Depression and Grandiosity (haughtiness, pomposity)


What happens if a mother not only is unable to recognise and fulfil her child’s needs, but herself is in need of assurance? Quite unconsciously, the mother then tries to quench her own needs through the 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 is so important for the child are therefore missing from this 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 saves him (by securing the mother’s or the father’s love), 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 included, so they are repressed. This person will later live in the past without realising it and will continue to react to past dangers as if they were present.

  What the mother once failed to find in her own mother she is able to find in her child: someone at her disposal who can be used and controlled and is completely centred on her. If the child’s demands become too great (as those of her mother once did), she is no longer so defenceless: she can bring the child up in such a way that he neither cries nor disturbs her. At last she can make sure that she receives consideration and respect.



Over the years my work has included many consultations. In these short encounters, the tragedy of an individual history can often be seen with heart-rending clarity. In what is described as depression, and experienced as emptiness, futility and loneliness, can usually be recognised as the tragic loss of the self in childhood, manifested as the total alienation from the self in the adult.

  I have witnessed various shades of so-called narcissistic disturbances (ie, narcissistic = excessive interest in one’s appearance). There are two forms, one the reverse of the other – these are Grandiosity and Depression. Behind grandiosity there constantly lurks depression. And behind depression there often hides an unconscious (or conscious but split-off) sense of a tragic history. In fact grandiosity is the defence against depression. And depression is the defence against the deep pain over the loss of the self (which has resulted from enforced denial at an early age).

  The person who is ‘grandiose’ needs admiration; indeed, he cannot live without it. He must excel in everything (otherwise he just does not attempt it). He too admires himself for his qualities – his beauty, his talents. Beware if one of these fails him, for then the catastrophe of  sever depression is imminent.

  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, which flew up very high then was punctured and lay like a rag on the ground.

  In a field study, twelve patients suffering manic-depression (moods that constantly swing back and forth from elation to depression) were examined. All came from families who felt themselves too little respected in their neighbourhood. They therefore made special efforts to increase their prestige through conformity and good outward appearance. The child who later became manic-depressive had been assigned the role of guaranteeing the family honour, and was loved only in proportion to the degree to which he was able to fulfil this. If he failed he was punished by being cold-shouldered, and by the knowledge that he had brought shame on his family.

  Without therapy, it is impossible for the grandiose person to cut the tragic link between admiration and love. He seeks admiration, but can never get enough because admiration is not the same thing as love – and it is unconditional love that he had been deprived of. Admiration is a substitute of the primary needs for respect, understanding and being taken seriously – needs that have remained unconscious since early childhood. Often a whole life will be devoted to this substitute. As long as the true need is not felt and understood, the struggle for the symbol of love will continue. Such a person could also be envious of others who don’t have to make a constant effort to impress, and 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 that can suddenly fail.

Grandiosity and Depression can be seen as two sides of a coin, and the coin is the false-self. Depression leads close to the wounds. But only mourning for what has been missed, missed at a crucial time, can lead to real healing.

  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 true self.
·  A fragile self-esteem due to lack of confidence in one’s feelings and wishes.
·  Perfectionism.
·  Denial of rejected feelings.
·  A prevalence of manipulative relationships.  
·  An enormous fear of the loss of love and therefore a great readiness to conform.
·  Split-off aggression.
·  Oversensitivity.
·  A readiness to feel shame or guilt.
·  Restlessness.



Depression consists of a denial of one’s own reactions. This begins as an 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.

  Without free access to the facts of our life history, the sources of our ability to love remain cut off. No wonder, then, that well-intended appeals to be loving, caring, generous and so on, are fruitless. We cannot really love if we are forbidden to know our truth, the truth about our parents as well as about ourselves. We can only try to behave as if we were loving. But this hypocritical act 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 pretended ‘love’, especially if one is dependent, as a child is, on the person who is masquerading in this illusion of love. If only we could open our eyes to the vast damage produced by hypocrisy, in families and in society as a whole.

  “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.”

  As adults, we don’t need unconditional love, not even from our therapists. This is a childhood need that can never be fulfilled later in life, and we are playing with illusions if think we never mourned this lost opportunity. But there are other things we can get from good therapists, even friends: reliability, honesty, respect, trust, empathy (sympathy) and understanding.

  A grandiose person will look for a therapist only if depressive episodes force him to do so. As long as the grandiose defence is effective, he will not seek help. So therapists only encounter grandiosity when it is coupled with depression.

  If as an adult a person allows themselves to face distressing memories and work with them, they will be able to feel the old rage, rebel against the way they were treated, and find the repressed need. The depression will then disappear, because its defensive function is no longer needed.

  Depressive phases may occur that last several weeks before strong emotions from childhood break through. It is as though the depression has held back the effect. 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 any 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 reproaches of those responsible, 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 towards those responsible for harming us, a great relief is the result.

  “It was not 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 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 a book.”

  This patient was describing the process of gaining insight.