Spotlight on Identity

The Manchester-based author Anthony Easthope asks,

‘How is it that within five or six years the newly arrived [baby] you bring home with you from the hospital has become a person, who speaks your language, shares your assumptions, can go off to school and answer its own name when the teacher calls it out?’

Easthope is drawing attention to the formation of our identity. For therapists, identity is a consequence of our identifications and these begin during the mirror phase.

The Mirror Phase

The idea of the mirror phase was developed by psychologists after observing babies aged between 6-18 months when placed in front of a mirror.


Child in front of a mirror


As you can see in the video clip below, after the mother shows her child their reflection in the mirror, the child becomes captivated.



Notice the child’s energetic delight as they assume the reflection as their own. It is as though the image has a structuring effect, lending the child a degree of unity and coherence they do not yet possess.


The Mirror Mark Test

The mirror mark test demonstrates that by around 18-24 months this structuring effect can become relatively unified, coherent and stable.

In the mirror mark test a mark is made on the child’s nose before they are placed in front of the mirror.

If after seeing their reflection the child then draws attention to the mark on their nose this suggests an identity between image and self has been assumed.

This is the moment at which the child formulates, however roughly, ‘I am that image’ and ‘That image is me’.



Therapy and the Mirror Phase

For psychologists, the mirror phase belongs to a specific stage in the development of the human baby.

However, psychotherapists take the mirror phase to exemplify or represent a fundamental process that stays with us all our lives.

It is one that need not necessarily involve literal mirrors since an image, a reflection of ourselves, can be provided by other people.

Nor need the images be visual in character. For instance, we might recognise ourselves in things said to us: you’re the best daughter in the world!

An illustration of these two points is given in the next video clip.


You are a Writer!

In the video below, music journalist Paul Morley describes the moment that marked the beginning of his career.

It was when he recognised himself in the ‘image’ reflected by the established broadcaster, Tony Wilson: you are a writer.

Perhaps we can even detect some jubilation accompanying Morley’s recognition when he remarks, a professional media person saying to me, you are a writer… that is incredible… a moment of like, oh really!



So in our day-to-day life we are continually being caught and captivated by ‘images’ in which we are invited to recognise ourselves.


Mirror phase - advertisement with mirror

Are you ready to slim with cherry stalk?
Outdoor advertisement by Speed Medya for Bioder.
Which image is the reflection?

If you ask yourself “Who am I?” you might be surprised what surfaces for you.

But perhaps the real question is, to whom or what is the image you identify with addressed?


Identity and the Symbolic

The two videos of an infant in front of a mirror also alert us to another feature of the mirror phase.

The moment before each child ecstatically assumes the reflection as their own, they turn towards their mother, as though to call on her to confirm and ratify that this image is an image of them.

So the image becomes a mirror image as a result of the parent’s confirmation and approval: ‘Yes baby that’s you!

In other words, the mother introduces into the heart of the dual relation with her child the function of a third term, here organised around the image reflected in the mirror.

This is a fundamental moment in the construction of a child’s sense of identity.

So our identity derives not only from relations of sameness – that’s me, I am a writer! – but also on something beyond the register of images.

This is a symbolic register where elements are related, combined and structured according to conventions and rules.

In a short space of time this symbolic register gives rise not only to language but also morality, the law, and – importantly for therapy – the unconscious.

Beyond the image – the symbolic register

It is often the mother who also first occupies a symbolic position since it is she who receives the child’s primitive cries and retroactively gives them meaning: for example, You’re crying because you’re hungry! or You’re crying because you’re too warm!

In the first video the mother occupies this symbolic register when she asks her child the simple question, Where’s Gemma?!

The baby becomes bound to their image by words, and the identity of the child will depend on how it assumes these words.


You will be Judged Accordingly

The image below, taken from the website Fabulous Life, interweaves the registers of the image and symbolic. Notice the use of the word ‘judged’ in the caption to the image: the self dependent on relations of similarity/sameness becomes related to and framed by social conventions and rules.


First Impressions of the Perfect Man

The caption to this image in Fabulous Life reads, “You could be a successful professional raking and having recently acquired a swanky car, but if you are dressed shabbily with food stains on your clothes and with two days’ growth of stubble on your face, then you will be judged accordingly. We’re here to make sure that never happens to you! Read on the essential style and grooming tips and get a grip on how to make a great first impression.”


As we’ve seen, there can be a great satisfaction when an identification is achieved, even facilitating a reconfiguration of one’s life.

But identifications can also lead to dead ends by fixing your identity, preventing change when change might be necessary or unavoidable.

Often in therapy clients can find themselves calling into question what they have identified with and for whom: I’m not that kind of person after all!


Not everyone will answer their name

I began quoting Easthope drawing our attention to something truly remarkable. How, within five or six years of being born, a relatively stable and coherent sense of self has come into being – a young child who can speak, go off to school and answer their name when the teacher calls it out.

However, as we’ve seen this depends on the baby entering the world of its caregivers.

There’s no guarantee that this will happen or will happen consistently.

Not everyone answers their name when called.


Anthony Easthope asks the question on page 59 of his clear and accessible book, The Unconscious, 1999.

The mirror phase became important to therapists through the work of Jacques Lacan. See chapter 2 of Bice Benvenuto and Roger Kennedy, The Works of Jacques Lacan, Free Association Books (1986), or Darian Leader, Jouissance: Sexuality, Suffering and Satisfaction, Polity (2021), pp.40-50.

The page from Fabulous Life (accessed June 2019) is here,

Sources of all videos are given on my YouTube channel, Therapy in Manchester