Reading Alice Miller (2): Depression & Grandiosity

In the second essay in her book The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller argues that depression and grandiosity are essentially related forms of narcissistic disorder. What most of us call depression, she explains, is in her experience a loss of self or an estrangement from the self which is frequently rooted in childhood experience (57).


Narcissus, by Walker

Miller distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy narcissism. Healthy narcissism is an essential part of ego formation and growth: Every child has a need to be seen, understood and taken seriously by its mother. Especially during infancy, the child is existentially dependent on the availability of a mother as a mirror. Ideally, the baby gazes into the face of the mother and sees itself. Sometimes, however, a mother cannot be a mirror because she has too many expectations, fears, or insecurities in regard to the child. In that case, Miller explains, the child sees not itself but the mother’s need, to which it adapts in an effort at self-preservation.

A ‘healthy sense of self‘ as defined by Miller is ‘the undoubted certainty that the feelings and wishes that are experienced are part of one’s own self’ (60). This allows a person to have self-respect, to allow him / herself to live emotions like fear, anger, or desperation. In contrast, an adult who grew up without learning this sense of self (i.e. a narcissist by Miller’s definition) will instead forbid him / herself such emotions because they might upset the (by now internalized) mother in her need and insecurity.

A child who is allowed to live through its healthy narcissistic phase learns to distinguish between its own emotion and those of others; it develops a healthy sense of self. A child who has to meet the needs of those around it before it can develop a sense of self will find it difficult to distinguish between own and outside emotion, own and outside need, self and object. While it may grow up to be intelligent and likable, chances are that parts of its personality are not integrated. The result is a constant yearning for something that can no longer be had: the unconditional acceptance of who this person was.


Narcissus, by van Baburen

Narcissism, as a disorder, is a struggle for a stable sense of self via outside responses. The narcissist may push himself to impressive performances, strive for admiration or praise by means of his well-honed skills, intellect, perfectionism, etc, but even when he receives what he believes he craves, his contentment is fleeting: in the end, he knows he is praised or liked  not for what he is, but for what he does in order to receive.

The grandiose narcissist strives for perfection in everything he does. He is admired, and admires himself, for his attributes such as intellect, giftedness, beauty, his professional or academic achievements. He is the pride of his family, adored by his friends. But, Miller points out, pride and shame often go hand in hand. A grandiose narcissist may live in great fear of disappointing those who are / should be proud of him, of falling short of his own high standards.

When the grandiose narcissist loses his attractive attributes, his grandiosity may collapse into the other extreme: depressive narcissism. Miller illustrates this with the example of a narcissistic woman who loses her beauty as she ages: no longer admired and adored for her looks, she has lost her ‘mirrors’ and with them her fragile sense of self. The depressed narcissist may not be as flashy as his grandiose counterpart, but he still holds himself to unreasonably high moral standards. While he cannot tolerate shortcomings in himself, he has little problem allowing for them in other people.

Grandiosity and depressive narcissism are, as Miller explains “two sides of the same coin which one can call the fake self, and which was in fact earned at one point for performance.” (74) Those who do not have a stable, healthy sense of self may alternate between the two states depending on the situation they find themselves in. Both states are “inner prisons” (78): in one, the prisoner must act the perfect child, the pride and joy, and in the other, the prisoner must perceive himself a failure. Miller argues that a predominantly depressive presentation of narcissistic disorder suggests that the cause lies in early infancy, such as when a child learns it must not feel upset, angry, or hungry for fear of angering the parent. (79)

Miller compares narcissistic disorder to a wound that is never allowed to heal, because it is never acknowledged. By constantly trying to build a sense of self from the outside in, the narcissist refuses to admit to himself that it’s only ever a makeshift solution, a temporary fix that will break down as soon as the performance is over. The grandiose narcissist keeps trying, though, because not trying would mean having to face the lack of his sense of self.

Depression, according to Miller, can “lead [us] to the wound, but only the mourning of what was missing, what was missed at a crucial point in time, leads to scarring.” (75-6, my translation) Scarring, here, means that the wound has closed and healed over; the damage is repaired, albeit not without trace.


Narcissus, by Jules-Cyrille Cave

Depression can also happen during therapy / analysis, of course. At certain moments it is almost to be expected. As Miller points out, facing the problem rather than constantly trying to patch it up is no small task, and may lead to temporary suffering, but is worth it in the end:

When a person […] experiences that he was never ‘loved’ for the person he was, but rather for his performance, his successes and his qualities, and that he has sacrificed his childhood to this ‘love’, this will lead him to great inner tremors, but he will feel the desire, one day, to stop [performing]. He will find in himself the need to live his own self and to no longer have to earn love – a love which leaves him empty-handed, because it is for the fake self, which he has begun to give up. (94, my translation)

Finally, Miller clarifies that freeing oneself from depression does ‘not lead to continual joyfulness or an absence of suffering, but to aliveness (Lebendigkeit), i.e. to the freedom to live emotions as they appear spontaneously.” (ibid) Like Narcissus, the narcissist does not allow himself to see all he is – and thus cannot accept himself as a complete, complex and authentic human being. Once he can allow himself the shadows, the wrinkles, and bear the flaws and shortcomings in himself, he no longer has to share the trapped state of Narcissus who wastes away by the lake.


This blog post is part 2 of 3. Part 1: The Gifted Child, Part 3: On Contempt.


Echo and Narcissus, painting by Waterhouse.


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.


  1. Pingback: Reading Alice Miller (1): The Gifted Child | Outside of a Cat

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

add your two cents!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: