The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self
by Alice Miller, published 1979, 1997
Recently I was discussing economic and social philosophy with some friends and the question came up about why certain philosophical ideas aren’t more popular or well-known if they seem to be more logically correct than the alternatives. We entertained a number of reasons why this might be but the one that stuck out to me as particularly weighty is the idea that the truth is deep, long and heavily nuanced and doesn’t make for quick, emotional soundbites. I made the quip, “Why is the economy the way it is? Do you have 5 years to study what you’d need to know to understand it?” followed by, “Why does the political system look as it does today? Do you have an entire lifetime to devote to studying all of human history?”
The other weighty suggestion that was offered is that there are many philosophies that cater to telling people what they want to hear (ie, an easy to accept reality) and only one that emphasizes telling it like it is (ie, a hard truth about reality).
I see echoes of these two notions in the opening of Alice Miller’s “Gifted Child”:
The damage done to us during our childhood cannot be undone, since we cannot change anything in our past. We can, however, change ourselves. We can repair ourselves and gain our lost integrity by choosing to look more closely at the knowledge that is stored inside our bodies and bringing this knowledge closer to our awareness. This path, although certainly not easy, is the only route by which we can at last leave behind the cruel, invisible prison of our childhood. We become free by transforming ourselves from unaware victims of the past into responsible individuals in the present, who are aware of our past and are thus able to live with it.
Most people do exactly the opposite. Without realizing that the past is constantly determining their present actions, they avoid learning anything about their history. They continue to live in their repressed childhood situation, ignoring the fact that it no longer exists. They are continuing to fear and avoid dangers that, although once real, have not been real for a long time. They are driven by unconscious memories and by repressed feelings and needs that determine nearly everything they do or fail to do.
This book asks the reader to consider two troubling ideas. The first is that they are likely to be carrying some emotional baggage from their childhood that originates with the way they were cared for by parents and other important adults in their lives. The second is that they are likely to transmit this baggage to their own children (if they have any) and other important, intimate relationships if they don’t find a way to come to terms with it beforehand.
Like the consideration made about the popularity or penetration of certain economic and social philosophies, these ideas are troubling for most people to accept because it forces them to revise their current understanding of the relationships they have with important people in their lives, it forces them to take responsibility for the course of their lives and their choices and give up the perverse safety and security of seeing life through the eyes of the helpless victim and it forces them to concede that the present is not a unique or isolated moment pregnant with infinite possibilities, but rather one moment at the end of a string of moments stretching back into the earliest reaches of human history in which possibilities exist but are limited by certain choices and events which took place in the uncontrollable past.
There is of course great freedom in choosing to explore these troubling ideas but they come at the cost of a grave responsibility that few, based on my practical experience, seem willing to bear.
To find this freedom, one must seek out “the lost world of feelings.” Human infants are entirely dependent upon their adult caretakers for their survival, unlike most other animals who, while weak and undeveloped, are nonetheless able to move around, seek shelter, find food, etc., on their own almost immediately after birth. For a young human, being ostracized or unloved by ones parents is a death sentence. Therefore, the human psyche is wired at birth to prioritize adapting to the parents’ emotional needs over fully developing its own.
If certain emotional expressions or behaviors prove to be problematic for the relationship with the parents, the human child will work to repress and hide that part of themselves. They will disown it and their personality will become dichotomized into “me”, the feelings and behaviors and characteristics I acknowledge and accept because they have demonstrated value with my parents, and “not me”, the feelings and behaviors and characteristics I deny possessing or experiencing because they have been a source of conflict with my parents, on whom I depend for survival.
This is what Miller means when she talks about searching for the “true self.” The irony, however, is that
the child does not know what he is hiding.
That is, it is not as if the child knows what his true self is and isn’t and is lying to himself and others about who he really is. It is more like, he has shoddy vision and can’t see a focused image of himself in true detail, or else he has a map of himself leading to the buried treasure of his own reality but he doesn’t know how to read the map and therefore doesn’t know where his self is or even what he’ll find when he gets there. Every now and then this person might get a glimpse or a sense of their true self in a particularly emotionally charged moment but really all they’re experiencing is the anxiety indicating the existence of repressed and disowned selfhood, not a look at what is missing.
To heal, these emotions must be encountered and experienced. Further, painful emotions must be resolved by tracking down their genesis in early childhood experiences. Memories and relationships with respected and important adult caretakers must be studied and re-evaluated through the more objective eyes of an independent adult rather than the way they were first constructed by a subjective and immature child. This not only allows the adult of the now to be released from the terrors of the former child but it can enable the adult to have new modes of living and doing:
Rational, constructive action depends not only on the intactness of our intellectual faculties, but also on the extent to which we have access to our true emotions.
the inescapable conclusion is that for people to be able to organize their lives, they must have access to their emotions.
This is one of the many and for me, the most important, takeaways from this book. It is not enough to rationalize about a choice and a potential plan of action. To actually develop an impetus to act requires an emotional experience. Adults who repress certain parts of their emotional selves due to childhood traumas become incapable of acting in certain areas of their lives. They become procrastinators, perfectionists or otherwise evasive in the area of making a decision, acting on it and then sticking with it.
By finding and integrating one’s lost world of feelings, one has the opportunity to become active and empowered in new areas of one’s life that were otherwise mysterious, frustrating or dormant.
One question that comes up for some people as they consider all of this is, “But why did my parents ever treat me in such and such a way?” Using some of the memories and recollections of a famous cultural writer as an example, Miller says,
like so many gifted children [he] was so difficult for his parents to bear not despite but because of his inner riches. Often a child’s very gifts […] will confront his parents with conflicts that they have long sought to keep at bay by means of rules and regulations. These regulations must then be rescued at the cost of the child’s development.
The parents’ childhoods involved repression as well. For their own survival they learned to disown parts of their emotional experience or certain of their behaviors that caused trouble with their parents. They rationalized this turn of events and created rules for living that would help them avoid these perceived dangers. And then when they had children, these rules and procedures came into question by the existence of the innocent child. And so a new round of repression is started.
The only way the cycle can be broken is for the adult to make the painstaking effort to connect with his child self and understand what happened and how it has impacted him, and then he must choose to live his life differently with that new awareness of his past. This is hard for many to do because
What they do not see, because they cannot see them, are the absurdities enacted by their own mothers when they were still tiny children.
Another powerful idea contained in this book is an explanation of the appeal of irrational ideas to adults with traumatic childhood experiences. The trauma of childhood is itself irrational– there is no “reason” for any child to be abused or neglected by those who brought it into the world, and save those who are simply unlucky in having some external misfortune befall their family (ie, the child is made an orphan when the parents die unexpectedly), there is no excuse or justification the adults could offer a child as to why they are being treated as they are. For survival reasons, the child must make a place in their psyche for irrational ideas to exist because in doing so they “close the loop” on the irrationality and make it seem rational. “Some things just don’t make sense” is a way to make sense of things that don’t make sense.
When this space for irrationality exists, adults can become wedded to irrational ideas and beliefs, such as political ideologies, abusive social relationships or supernatural superstitions. On one hand, they lack the ability to rationally resist these ideas and beliefs because they are willing to accept that not everything has to make rational sense in their lives. On the other hand, they may positively identify with the claims of these ideologies because they appeal to their own experiences or sense of self as a victim who is oppressed by others, that is, they offer a way to feel like they’re getting even. On this point Miller is worth quoting at length:
Oppression and the forcing of submission do not begin in the office, factory or political party; they begin in the very first weeks of the infant’s life.
Political action can be fed by the unconscious rage of children who have been misused, imprisoned, exploited, cramped and drilled. This rage can be partially discharged in fighting “enemies”, without having to give up the idealization of one’s own parents. The old dependency will then simply be shifted to a new group or leader. If, however, disillusionment and the resultant mourning can be lived through, social and political disengagement do not usually follow, but our actions are freed from the compulsion to repeat. They can then have a clear goal, formed out of conscious decisions.
Once our own reality has been faced and experienced, the inner necessity to keep building up new illusions and denials in order to avoid the experience of that reality disappears. We then realize that all our lives we have feared and struggled to ward off something that really cannot happen any longer; it has already happened, at the very beginning of our lives while we were completely dependent.
The term “fighting yesterday’s battles” comes to mind when thinking about this irrational space.
While Miller’s analysis applies to any child and any adult experiencing emotional pain and depression (whether they’re aware of it or not!), the book is especially focused on the plight of “gifted” children because of the uniquely problematic experience they can have in this area due to their talents and abilities. Not only do “gifted” children tend to experience these emotional troubles more deeply,
many people suffering from severe symptoms are very intelligent
but they also tend to experience these troubles uniquely through feelings of grandiosity and contempt.
Grandiosity is the concept of identifying one’s personal value as a person with one’s special talents and abilities. One’s greatness isn’t just a part of one’s self, it IS the self. But this complicates the emotional life of the gifted child because it is inevitable that not every part of themselves is grand. There exists then another dichotomy, wherein all the parts that are grand (which may be very few and overall represent a quite limited part of the total person or experience of self) are “me”, and all the parts that are normal or weak (which is likely then the majority and the wider experience of self) are “not me”. And if my parents love and care for the grand gifts I have but dislike or don’t know how to deal with the unexceptional aspects of my self, then
we remain at bottom the one who is despised, for we have to despise everything in ourselves that is not wonderful, good, clever… we despise… in short, the child in ourselves and in others.
“Without these achievements, these gifts, I could never be loved. would never have been loved.”
An emotional experience that often goes hand in hand with grandiosity is contempt.
The function all expressions of contempt have in common is the defense against unwanted feelings. [ie, despising what is not grand about oneself]
Once we are able to feel and understand the repressed emotions of childhood, we will no longer need contempt as a defense against them.
Contempt as a rule will cease with the beginning of the mourning for the irreversible that cannot be changed… it is, after all, less painful to think that the others do not understand because they are too stupid.
Gifted people often experience contempt for others as an expression of insecurity about the repressed parts of themselves that are not part of their gifts. Unable to have empathy and kindness towards themselves in these areas, they become impatient and hostile towards those reminders of their own weakness that they see in others.
hating and offending an innocent person, using him as a scapegoat, can only strengthen the walls of our inner prison of confusion, isolation, fear and loneliness: it cannot free us.
And the most innocent person of all, the most unfair scapegoat a person can choose in this drama, is their child self. Whether these ideas are new or familiar, I encourage anyone reading this to consider the implications of the ideas contained in this book not as if they describe a set of generalized human experiences but rather as if they describe something specific and personal to the reader himself. If this book’s message can be taken to heart and internalized, it can be the jumping off point for great personal change that will ultimately resolve itself in what Miller refers to as a “healthy self-feeling”:
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.