When She Looks in a Mirror

A beautiful sunrise

Who is the person looking back at her?

This piece was written in collaboration with one of my patients, with whom I have worked for many years, who references this work, and who has given permission for the writing to be shared.

When I Look in a Mirror … or at a recent photo of myself … I see the image of someone with whom I don’t identify. This has always been true for me. I’m an older-than-middle-aged person now, with a lifetime of the natural experiences of seeing my reflections and images, and I have mostly gotten used to them. I certainly do know what I look like, and what I have looked like over the years of my life. But, to me, these images aren’t “me.” As odd as it may sound, I don’t feel to myself the way I look to myself.

I have always been comfortable with my biological female identity. I do identify with the body parts I am able to see with my own eyes. These are my hands, my feet, my breasts, my belly … about which I have the same somewhat critical but basically loving feelings that I have heard others describe about their body parts. Actually, I am more loving and accepting of my body (which is normal but otherwise far from our present culture’s version of perfect) than I am critical. But when I see a reflection of my face, or a photo of myself, after all these years, I still am inclined to think, “who is that? She doesn’t look like the person I know myself to be ‘on the inside.’ “

I do enjoy creative options in clothing, and I have certainly developed an identifiable style. About some new garment or other, my granddaughter might say, “that looks like you,” — and I am in agreement.

And so …what’s “not me” about the way I look in the mirror, or in a photo? The image that looks back at me is of a sturdy woman. On the inside, I feel much more delicate. I cannot say … I do not know … what I should look like — what image would “fit”. I know only that the way I do look is something not-me.

I’ve talked about what I remember about my early childhood in therapy. I did have plenty of attention, but this attention was what my mother and my father believed that they should do for me, and without room for what I might be experiencing. I’ve concluded that I did not feel as though it was I who was being related to, yet I was the one who was there. I didn’t fit in these relationships. I was really there inside, but the face that the world saw didn’t fit my inside experience.

I’m open-minded — neither a skeptic nor a believer — about the possibility of past-lives. Maybe I have some shadowy enduring sense of some image from a past life? But, as I’ve said, I don’t really know what I should look like.

I do know that I feel seen and known by the people I’ve chosen to connect with closely in my life. Therapy has helped.

Note from the therapist:

This patient presented for help with depression and with deeply held life-long anger. At some point, she mentioned something only superficially similar to patients who feel as though they were born in “the wrong body — a body of the wrong gender.” This patient is fully comfortable with her female gender. While she feels as though her image has “the wrong face,” importantly she does not have an idea of a face that she can own.

I believe that this unusual phenomenon is likely to be the impact of inadequate perception and appropriate mirroring in early life on the developing sense of self of a child with inborn assets of substantial intelligence and sensitivity.