Mirror Mirror on the Wall...

Mirror mirror on the wall, why can't I see my experience in you? Mirror mirror on the wall, why can you no longer show me who I am? Mirror mirror on the wall, you used to see me before I got my illness and now you just don't seem to understand. Mirror why do I feel so all alone?

According to Heinz Kohut and self psychological theory, a healthy sense of self evolves during childhood when three particular experiences take place. These experiences include, first having a role model to look up to and which one can idealize and desire to be like. The second is having a relationship with a parental figure who evokes a certain likeness between himself and the child. Lastly but certainly not least is the third, and it is what is called a "mirroring" experience. The mirroring experience is when the child presents some aspect of him or herself (e.g. thoughts, feelings, artwork, behaviors) and the parental figure acknowledges and validates the existence of what the child presents...much like a mirror. Although these exeperiences allow the child to start out with a very grandiose sense of him or herself, as normal disappointments in life occur a person learns to soothe him or herself, and learns that frustrations are a part of life, rather than destructive. This is how people build up resilience.

Mirroring for a child is not a very difficult thing to do. It can be easy to understand a child's desire to feel pride, happiness, and even guilt or shame at times, as these tend to be quite universal feelings. Many people grow into adults that have a pretty solid sense that if they communicate what they are experiencing to others, the others will empathize or at the very least understand. However, there are experiences that are not universally shared, such as traumas. Not everyone serves in the military encountering daily death/injury; not everyone is raped; not everyone is diagnosed with a chronic physical illness. What happens when these traumas occur? How does this impact the self?

When a person experiences something outside of daily normal life, particularly when it threatens life as it had been previously known to the person, experiential time can stop. For example, a person is diagnosed with a chronic physical illness that nobody else that he or she knows has. This illness requires massive life adjustments and learning to tolerate physical discomfort and pain. This person really just wants to be understood. S/he just wants to be able to look in the mirror in another person and to just feel a mutual understanding. However, in cases like this, the person may look into the mirror for a reflective understanding and may find that s/he has to start describing to the mirror what the experience of having the illness is like. Where is the mirror? If the mirror cannot reflect what I am going through then why bother talking? It feels so lonely.

Just as in childhood, the more people face daily frustrations and see that they are tolerable, the more resilient the child becomes. Disappointments are a piece of the nature of life and therefore are things that are also universally shared with others. One can fail a test and feel sad and the mirroring mother can say to the child with a real sense of reflective understanding, "oh I know you feel so sad that you did not do well." What happens when the frustration is one caused by constant physical pain, nausea, fevers, drastic weight change, inflamation, massive fatigue, fear of hospitalization, or fear of death? Sometimes the mirroring effect becomes something like a fun house mirror where you look into the glass and see a distorted image of yourself. A person with a chronic physical illness may try to start describing a feeling related to living with the particular illness and his or her mother may try to reflect something sympathetic back, but it misses the mark because this mother never experienced anything like the particular illness before. This can leave things going one of two ways for the person living with the illness. One, the person may shut down completely and continue to carry this experience all alone, feeling isolated, and person even harming his or her own sense of self (e.g. I am the only loser with such bad luck as to get this sick). Two, the person can strive to find people who share the experience of living with the chronic illness.

Imagine joining a support group where you get to meet and speak with other people who live with the same experience. This becomes like the child who brings his crayon drawing to his mother and says, "mama look what I made" and the mama says, "its so beautiful." As a person living with a chronic physical illness, you may say in the group, "my hair keeps falling out" and another person in the group says, "it is so terrifying." Mirror...mirror....

Now that you have found a new mirror, that does not mean you need to abandon any hope for support from your friends or family. Sometimes it just requires a little education and patience. Remember, they have never been through what you are going through so it is not easy for them either. It is hard to watch someone you love suffer and not know what to do. Let your loved ones know that they should not jump to any conclusions about how you feel and to try to read as much as they can about your illness and maybe attend parent/friend of people living with illness support groups to learn more about the illness. Also remind them, that as human beings, even though they may not have a chronic illness, they all experience moments when mortality is made present. They can think about when they felt really sick from a flu or virus, or if they have ever had a surgery or procedure. These things are not the same as your illness but it can open up little bits of empathy. Also all people have thought about fears of death before. There are ways to relate to what can feel like the unrelatable.

Children do not get to choose what kind of mirroring they get. Unfortunately some get the fun house mirrors and may grow up with very distorted images of their selves. As adults there is a choice. You can choose to find people who will understand you. You can look into the mirror and see yourself in someone else. You do not have to be alone.