Mind Matters: Parental mirroring provides child sense of self-worth

“The basis of healthy self-esteem is that one’s natural self, with all its emotions, with its successes and failures, is acceptable and lovable. If the child does not feel his parents love him for himself, apart from accomplishments, he will develop what object relations theorists call the ‘false self,’ the self that is fabricated in order to get the approval of his parents, based on the ability to achieve good grades, a good job, a good mate, etc.” — Taken from Wikipedia’s definition of mirroring

The concept of mirroring involves a parent’s accurate reflection of a child’s expressed thoughts and feelings. This reflection leads to the child’s experience of acceptance and validity.

Over time, the validation is internalized and the child enters adult life with self-acceptance and self-awareness. This self-awareness can be viewed as the individual’s awareness of what he or she brings to the party. This enables the experience of social acceptance and competence.

What happens when a child is not mirrored authentically by his or her parents? In some instances, a child may become self-absorbed in a compensatory effort to feel OK. Other children will struggle with an inability to identify and express an authentic self, frequently fabricating an identity in order to get approval from parents and peers, or withdrawing socially because of lack of self-esteem.

Parents struggle to provide accurate reflections when they are trapped in their own struggles with identity. Some parents struggle with intimacy or are so self-absorbed they are not able to see and reflect to their children accurately. The lack of mirroring can be subtle yet traumatic, too. For the child, it may lead to a sense of worthlessness. It can also be very confusing to the child when the parent is able to engage others with greater ease and expressions of concern or understanding. Ed shares his experience with his father.

Ed’s story

My relationship with my father could best be described as emotionally distant. He was a dedicated working man, a production manager in the garment industry in Los Angeles, who never missed a day of work; however, he drank heavily upon arrival home until he passed out. He had limited interaction and seemed disinterested or bothered by me. I struggled persistently with feelings of being unimportant and unlovable. These feelings persisted into my adult life.

At my father’s funeral, I was forced to visit my relationship with him in a defining moment. After the funeral service, my mother, my brothers and I exited through a side door of the funeral home. We noticed immediately that it was raining fairly hard and wanted to move quickly to our car for the procession to the burial site. Suddenly, we became aware of at least 100 people standing in a long line that extended the length of the parking lot. My mother was taken aback as she recognized that the line was made up of my father’s co-workers, many of whom were illegal aliens he had befriended.

As they approached my mother, they offered stories of how my father treated them with respect at work and even gave them a little cash if they needed it. For me, this was hard to understand. The father I knew was not the man described by his co-workers. These acts of compassion proved he was capable of appreciating others; however, it gave me pause as I tried to reconcile this new awareness of my father as an emotionally caring person with the one I knew who seemed disinterested in me. Although this struggle to understand him was painful, it also was essential in my efforts toward emotional freedom. At first, these revelations seemed to reinforce my belief that there was something wrong with me.

As children, we are not equipped with the capacity to deflect. We are not able to run away mentally or physically from our experiences. We tend to absorb all of our experiences into our emotional body. We believe that our parents and peers treat us the way we deserve to be treated. We have no way of knowing that our father is afraid of intimacy or our mother is a narcissist. So when a parent ignores us, invalidates our feelings or seems bothered by us, we believe it is because there is something wrong with us. This becomes the emotional signature we carry into our adolescent and adult lives.

It becomes our adult responsibility to overcome the emotional imprinting experienced in our childhood. We do this by shedding responsibility for our parents’ actions. It takes work to arrive at the point where we can see our parents’ actions occurring in spite of us, not because of us.

The idea that a father’s or mother’s inability to be intimate with sons or daughters while being capable of compassionate behavior toward others outside of the family is about their struggle with intimacy and is a concept that we cannot readily grasp as children. However, unless we can make this shift in our understanding, we may spend our adult lives struggling in relationships and our work life, and our internal lives may be riddled with anxiety, depression or other mental health struggles.

In our next columns, we will address ways to work through this emotional imprinting and to avoid passing these imprints on to our children.