A Private Pool of Flattering Reflections

“The mother gazes at the baby in her arms, and the baby gazes at his mother’s face and finds himself therein…

Provided that the mother is really looking at the unique, small, helpless being and not projecting her own expectations, fears, and plans for the child. In that case, the child would find not himself in his mother’s face, but rather the mother’s own projections. This child would remain without a mirror, and for the rest of his life would be seeking this mirror in vain.”

D.W. Winnicott

My understanding of this quote is that it is a representation of the second phase in the infant’s early stages of life. To my knowledge first come the basic instinctive survival mechanisms, which are all the newborn has. When hungry or uncomfortable, the baby cries and the caretaker (usually the mother) responds appropriately and he or she is gratified. The infant is nourished and develops physically.

What I believe Winnicott is saying about the second stage in an infant’s early development is that when the baby makes eye contact with the mother for the first time, the child sees a reflection of what he or she thinks is him or herself looking back. As research has shown, this appears to be a crucial time in the development of the infant’s brain and in the formation of what Daniel Stern calls the infant’s “core self — a new sense of who he or she is and who the mother is.” What the infant sees will have a huge impact for the rest of his or her life.

This is where my story begins….

I am sure my mother had the best intentions in raising me, even after she realized I had been accidentally conceived only 3 months after she gave birth to my older brother. That must have been difficult for her, the ambivalence of wanting, yet dreading this unexpected responsibility, not having even settled into the already daunting experience of becoming a first-time parent. So how did she cope with all this anxiety, frustration, regret and fear? How did it play out in both raising my older brother and giving birth to me, a girl?

I don’t have memories dating back to my earliest stages of life, but I can tell you that I am very familiar with the woman who raised me from my first recollection to this present day. That adds up to be about 40 years.

I’m not sure about the timing but I think I was a teenager when a particular conversation between my mother and me, stands out vividly. I had always known I was not planned but I was crushed when she casually confirmed that I was, in fact, a mistake. Not because this piece of information was shocking or new; I was crushed because she was confirming everything I ever felt from her: her distaste; her wish that I hadn’t been born; her irritation at having to care for me; her lack of love, warmth and empathy; and her basic disapproval of my existence. I know my mother would say she loved me and tried her best but love was not what I experienced. The emptiness that resided in this mirror into which my infant-self gazed and was so dependent on became the mother and I, the worthless child.

This void has had me on a never-ending search for meaning. An exaggerated desire to be someone special! I’ve felt longing for approval, often giving it to myself. At times, feeling a sense of entitlement; knowing that my opinions were the only right opinions; and adopting a heightened sense of confidence and self-worth or the exact opposite; second guessing myself and being harshly overly self critical. Whichever side of the coin I was on, the focus was all about me and how I appeared to others. Over the years, I’ve had extreme reactions to criticism, defeats, or other threats to my self-esteem. Anger has been a strong emotion I’ve carried with me, along with feelings of shame and humiliation, which make it impossible to live up to my “perfect” image. Those were the times when I realized that I lacked a normal amount of empathy and compassion for other people, for anyone outside of myself.

In recognizing these traits, I realize there is work to be done to overcome what has challenged me my whole life. Compassion toward myself is vital in understanding that I came by these traits honestly. They have been a desperate attempt to replace the lack of genuine warmth, care and nurturance from an absent mother. Being deprived of actual acceptance and real recognition, I developed an inflated self-image which became a form of self-gratification.

In his book The Ethics of Interpersonal Relationships, Robert Firestone describes how “narcissistic parents inadvertently have a devastating effect on their children because their preoccupation with themselves precludes real contact with the child.” This is crucial in understanding another element to my struggles with narcissism. I, like most children, incorporated many of my parents’ traits, the good and the not so good. It is clear to me that both my mother and father were extremely self-centered people. During some of the worst times in my childhood, neither parent had the ability to see their three children suffering directly from the ways they dealt with each other. They were more concerned with themselves and the gratifications that came from out doing each other with acts of cruelty. But more importantly, the woman who brought me into this world lacked the ability to offer nurturance and offered me criticism instead. My role model was self-absorbed, unavailable and critical which left me emotionally hungry. To my own detriment, I have been repeating what was indirectly taught to me by my mother. I can give myself the attention I didn’t get from her by building myself up or I can tear myself apart with her critical attitudes, that over time have become mine, to feel a sense of connection to her.

So how do I change after so many years of repetition in this area? Firstly, I have to recognize these core issues and make the underlying attitudes conscious so I can change my actions and ways of viewing myself. I have to clearly see the narcissism in my parents, feel my dislike of it, and differentiate myself from it. More importantly, I have to start looking outside of myself. By being generous and helpful to others, I will learn that what I feel when I am engaged and caring for people is empathy and compassion, something that would have come naturally had I experienced it directed toward me in my upbringing. Lastly, in order to rid myself of this treatable trait, I must be open to criticism and feedback. I never need to defend myself or shut someone up from what they think or feel toward me. This will be my greatest challenge and the ultimate teacher because criticism never killed anyone and there is always something to be learned, even if it’s just an opportunity to listen and be vulnerable.