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

Alice Miller

Chapter II Depression & Grandiosity: Two Forms of Denial


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.

Healthy Development
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. 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 start.
     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.

The Disturbance
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 had done.


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 to, fundamentalism.
     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 parents.
     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
* Perfectionism
* Denial of rejected feelings
* A preponderance of exploitative relationships
* An enormous fear of loss of love and therefore a great readiness to conform
* Split-off aggression
* Oversensitivity
* A readiness to feel shame and guilt
* Restlessness.

Depression 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 an example.
     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, for instance.
     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 science.
     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, wrote:

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 my truth.
     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 to me.
     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 sense.
     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, she said:

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 too late.

     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.


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.

Signal Function
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 becomes possible.

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.


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.


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 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 countenance"!
     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.