In today’s blog I want to discuss a concept called “mirroring”. Mirroring is how people learn to connect with others. It is the reflecting back, or mirroring, of what someone says or does. Through this reflection, rapport can be built and connections made. If you can match someone’s facial expression or even level of excitement, you can show empathy for their experiences. When interacting with others, you expect them to some degree match your emotional experiences and this is what mirroring is. If you are sad and they are laughing at you, this can be off-putting and disappointing. The other person has behaved in a way that works against building connection.
Mirroring is something very young babies do as a way to connect with their caregiver. Research has shown mirroring is an important part of a child’s development. Mirroring from a caregiver allows the child to feel validated in their emotional responses and this helps them establish a sense of self.
When a child is young and their caregiver is feeding them, changing them, or just playing with them, they will mirror the expressions of their caregivers. If the child is being raised by someone who is depressed or otherwise unable to express their own emotions appropriately, then this leads to confusion in the child who is developing empathy and the ability to relate to others. Internally the child feels a certain way, but the response from their caregiver is counter to what they are experiencing. There is no mirroring. Eye contact might not be present, or the caregiver is making no expression while engaging with the child.
When the child experiences a lack of mirroring by their caregiver, they instinctively feel as if their needs are not being met. The child’s behaviors are met with rejection through the absence of mirroring, so the child begins to learn that how they think and feel doesn’t matter. This is at a basic level when the child is an infant, but as the child grows up with this caregiver who continues to not demonstrate effective mirroring, the child attaches thoughts to their actions. Connection cannot be made.
While there is no definitive finding on why someone develops narcissistic personality traits or narcissistic personality disorder, there is some research that the absence of mirroring in the formative years from their caregiver contributed to their absence of a well-defined self and their lack of empathy. It should be noted, the absence of mirroring can lead to other mental health conditions in addition to narcissism, and even people who did not have emotionally responsive caregivers when they were younger do not all develop mental health symptoms. For the purposes of this blog, I will focus only on narcissism.
If you have been in a relationship with a narcissist, you may have found they “copy” your behaviors, and your identity becomes their identity. This would be an example of mirroring in narcissism.
SO, WHY DO NARCISSISTS MIRROR IN RELATIONSHIPS?
They lack their own identity so they must get it from someone else: As I have discussed in many blogs, narcissists don’t have stable senses of identity and they require outside sources to help them define their own level of esteem and worth in that moment. This is in part due to the absence of mirroring when they were younger and the inability to learn how to emotionally connect with others and develop a sense of self. The absence of a stable sense of self requires them to seek identity elsewhere.
They are trying to give you what you want as a way to win you over: Narcissists are excellent at control and manipulation. While they lack a strong sense of self, one strength they do have is the ability to watch others closely and then use this information in their favor. A narcissist seems to always know what you like, and they give this to you. It feels as if they know you well and are invested in your happiness. The truth is, while they are often in-tune with your interests, this is meant to serve them and not you. When they can provide you with something you like, they can win you over and better control and manipulate you. This mirroring is the most prominent during the love bombing stage with a narcissist.
They “fake” intimacy because they cannot connect with others on their own: Due to their unstable sense of self and lack of empathy, it is very difficult for a narcissist to be able to connect to others on their own. They know that intimacy is needed for a relationship and to have their partner stick around, but they don’t have the skills or abilities to engage in intimacy on their own. They will mirror in the relationship the intimacy from their partner as a way to keep control in the relationship, while increasing the chances their partner will stay and continue to serve as the narcissistic supply they need.
During the initial stages of a relationship with a narcissist, mirroring can be flattering. This person appears to be behaving in a way that suggests they listen to you and care about the same things you do. However, this is often an act that is used by the narcissist to build connection in the early stages so that their partner can be drawn into the relationship. This act is not possible to keep up indefinitely and over time the mirroring becomes more obvious. When you first enter a relationship you expect things to be positive and to share interests with the other person. The presence of mirroring may not be obvious at first but if you feel like your partner over time only seems to have the interests that are the same as yours, mirroring might be present.
At Mindset Therapy we provide mental health services in Texas and Washington from trained professionals, via telepsychology, which allows you to attend the appointment from the location most convenient for you. Visit Mindset Therapy at https://www.mindsettherapyonline.com/ to learn more about the services offered and make an appointment. Also visit our YouTube page, Mindset Therapy, PLLC, for the Mental Health Minute series that provides quick pieces of information for common mental health issues.