and she suppressed
all her feelings of mortification and anger in the belief that her
behavior made her modern and free from prejudice. In this way she
unconsciously carried over into these relationships both her childhood
obedience and her mother's submissiveness. At times she suffered from
severe depression, so she entered therapy, which enabled her to feel
how much she suffered because of the passiveness of her mother, who
tolerated the abusive father without the slightest opposition. Confronting
the pain of not having been protected by her indifferent, defensive
mother eventually helped Paula to stop creating her mother's self-destructive
attitude in her own relationships with men and to allow herself to
love people who deserved her love.
2: Amar, now forty, grew up in an African
family, alone with his mother after his father died when he was still
a very small boy. His mother insisted on certain conventions and did
not allow him to be aware of his needs in any way, let alone express
them. On the other hand, she regularly massaged his penis until puberty,
ostensibly on medical advice. As an adult, the son left his mother
and her world and married an attractive European with a different
background. Due to his repressed history, he chose a woman who not
only tormented and humiliated him but also undermined his confidence
to an extreme degree, so that he was unable either to stand up to
her or to leave her.
This sadomasochistic marriage, like
the other example, represents an attempt to break away from the parents'
social system with the help of another one. Amar was certainly able
to free himself from the mother of his adolescence, but he remained
emotionally tied to the mother of his early childhood (and his unconscious
memories of her), whose role was taken over by his wife as long as
he was not able to experience the feelings from that period. It was
terribly painful for him to realize how much he had needed his mother
as a child and at the same time had felt abused in his helplessness--how
much he had loved her, hated her, and been entirely at her mercy.
But as a result of this experience, Amar no longer feared his wife
and for the first time dared to see her as she really was.
The child must adapt to ensure the illusion
of love, care, and kindness, but the adult does not need this illusion
to survive. He can give up his amnesia and then be in a posit ion
to determine his actions with open eyes. Only this path will free
him from his depression. 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." Neither can accept the
truth that this loss or absence of love has already happened
in the past, and that no effort whatsoever can change this fact.
THE LEGEND OF NARCISSUS
The legend of Narcissus actually tells us the tragedy of the loss
of the self. Narcissus sees his reflection in the water and falls
in love with his own beautiful face, of which his mother was surely
proud. The nymph Echo answers the young man's calls because she is
in love with his beauty. Echo's answering calls deceive Narcissus.
His reflection deceives him as well, since it shows only his perfect,
wonderful face and not his inner world, his pain, his history. His
back view, for instance, and his shadow remain hidden from him; they
do not belong to and are cut off from his beloved reflection.
This stage of rapturous enchantment
can be compared to grandiosity, just as the next (the consuming longing
for himself) can be likened to depression. Narcissus wanted to be
nothing but the beautiful youth; he totally denied his true self.
In trying to be at one with the beautiful picture, he gave himself
up--to death or, in Ovid's version, to being changed into a flower.
This death is the logical consequence of the fixation on the false
self. It is not only the "beautiful," "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 "beautiful
Narcissus was in love with his idealized
picture, but neither the grandiose nor the depressive "Narcissus"
can really love himself. His passion for his false self makes impossible
not only love for others but also, despite all appearances, love for
the one person who is fully entrusted to his care: himself.