Last week we discussed mirror imaging and how children emulate their parents. One should not expect a child to do as you say; the child will copy whatever behavior the parent is modeling. We featured a case study of a child whose negative behavior was a direct reflection of her mother’s lying.
Here are two more examples of mirror-imaging.
Chaya is ten years old. She becomes irritated easily and yells at other family members with little provocation. In psychotherapy, it is revealed that Chaya’s father is hot-tempered and becomes upset at the slightest perceived infraction. Chaya’s mother is terrified of her husband, but Chaya will stand up to him and is often arrogant to her mother as well. In speaking with Chaya privately, it becomes clear that Chaya is frightened of being like her mother whom she considers a push-over. She prefers to be like her father who is the dominant one in the family. Chaya’s perception is that you are either the domineering person or the one who is dominated. Chaya does not understand what an equal relationship entails. In this case, Chaya has identified with the aggressor as a defense to becoming the victim of the aggression. Chaya is mirror-imaging her father’s behavior.
When mirror-imaging is a subconscious process, psychotherapy is a helpful way of understanding and changing the situation. Chaya was unaware of how lethal her behavior was at home. Only through family therapy was Chaya made aware of the ways in which she copied her father’s behavior. The father himself began to observe how detrimental his domineering personality was to his daughter and the family. In dealing with this issue in therapy two major issues were explored and rectified. Chaya’s behavior improved, since she clearly did not want to emulate her father’s destructive behavior patterns, and the father was so moved by his negative impact on his daughter’s personality that he began working on being less explosive and domineering at home.
Avraham and Rivka came in for marital therapy. Growing up, each experienced one parent being dominant over a submissive partner. In Avraham’s case it was his father and for Rivka it was her mother. Each one showed little respect for his or her respective partner. Unfortunately, both Avraham and Rivka felt the need to control the martial relationship. With both of them mirror-imaging the dominant parent they had seen at home, their marriage was fraught with conflict and extreme anxiety.
Many marriages are reenactments of parental relationships. If the relationship modeled is basically a loving and devoted one, the hope is that the children will recreate that. However, when the parents had a poor marital relationship, children can subconsciously recreate that in their own marriages.
Fortunately, it is possible, with either extreme self-awareness and/or professional help, to break the chain of destructive marital relationships.
In the case of Avraham and Rivka, they learned that control was not the most important thing. As a therapist, I ask my patients: “What is more important, always getting your way or getting along?” Generally, couples learn that getting along is more important than being the dominant party. Avraham and Rivka learned to care more about each other’s feelings than who was in control.
Surprisingly, mirror-imaging also affects how people raise their own children. Children who had extremely devoted mothers and fathers are often devoted parents themselves. This is not to say that there aren’t people whose parents were not devoted who become wonderful parents. Many people make a conscious effort to be different than their parents and raise their children in a more loving manner.
Miriam, for example, is a very supportive mother to her children. She wants to be different than her mother who is very critical. Yet, when she gets angry, she hears herself say the very words she resented her mother saying to her – “You will never amount to anything” or “You are so stupid.”
Miriam is mirror-imaging her mother’s negative behavior. When she is calm, she is able to be supportive and non-critical. Yet when she becomes enraged, she regresses back to behaving as her mother did when she was angry. Unfortunately, we all often copy our parents’ negative behavior when we are angry. We tend to regress at those times and not have the ability to control ourselves.
In psychological terms, mirror-imaging can be viewed as “repetition compulsion,” which is a deep unconscious need to repeat the primary family process. In fact, therapy often breaks a system that may have actually have gone on for generations. As adults, we should attempt to imitate only our parents’ positive attributes. This is not a simple task and in some cases it requires professional help.
It is best to be aware of the process and attempt to utilize mirror-imaging to our advantage. This will enable us to be more successful parents and spouses. Hatzlocha to all my readers in dealing with these issues and thank you to the person who raised this issue in last week’s column.