Whilst in one of my counselling sessions, I was trying to describe to my counsellor how I feel about my own identity. It dawned on me that I feel completely empty- as if everything outside of me is important and much more concrete, but inside me is completely unimportant and empty. I visualised it as an invisible human form, with the whole of life happening around them.
My counsellor said this is due to a lack of mirroring in childhood. Mirroring is when a parent reflects back to you the things you like, how you’re feeling, what your preferences are.
Sometimes parents project their own identity onto you, which means that we learn to be what others expect us to be. We learn to take our cue from the world around us, for other people to decide. We don’t learn of our innate power to create a life of our own- one that feels true and right to each of us individually.
Healthy mirroring might look something like this:
A child spends lots of time drawing and creating art work. Their mother makes enthusiastic comments: “how wonderful that you enjoy spending so much time making these beautiful pictures. You seem to like drawing butterflies very much”. This reflects back to the child what they are doing, what they are expressing as part of their identity and who they truly are.
A childhood full of healthy mirroring and guidance down the path the child chooses for themselves, gives the grown child a strong sense of who they are and the direction they wish to take in life.
Discussing this further with my counsellor we talked about how a childhood without mirroring can cause the grown child to feel very little sense of connection to who they really are.
In my case I had my parent’s tell me how I was feeling, what I preferred, etc. I wasn’t allowed my own opinion. If I made my own decision I would be criticised and warned about the consequences. If I was angry I was very bad indeed and on occasion was locked in my bedroom- anger was not an option. It was as if I didn’t exist when I was angry.
To survive in my childhood home I learnt to anticipate my parent’s reactions and to act in a way that kept them happy. I spent so much time and energy trying to avoid criticism and any anger on their part that I put little energy into finding out who I was- I was constantly scanning my environment.
Keeping my parent’s happy was so important to me as they both had traumatic pasts and suffered from depression. My paternal grandfather had ended his life due to mental health issues. I learnt this at the age of 11, and was terrified at the prospect of losing my parents, so I resolved to do everything I possibly could to prevent this from happening. So I became as “good” as I possibly could and tried my absolute hardest to make them happy.
Bring on the Food!
I’ve been putting this into the context of my binge eating and it makes so much sense! This strong sense of emptiness is filled with food. Food temporarily gives a feeling of fullness. It also gives a certain identity in that we have a relationship with food, the disorder itself becomes part of who we are!
So part of the recovery process from binge eating, for me, is going to involve getting to know myself and what my needs are.