I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
What ever you see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful—
The eye of a little god, four-cornered….
~ Sylvia Plath, Mirror
We all know the story of Narcissus, and the dangers of falling too deeply in self-love, mesmerized by our own reflection.
And we all know that fairy tales warn us of the black arts of deceptive mirrors which seduce us into the belief that we are indeed the “fairest of them all”
Psychoanalytic theory has wrestled with the idea of the reflected self – and the hunger we all have to see ourselves accurately and completely. The need to gaze at ourselves is simultaneously labeled as narcissistic disease, and the same mirroring gaze is the cure itself.
Self-involvement, self-regard, self-love, self-awareness, self-negation, self-esteem, selfishness and self-reflection. Our fascination with mirrors speaks to our archetypal hunger to see ourselves in both a flattering and an accurate light, our fear of what we may find, the tricks and dangers that lurk through the looking-glass and the wish to know realities that require the aid of the reflecting glass.
For without such reflections we cannot begin to know ourselves at all.
Relationship as Mirror
I your glass Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.
Shakespeare ~ Julius Cesar
The first literal and metaphorical mirror we encounter is “the gleam in the mother’s eye” – a glimpse of our infant-selves, feeding, reflected in the dark pupil of a care provider. For those lucky enough to first see themselves in an eye-mirror that is smiling, admiring, bonded, and loving our most primordial sense of Self will be surrounded in adoration and security. For those with depressed, absent, distracted or indifferent care takers the first glimpse of ourselves may be anxious, disrupted, hopeless or fragmentary.
And some cannot find themselves there at all.
Mothering and mirroring are archetypal functions entangled and intertwined long before psychoanalysis conflated them:
In Christian art the mirror came to represent the eternal purity of the Virgin Mary. As the medieval writer Jacobus de Voragine wrote:
“As the sun permeates glass without violating it, so Mary became a mother without losing her virginity… She is called a mirror because of her representation of things, for as all things are reflected from a mirror, so in the blessed Virgin, as in the mirror of God, ought all to see their impurities and spots, and purify them and correct them…” ~ The Fitzwilliam Museum
Over time early caretakers wield their parental power with “an increasing selectivity of responses.” As the mother’s face-mirror shifts from admiring to disappointing, approving to disapproving, flattering to shaming it prunes our sense of our own strengths and weaknesses, and helps us to assemble a socialized self – a mask, a false-self, a personae to introduce ourselves to the world.
The first experience of a disapproving mirror casts us from the garden, initiates us into the processes of repression and introduces us to sin and shame.
The most destructive energies within us must first be met with some approval for their self-preserving, evolutionary function in order for us to integrate them into our own self-image, and learn to modulate them and use them effectively.
The consequence of the parental self-objects inability to be the joyful mirror to a child’s healthy assertiveness may be a lifetime of abrasiveness, bitterness and sadism that cannot be discharged- and it is only by means of therapeutic reactivation of the original need for the self-objects responses that the actual lessening of rage and a return to healthy assertiveness can be achieved. ~ Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of Self.
In Kohut’s model, the psychotherapist creates an opportunity for a corrective experience by assuming transferred responsibility for these mirroring needs – as a self-object that helps to repair and integrate distorted or unmirrored aspects of the Self. The therapist offers an accepting, admiring gaze, one that allows the client to shed the distorting self-representations left over from being raised surrounded by fun house mirrors.
For Kohut, the need for healthy self-mirroring objects, accurate enough, even through its imperfections, is life long. Psychotherapies that span a life-time are not seen as failed – but as necessary compensations for our ongoing need to see and accept ourselves as we are over time.
No one looks in a mirror just once. We feel the need in to check in on ourselves, to peer and peek, take in and groom our reflections, sometimes several times a day, every day as we grow, mature and decline over for the course of our lives. We wonder if we could know ourselves over time, if we could have a sense of how life passes through us at all without our mirrors.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish. ~ Sylvia Plath, Mirror
Mirrors & Shadows
In myth, scripture, fairy tale and legend, the mirror as archetype serves far more uncanny functions, functions more dangerous, ambivalent, sacred and transcendent than merely regulating our self-esteem.
Mirrors reveal to us what cannot be shown to anyone else, what we do not know, and perhaps don’t want to know about ourselves at all.
Whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face. Whoever goes to himself risks a confrontation with himself. The mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely, the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the persona, the mask of the actor. But the mirror lies behind the mask and shows the true face. ~ CG Jung “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious”
Our truest face, our whole Self includes a shadow that is terrifying to us, as almost every scary movie will attest to. What is more frightening than staring in a mirror, alone, in an empty house, at night with nothing to encounter except yourself in the quiet dark? What horror will be revealed? What chilling doppleganger lurks underneath our daytime persona?
We are horrified and titillated by seeing our denied, demonic shadow selves reflected.
There are destructive creatures lurking in our personal unconscious that can only be vanquished, by taking indirect aim through their reflection, as Perseus defeated Medusa. Complexes that are so potent, that if we attempt to face them too squarely, too directly we could be turned to stone.
There are monsters and entities which are only recognized by empty mirrors which reveal their soul-lessness. Our undead selves, the haunting self-apsects not alive but not dead either, vampiric states that drain us when we are unaware, our eyes closed to what has emerged to feed when we were not awake to ourselves.
In Psychology and Alchemy, C.G. Jung details a dream in which a mirror appears as “an indispensable instrument of navigation” referring “to the intellect which is able to think, and is constantly persuading us to identify with its insights (reflections).”
Metabolizing shadow content is one of the functions of psychotherapy too, as well as safely and incrementally, breaking down the repressions, fear, and judgement which caused those self-states to find themselves banished to the mirror-lands to begin with.
Here the focus of psychotherapeutic work is less on the psychotherapist as corrective mirror, but more as a warm and accepting guide, who’s job is to usher us into active relationship with our own Unconscious.
Mirrors can also show us glimpses of worlds far beyond our personal unconscious.
Mirrors, Soul and Spirit
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
~ 1 Corinthians, 13:12 King James Bible
Mirrors are windows into alternate universes, to magic realms, to the upside down places, and can transport us to the dream-lands and spirit worlds. They are the looking-glass we can fall through, and the portal which both dark and benevolent spirits pass through to contact us.
Faust on his journey with Mephistopheles first falls in love with face of Divine love – Heavenly beauty, the Anima, manifest as the face of Helen of Troy when her image emerges in a magic mirror. It is this contact with his own soul and the redeeming spirit which, in the end, will ultimately save him.
And from her living body, lying there
Comes there indeed all heaven my soul to bless?
~ Faust, Goethe
Mirror phenomenon are also representative of the intuitive function: To look in a mirror lit only by candle light reveals the spirits of those who have died. Or practice mirror gazing, catopromancy, as Pythagoras did, and divine your fate as it emerges in the glass. Reflection under the moonlight opens the mind’s eye to the images, intuitions, and guidance of larger psyche: the instincts and perceptions unconsciously repressed or consciously dismissed in the light of day.
Without the silvered glass we may never retrieve unknown, forgotten or lost pieces of our own soul.
It was a maxim both in ancient India and in ancient Greece not to look at one’s reflection in the water and …the Greeks regarded it as an omen of death if a man dreamed of seeing himself so reflected. They feared that the water-spirits would drag the person’s reflection or soul ‘under water, leaving him soulless to perish. This was probably the origin of the classical story of the beautiful Narcissus, who languished and died through seeing his reflection in the water ~ Paula Elkisch, The Psychological Significance of the Mirror
Like photographs, when isolated cultures without mirrors were introduced to them for the first time, it was often assumed that the reflection was their actual soul, having left the body.
We cover mirrors following a death so the soul does not become lost within them and a broken mirror is an image of a shattered soul in pieces, and it will take seven years before its wholeness is restored.
If the mirror is “‘a thing that has been made the screen for man’s projections” (Elkish) then through the processes of projection we lose some part of our soul.
So, what then are psychotherapists as personified blank-screens and mirroring-objects gathering up client’s projections and transferences – but soul-stealers and head-shrinkers, holding our client’s souls hostage for a weekly ransom? As psychotherapists we must always acknowledge the darker aspects of our powers and the archetypes that are present in the therapeutic transaction. As clients, the mirror as archetype reminds us that we must remain always cognizant of the dangers of becoming trapped, lost, hypnotized by images of our own projected soul.
It seems that the fear of loss of self (or soul) together with the attempt at retrieving the lost makes the mirror so fascinating ~ Paula Elkisch, The Psychological Significance of the Mirror
Mirrors, Tricks and Miracles
The universe is at root a magical illusion and a fabulous game ~ Alan Watts
Of course stage magicians also rely on mirrors to create pleasurable tricks and amusements. It is a deception that we participate in happily, willingly, suspending our disbelief to delight in the hidden mirrors ability to make things appear or disappear, or to make something or someone dense, burdensome and heavy transform into something as light as a feather. As we watch the volunteer from the audience levitate, mirrors obscuring the mechanisms of suspension, our own burdens feel lighter too.
Mirrored tricks and illusions can have profoundly healing effects: Mirror-boxes are used to effectively treat phantom limb pain following amputation. The intact limb is placed in front of the mirror box, which masks the missing limb. The patient watches the mirror while they stretch, unfurl, scratch, or massage the intact limb, relieving the discomfort of the missing limb. The mind is not fooled into the literal belief that their missing limb has been restored, but the brain is fooled and the illusion soothes and relieves.
And perhaps psychotherapy is at its very best, a similar curative illusion, a healing trick, a soothing substitution – rather than a literally corrective experience for losses incurred in the past. A trick which both participants must remember is both an illusion and a cure.
Or maybe it is something else:
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes….
~ Sylvia Plath, Mirror
An image presented itself to me in a hypnogogic state recently – as I drifted in between sleep and waking:
I sat in my office chair, my face hidden from view, my head behind a mirror inside a box much like a medicine cabinet. I sat across from an unknown Other, who I could see only dimly, but who saw their soul reflected when they faced me. They were transfixed, filled with yearning, with deep hunger for more contact, to forge a deep and lasting relationship with the face in front of them. I was not fooled. I knew that I was not what they sought. But it was nearly impossible to impress the truth upon them: What they thought they could only access through “me” was merely a reflection of their Self: “wholeness, totality, the union of opposites, the central generative point where God and man meet… the fountain of our being which is most simply described as God” ~ Edward Edinger – Ego and Archetype
“Mirror”: from the Vulgar Latin, “mirare” to look at,” variant of Latin mirari “to wonder at, marvel, be astonished” – also the historical source of “Miracle” and “Miraculous”
What you seek is already within you. This reality is subjective, not the outer, objective reality. ~ Ram Dass, Polishing the Mirror quoted in Parabola vol, 39, issue 1
It is your own lush self
you hunger for
~ Lucille Clifton, Eve’s Version