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 the ‘mirror’ – the image of wholeness and completeness – can be provided by other people.
Nor need the images be visual in character. For example, we might recognise ourselves in things said to us: you’re the best daughter in the world!
So in our day-to-day life we are continually being caught and captivated by ‘images’ in which we are invited to recognise ourselves.
If you ask yourself “Who am I?” you might be surprised what surfaces for you.
During therapy many clients find themselves calling into question their identifications: I’m not that kind of person after all!
But the real question is, who is it that you are identifying for?
Identity and the Other
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.
In other words, the mirror image takes on such importance as a result of the parent’s confirmation and approval – ‘Yes baby, that’s you!‘
The baby is bound to its image by words and names, and the identity of the child will depend on how it assumes these words.
So our identity – whichnincludes our position or place in the world – derives not only on relations of sameness but also on something that transcends images, a symbolic universe or ‘Other’.
The mother as Other
It is often the mother who first occupies the position because it is she who receives the child’s primitive cries and retroactively gives them meaning: you’re hungry, you’re too warm, and yes, that’s you.’
In a short space of time this Other becomes the site of language, morality, the law, and – importantly for therapy – the unconscious.
Perhaps we can hear the very beginnings of this Other in the first video when the mother asks the simple question, ‘Where’s Gemma?’
In the second video perhaps we can hear the mother-as-Other when, after the child has pointed to their nose, the mother says, So you know it’s you… I knew you would know!
You will be judged accordingly…
The image below, taken from the website Fabulous Life, interweaves these two dimensions to our sense of self. The self dependent on relations of similarity/sameness is related to or is framed by social ideals (notice the use of the word ‘judged’ in the caption to the image).
Once again, as therapy proceeds many clients automatically become aware of and call into question this Other for whom they are embodying themselves, perhaps through identity words such as Successful Professional, Millennial, Outgoing, Straight, English, Victim, Daughter, Obsessive…
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 its own name when the teacher calls it out.
However, as we’ve seen, this all depends on the baby being welcomed into 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 Darian Leader’s Jouissance: Sexuality, Suffering and Satisfaction, 2021, pp.40-50.
The page from Fabulous Life (accessed June 2019) is here,