“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” from The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Mae Mobley’s mother doesn’t do a good job of making her feel good about herself, so Abileen, the help, does what she can to fill the ache in the little girl’s heart. Abileen truly helps, but there’s nothing quite the same as a mother’s love.
Author Collette Dowling, in her 1989 book Perfect Woman: Hidden Fears of Inadequacy and the Drive to Perform, describes the concept of “mirroring” as the process by which a child comes to think of herself and other people.
Here’s how mirroring works—a mirror-mirror-on-the-wall for toddlers. The mother or primary caregiver reflects the child to the child. How the mother reacts to the child is who the child sees herself to be. It goes much deeper than just mimicking behavior. The image is wired into the child’s deep emotions.
So if Mom is rejecting, that’s reflected to the child, and the child feels bad about herself, with consequences in her thinking and her behavior—her unmet needs. If mom is loving, affirming, doesn’t mind that the toddler gets sticky cookie on her dress—the child feels loved, valued, great about herself—with consequences that she gains confidence and a sense of mastery.
This shapes the child’s thoughts, behavior, emotions—her personality.
Dowling does an excellent job of explaining where the psychological and behavioral underpinnings of traits such as overachievement, poor self-esteem, even eating disorders come from. Everything makes sense, as I say to my psychotherapy clients—it may not work, and you may not deserve it, but there’s a reason it makes sense. If a child gets a hole punched in her love-cup and it won’t stay filled up, she’s prone to wander throughout life hoping others will fill it for her—the polarity of consequences being people-pleasing to the woman’s detriment or withdrawal in anger and bitterness.
Not all of us had wonderfully nurturing mother’s, but that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to a life of personal misery and poor choices trying to get that love-cup filled. Other adults in the child’s life can “psychologically save” her. Teachers, aunts…the ironing lady. And of course—Dad! (In the years since Dowling wrote Perfect Women, Dad’s role in his child’s life has changed in most families to the benefit of the child and Dad.)
For me, what really filled the hole was Jesus. I’m not perfect, never will be, but still, I’m created in God’s image. I don’t understand it, but I know it, and I love it! He is my mirror.
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18 (NIV)