By Elizabeth O’Brien, M.A., LPC
Mirroring is one of the most important concepts in psychology; it is a lynchpin of Attachment Theory. Attachment Theory basically holds that an infant’s attachment to his mother (or primary caregiver) is crucial to his survival. Not only is attachment a key building block of the baby’s sense of self, but also it becomes the template for how he attaches to others for the rest of his life. Without secure attachment, the baby’s brain literally does not develop optimally. Babies who are deprived of attachment suffer from a host of problems, from learning disabilities to emotional disturbances. Without therapeutic intervention, they can be handicapped for life.
Besides touch, mirroring is the vehicle for attachment. When a mother is holding her baby (generally, some 18 inches from her own face), either to nurse or feed him from a bottle, she and the baby gaze into one another’s eyes. When the baby is finishing feeding, he may coo or cry or smile. The mother responds in kind: when baby coos, mom coos; when baby cries, mom looks at him empathetically and responds by holding him over her shoulder to burp, or by changing his diaper; when baby smiles, mom smiles back. This constant acknowledgement, or mutual validation, is mirroring; and ideally, it continues as the child grows up. Without it, a child doesn’t internalize a solid sense of “the other,” or an autonomous sense of self. His very identity is compromised.
Mirroring my youngest Sam as he takes his first steps.
As adults, human beings leave home to establish their own lives and ideally, they transfer that same attachment to a life partner. Even after the heady honeymoon period, when lovers gaze endlessly into each other’s eyes, couples continue to “mirror” one another through this mutual validation process, or “empathetic responding.” Both verbally and non-verbally, they communicate: “I see you. I am here for you.” And when they have children of their own, the pattern continues.