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?’
For therapists the formation of our identity is a consequence of our identifications, and these first begin during 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.
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 the 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 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, journalist and author Paul Morley describes the moment that marked the beginning of his career – his recognition of himself as a writer in the ‘image’ reflected by the established broadcaster Tony Wilson.
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 recognise ourselves.
If you ask yourself “Who am I?” you might be surprised what surfaces for you.
But the real question is, to whom or what is your identification 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 the image is an image of them.
The mirror image takes on such importance 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.
It is thus a fundamental moment in the construction of the child’s sense of self.
So our identity derives not only on relations of sameness but also on something beyond the register of images – a symbolic register in which 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 because 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 the symbolic register when she asks the simple question, Where’s Gemma?!
The baby becomes bound to their image by words and names, 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 is related to, framed, or determined by social conventions.
As we’ve seen, there can be a great satisfaction when an identification comes as an answer, facilitating a reconfiguration of your life. Identifications can also become dead ends, however, bringing your sense of self to a halt, preventing change. As therapy proceeds many clients 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
We began with 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 comes into being – a person who can speak, go off to school and answer their name when the teacher calls it out.
However, as we’ve seen, this all 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