Reading Alice Miller (1): The Gifted Child

I’ve been reading Alice Miller’s seminal text Das Drama des begabten Kindes (The Drama of the Gifted Child), a collection of three essays in which Miller explores the origins of the loss of self (Selbstverlust). The loss of self, she argues, happens early on, even if those who experience it usually appear fine and don’t seek help until later in adulthood. I’ll discuss Miller’s essays one by one, in three blog posts.

Note: the edition I am using is the revised re-issue (Suhrkamp, 1983). Unless otherwise noted, any quotes in English are my own translation.


Essay 1: The Drama of the Gifted Child and the Narcissism of the Analyst

Based on the work of Winnicott, Mahler and Kohut (1972), Miller supposes that every child has an innate desire to be noticed and to be taken seriously, and that this desire is legitimate, because being noticed and being taken seriously is vital for the formation of a sense of self. A child whose emotional experience has been respected and tolerated can outgrow its symbiotic relationship with the mother; individuation can take place. Children can be said to have a (normal, temporary) narcissistic phase that helps them become independent individual selves.

Miller argues that parents who have a narcissistic need (narzißtische Bedürftigkeit) – because they were not taken seriously as children – are likely unable to provide their own children with the accepting environment needed for this development. While they still desire this unconditional acceptance and seek it from their own child, their actual need cannot be fulfilled because the past is past, and the child cannot be their parent.

Miller says that over years of psychological practice, she has observed certain patterns: If a mother who is emotionally insecure has a child who is emotionally gifted, the child will intuit the mother’s need and respond to it. It will also develop a “very special sensorium for the subconscious signals of the needs of others” (24). She argues that it is only logical that these children would grow up to choose to become psychoanalysts: “Who else, without this history, would show interest in spending all day trying to find out what happens in the subconscious of the Other?” (ibid)

Narcissistic Disorders

The infant who intuits the mother’s need and adapts to it will, according to Miller, develop a narcissistic disorder. It will use a number of tools to make its situation – its own unmet needs – bearable, and may keep using these tools for the rest of its life. Among these tools are denial, reversal, displacement of emotional responses onto other objects, introjection, and intellectualization. All of these are originally means of self-preservation: an infant has no choice but to adapt to the situation it finds itself in – unlike the parent, it cannot walk away. It is dependent on others for survival. Later, however, these behaviors no longer serve their purpose.

An infant who adapts to the needs of the mother, as it grows up, does not develop a stable sense of self, because it is constantly focused outside, rather than on its own experience. Miller points out that while individuation and emotional growth are stunted in these individuals, their intellectual growth is not. In the case of gifted children, they may even use their intellectual skills to compensate. After being ‘good’ (well-mannered, obedient, responsible) children, they grow up to be successful, a further source of pride to their parents.

Here, we come to the problem of narcissism: the narcissist works hard to earn the attention, the love and acceptance of others. However, the underlying need is one of unconditional acceptance, and this need can never be met by ‘earned’ praise, love, or admiration. The narcissist still lives outside of the self, constantly observing from the outside: how do I appear? How should I be feeling? How should I be acting to receive the acceptance / love / attention of those around me?

Miller argues that by helping narcissistic clients realize the dilemma they are in, and by allowing them to learn now what they did not have a chance to learn as infants and children, analysts (therapists) can help them complete their stalled individuation.

This involves instances of transference, where the analyst becomes a stand-in for the parent figure / the mother. It involves the first-hand experience of the client that her emotions are her own, that she is allowed to have them, and that she does not owe the Other some emotional debt. She no longer needs to adapt to the needs of the Other (be that a parent, a partner, etc) in order to survive. The most difficult part for the client may be reaching the realization that she has not yet embraced these truths. Miller points out that once we are able to leave the dependency of the child – this existential fear of abandonment – behind us, we become emotionally free. (45)


Miller closes by pointing out that every mother has some emotional baggage, some history of her own that she cannot help but communicate to her child. There is no ‘perfect’, unburdened mother. Sometimes, too, the burden is much larger: crises or wars put families in situations where children have to take on roles they are not yet ready for, to parent their siblings or even their own parents.

Additionally, not every child is equally affected by its mother’s background and needs, and most of us are fine, despite the imperfections of our childhoods. However, those who have lived through (and processed) the drama of the gifted child can be a valuable resource for those who are stuck in the middle of the drama.

There’s plenty of prejudice going around about mental health, and too many times have I heard something along the lines of “Shrinks are the ones who need shrinks the most” – Miller suggests that while yes, analysts may choose their profession because they have first-hand experience with psychological processes gone awry, she also points out that rather than meaning they are ‘damaged’ in some way, they have developed a set of skills crucial to helping others handle their crises.


Post 2: Depression and Grandiosity

Post 3: On Contempt


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.


  1. Pingback: Reading Alice Miller (2): Depression & Grandiosity | Outside of a Cat

  2. Pingback: Alice Miller (3): On Contempt | Outside of a Cat

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