The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller, has been on my shelf for years. I am not exaggerating. It has been there, reproaching me, taunting me with my inadequacy, for at least twelve years. Now you must understand that this is a thin little book, a small volume that consists of three of Miller’s major essays from the middle of her career as a Swiss psychoanalyst. But I have been afraid of this book, afraid of Miller in many ways.
Today, this morning in fact, I finally finished reading this book. I finished reading and now I sit, both wondering what I was afraid of, and knowing that my own struggles in reading this book come from my struggles to escape my childhood traumas. What Miller wrote was radical when she wrote it, but that was more than thirty years ago.
Her point, oversimplified, is that children experience intrapsychic wounding by parents who have not consciously realized their own wounds. This wounding happens in good families, by parents who mean well and frequently the children of such parents are “gifted:” they are leaders, intellectual, caregivers, compliant and obedient, shining lights in many ways. The problem, and there is a problem, is that these gifted children have given up parts of themselves in order to be what the parents needs them to be….good, nice, kind, smart, beautiful, athletic, obedient, quiet…whatever it is that the parent must have. When a person, a child, has to put away parts of herself in order to stay connected to the parent, those parts can go underground for years. They can emerge as peculiar behaviours, thoughts, or feelings, or show up as an absence, such as when a person feels “nothing” or “numbness” or reports that they feel dead inside. We are built with a part of us that strives toward wholeness, someone, and we get to a point where it no longer feels okay to live your life as if you are a real person having a real life. You want to actually BE a real person and actually LIVE. That means having access to all the parts of you; the nice, sweet, clean, brilliant parts, but also the dirty, nasty, angry, bitchy, sly and disgusting parts as well. We have it all but until we can find acceptance for it all, we are only living a partial life.
Miller is a psychoanalyst, so she constructs this process in terms of objects and introjects. I can see myself in those terms but also more simply. I can still hear my mother’s voice when I start to rage at myself for my usual internal list of shortcomings (that’s where the inadequacy comes in). I recognize that part of me that still operates as if striving will get me something. With striving come harsh thoughts, rigid behaviour and body, focused and energized thinking but only in rigid areas, with tunnel vision. Even though I don’t consciously feel like I need to be punished, my actions are punishing: extreme frugality, extreme exercise, extreme dieting, extreme overwork. When I get that way, now, I know that I have been triggered, something has happened. In some way I have been reminded of the child that I once was, who believed that she deserved to be punished when she was not “good.”
What I have learned about myself includes knowing that I need soothing rather than punishment when I am busy overworking, over planning, and overeating. Because the range of feelings could not be accepted and accommodated in my childhood, I learned that having some particular feelings was “bad.” Even now, even as an adult, a therapist, a psychologist, I may react with shock and shame at some trigger. . And it may take a bit of time for me to see what happened.
When I notice that rigidity coming over me, I can slow down. I can remember that my body is locked in the old, old story, not the here-and-now. I can breathe and remind myself that love is available. I can take it in, right here and now, feeling my connection to the ground and to the sky. I can soften my shoulders, relax my jaw, let my eyes rest deeply in their sockets, and remember that I am who I am, a whole person who makes mistakes and poor choices and has messy and complicated feelings, and that I am also more than that.
And I can thank Miller for her book, for her ideas that really opened up how we think about the inner world of children. I am sorry it has taken me twenty or more years to read this book but that’s just what it took. And I am grateful that I had it to read now.