mirror mirror on the wall
An occupational hazard of working in mental health is the risk of compulsive self-diagnosis. Like a psychic Sat Nav part of the process of understanding other peoples’ states of mind is to develop the skill to locate them in yourself without being overwhelmed by them.
This week we’ll be doing a session at the LSE Literary Festival on 100 years of Freud’s On Narcissism, and as a direct result I’ve been smarting at the dubious honour of being considered an expert in narcissism. Spending every waking hour wondering what people think of me digging the narcissistic hole deeper. Added to which what the hell do you wear?
One alternative version of the myth of Narcissus is that he had a twin that was lost to him, his inability to stop looking at his own reflection was a failure to mourn his lost sibling. As a twin, looking in the mirror is a messy psychic business. Growing up you spend more time looking at the face of your sibling than your own and often there is a distinctly existential shiver attached to looking at your reflection.
Last year I read an article about Donna and Victoria who suffer from a severe type of prosopagnosia. This profound neurological glitch means that they experience complete failure to recognise faces, including their own. Rather movingly Donna was quoted as saying “I’m not really sure what I look like”. I have subsequently become a bit hypochondriac, latching onto a bona fide medical term for the disorienting experience of looking in the mirror and not being massively sure what you’re looking at.
Both twin-ness and prosopagnosia also pose a difficulty for memories and biographies, unsure whether the fat kid in the photo, dressed up as a goat is you or not (my twin sister claims it was because of my natural affinity to the ol cloven hoof).
An adherent of the optimistic school of life might see this as an opportunity for an extraordinary degree of self-confidence and sexual prowess. If you really don’t know what you look like then it should be possible to adopt whatever image suits you. Liz Taylor in the summer of 1962 in the first bloom of Burton love on a beach in Morocco? Or the haircut of Tom Cruz in Vanilla Sky – hair of such epic beauty it was capable of carrying an entire film. I am my Facebook profile.
Sadly, it turns out that we are what we are, even if we can’t see it. Donna continued with this lesson in Greek tragedy by saying “I’ve gone up to men in supermarkets thinking they were my partner only to realise I’d grabbed hold of the wrong man!” Oh sister you hit a raw psychic nerve there. Not knowing who we are really messes with relationships, both at home and work. The reason being that not being able to see yourself as you really are makes the stakes pretty high that relationships become a mine field of unconscious deceptions, unrealistic expectations and the very real possibility of ending up being a horrible boss or unreliable friend. How to get intimate with someone that doesn’t actually exist if you’re not Joaquin Phoenix?
Not wishing to get all existential on you but mirrors can be other people. When someone really looks at you they show you something about yourself, whether it’s your upbringing, dreams and fantasies or ghosts of relationships past. When we commit acts of intimacy with other people we remove our psychic make-up and thus raise the possibility of finding true love.
Since being yourself requires really seeing yourself as you are, the first step to intimacy is to just look. Don’t be shy now, join us on Thursday to look in the mirror and you might see someone you’re rather fond of plus the distinct possibility that you really have got great hair.
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