You are the fairest of them all

This is an article about the concept of mirroring. I shall be looking at Winnicott’s paper ‘The Mirror Role of Mother and Family in Child Development’ primarily, but also at ‘Primary Maternal Preoccupation’ and ‘Ego Distortions in Terms of True and False Self’ and see how these three papers link with each other when looking at mirroring. I shall also be taking Kohut’s ideas into account when exploring the areas of responsive, distorted and absent mirroring, how they will influence the growing child and what implications there may be for therapy.

What is mirroring?

The root of the word ‘to mirror’ means ‘to look, to wonder’. (Pines, 1982, 1) and we often wonder how we are looked at. Other people’s eyes are like pools of water which reflect our image. Narcissus tried to find himself in the mirroring pond albeit in a narcissistically self-absorbed way, perhaps not having been sufficiently mirrored by an equally self-absorbed mother. (Pines, 1982,1)

The very presence of a mirror in a room causes people to be more self-aware. (Pines, 1982, 9) The need to be seen is compelling; some children may provoke parental hate in order to have negative intimacy if their parents cannot provide mirroring. Others find their reflection in “intrasubjective dialogues” as a way of making up for the lack of interpersonal play. (Bollas, 1987, 143)

Responsive mirroring

In ‘The Mirror Role of Mother and Family in Child Development’ Winnicott writes about a stage of emotional development when the infant still perceives mother as part of himself. Therefore, if the environmental mother performs her functions of holding and handling in a good-enough way, she also presents herself as an object in such a way which will respect “the infant’s legitimate experience of omnipotence.” (Winnicott, 1971, 112)

If mother mirrors him, he sees himself in her face and gets to know himself. Mother’s mirroring gaze upon her infant is thus a founding experience as it establishes a template in the infant’s ego as a site for something good and confirms the infant’s place in the world; moreover, how we have been looked at in early life may determine what we see in other people later.

However Winnicott says that this good enough mothering “is too easily taken for granted.” (Winnicott, 1971, 112) In ‘Primary Maternal Preoccupation’ Winnicott seems to me to be saying that “this state of heightened sensitivity” (Winnicott, 1956, 302) is necessary for the mother to be able to mirror her baby.

He also says that “a woman must be healthy in order to…develop this state” (Winnicott, 1971, 302) as it happens at a deeply unconscious level. He says that “…if the mother provides a good enough adaptation to need, the infant’s own line of life is disturbed very little by reactions to impingements.” (Winnicott, 1956, 302)

This reminds me of what he says in ‘Ego distortions in terms of True and False Self’ about how the True Self develops. This to me is a further clue as to how responsive mirroring happens naturally as the mother “meets this infantile omnipotence revealed in a gesture.” (Winnicott, 1956 145)

I believe that this can only come from her own True Self. Therefore, I think that these three papers hang together in terms of giving us a sequence of how good mirroring happens: a mother who is in touch with who she is, is more likely to achieve Primary Maternal Preoccupation and thus, in turn, is more able to mirror her infant and encourage the infant’s True Self to emerge, and in turn this infant when becoming a mother will be more likely to achieve primary Maternal Preoccupation, which will continue the process for the next generation.

In Kohut’s thinking “the confirming/mirroring process” is also very important. (Klein, 1987, 208) For Kohut, mirroring is a two-way process: firstly accurate empathy, i.e. knowing and absorbing what the child is feeling and communicating back recognition and acceptance of this. Secondly doing something about it. (Klein, 1987, 211 ) The child will then develop into an autonomous self, as the self-object is the child’s experience of its own power and competence.

The proud smile of the parents will enhance the child’s inner security and self-worth. The glint in the parent’s eye, the shared joy that mirrors the child’s grandiosity, will indeed say: ‘You are the fairest of them all!’ but can also curb the display by adopting a realistic attitude in regard to the child’s limitations. (Kohut & Wolf, 1986, 183) The child may then not need to find ways of “getting the mirror to notice and approve” (Winnicott 1960, 114) by living a life in complete reference to the parents.

Distored mirroring

Winnicott says that the mother with a depressed face will puzzle the infant, and he will get a distorted image of himself: “Many babies, …have a long experience of not getting back what they are giving. They look and they do not see themselves.” (Winnicott, 1971, 112) Apperception then becomes perception and these babies study the mother’s face “as we all study the weather.” (Winnicott, 1971, 112)

The infant, in order to make sense of mother’s face learns to predict her moods. This leads to a sense that a mirror is something to be looked at rather than looked into; Winnicott draws a parallel with how later, young people look at themselves in the mirror, perhaps touching on Lacan’s idea of being image conscious, (Benvenuto & Kennedy, 1986) firstly in terms of their own appearance and secondly in terms of what they see when they fall in love. (Winnicott, 1971, 113) Winnicott describes the patient with a depressed mother who chose a depressed nurse so that she would not steal the children away with her liveliness. (Winnicott, 1971, 115)

Winnicott argues that if such a distortion of development between mother and baby occurs, the parents may get caught up in spoiling or doing therapy, rather than parenting. (Winnicott, 1956, 203) Kohut argues that faulty mirroring hinders the development of an independent, vigorous self, because mother’s need, to keep the child dependent, is predominant. (Kohut & Wolf, 1986, 193)

There is a mode of being with a child, which always imposes mother’s needs, perhaps because her fragile self feels threatened by the child’s innate grandiosity. There may then be little sense of liveliness about such people, presumably aggressive feelings have been suppressed.

Lack of mirroring

I think that lack of mirroring is perhaps what Winnicott calls, “worse still the rigidity of her own defences” (Winnicott, 1971, 112) as opposed to a depressed mother. Perhaps a mother with a rigid face gives the baby the sense of never having been seen at all. This lack of the other there may even be more damaging because it is a trauma of what did not happen and may be what Winnicott means when he says “the infant might be expected to die physically, because cathexis of external objects is not initiated.” (Winnicott, 1971, 146)

The infant remains isolated and suffers the fear of annihilation. “The wound the baby suffers is thus not an external lack to which he could react, but a trauma, a brokenness, which runs throughout his subjectivity” (Gomez, 1997, 88) and “the primitive agony of not being able to communicate because there seems to be no way of connecting with anyone, even oneself.” (Gomez, 1997, 89.)

In the absence of a mirroring mother the “baby slips into compliance and identifies with the negative functioning of the mother”. (Symington, 1986, 313) The baby is filled with terror, and in order to deal with this void, it internalises “the bad False Self mother functioning”. (Symington, 1986, 313). The False Self is therefore composed of the hated non-responsive aspects of the mother. This adaptation creates a feeling of closeness to mother to compensate for her distance. (Symington, 1986, 316)

In fact Kohut argues that the lonely unmirrored children later suffer from profound anxiety and a loss of the sense of the continuity of the self in time and of its cohesiveness in space. Apprehensive brooding concerning the fragments of the body, may express itself by worry about health. (Kohut & Wolf, 1986, 183)

Implications for therapy

Psychotherapy is “a long-term giving the patient back what the patient brings. It is a complex derivative of the face that reflects what is there to be seen.” (Winnicott, 1971, 117) If something has gone wrong at the mirroring stage, people have no strong self-image. It is as if the client’s image needs to be held for a while by the therapist, so that he will have the strength to hold it for himself. (Klein, 1987 366/7) A “mirror transference” (Kohut, 1986, 186) will develop, which will give the client that feeling of omnipotence which he has missed out on in early life.

Just as it is more important what the parents are, rather than what they do, so essentially a therapist needs to be able to respond from his True Self.


In this paper I have tried to show that for an infant to develop optimally, he needs the foundational experience of an authentically mirroring mother. Socialisation occurs “through mutual interactions with the sensitive mother.” (Zinkin, 1978, 4) However Zinkin also argues that giving babies interesting things to look at, will cause babies to focus, but including them in a social environment, helps them to relax and be more open: “…the individual emerges, always incompletely, from a matrix of communality, which is also held within the self.” (Gomez, 1997, 87)

A well-mirrored child can “react to stimulus without trauma because the stimulus has a counterpart in the individual’s inner psychic reality.” (Winnicott, 1960, 147) Even Winnicott’s title of his paper on mirroring suggests that the family as a whole is an important mirroring component, in saying to the new baby: ‘You are the fairest of them all!’


BENVENUTO, B. & KENNEDY, R.(1986) The Works of Jaques Lacan, Chapter 2, London, Free Association.

BOLLAS, C.(1987) The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known. London, Free Association.

GOMEZ, L. (1997) An Introduction to Object Relations, London, Free Association.

KLEIN, J. (1987) Our Need for Others and its Roots in Infancy, London, Routledge.

KOHUT, H. & WOLF (1986) Disorders of the Self and Their Treatment: An Outline, Chapter 7, Essential Papers on Narcissism, ed. Andrew P. Morrison, New York University Press.

PINES, M. (1982) Reflections on Mirroring, Group Analysis 15 (2) 1-32.

SYMINGTON, N. ((1986) The Analytic Experience, Chapter 29, London, Free Association.

WINNICOTT, D.W. (1956) Primary Maternal Preoccupation, reprinted in (1958) Through Peadiatrics To Psychoanalysis: Collected Papers, London: Tavistock Publications; reprinted London Karnac (1992)

WINNICOTT, D.W. (1960) Ego Distortions in Terms of True and False Self, reprinted in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, London, Hogarth (1965)

WINNICOTT, D.W. (1971) Playing and Reality, London: Tavistock Publications; reprinted London Routledge (1991) Chapter 7: Mirror-Role of Mother and Family in Child Development.

ZINKIN, L. (1978) Person to Person: The Search for the Human Dimension in Psychotherapy. Br. J. med. Psychol., 51, 25-34

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

Share this article with a friend

Find the right counsellor or therapist for you

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals