Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all? – Brothers Grimm
A boy comes running home crying, “Daddy, I fell off my bike!” His dad replies, “Well, you should be more careful next time.” Not earth-shatteringly inappropriate, but consider the underlying message: the boy did something wrong and is incompetent. Now, imagine if the dad said, “That’s okay, everyone falls off their bike. I know you’ll get back on and do great.” While seemingly simple, this response sends a very different message: falling off a bike is normal and has nothing to do with the boy’s capabilities. It also role models how to cope with failure.
Psychotherapists call this dynamic mirroring. It is one of the most important roles of a parent. How you respond to your children – your tone of voice, your words, your body language – plays a crucial role in how they see themselves. Communication which normalizes a child’s behavior, supports his or her feelings and encourages problem-solving, fosters a child’s self-worth and confidence. On the other hand, critical or even inconsistent mirroring can seriously impair a child’s sense-of-self.
Perhap there’s no better explanation of how parenting impacts a child’s psychological development than German-American Psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson’s, 8 Stages of Psychosocial Development. Unlike Sigmund Freud, Erikson believed that personality development continued throughout the lifespan, marked by a series of existential crises around psychological milestones including trust, autonomy, identity and intimacy. According to Erikson, a child who does not successfully master a crises, will continue to have issues with trust, independence, identity, intimacy, etc into adulthood.¹
This is why it is crucial for parents to understand child psychosocial development: so they can respond appropriately to normal childhood behaviors such as temper tantrums, acting out, defiance, impulsivity, avoidance and more. Unfortunately, having a dysfunctional upbringing is the rule, not the exception. I often tell my patients about a cartoon I came across years ago depicting two adults – one man, one woman – each sitting alone in an empty auditorium with wide grins on their faces. Above them hung a banner which read, “Welcome Adult Children of Functional Families.”
To make up for dysfunctional mirroring from parents or guardians, many adults unconsciously rely on other people as mirrors, looking for validation they are worthy, competent, loveable, etc. As with all human behavior, however, it’s a matter of degree: how much their insecurity interferes with functioning and how much distress it causes them and others determines pathology.
Which brings me to Donald Trump. What the public sees as bragging, insulting, generalizing, contradicting and rationalizing, mental health providers recognize as defense mechanisms of a human being incapable of self-validating. He does not have the self-worth necessary to be open to self-improvement. Trump’s sense-of-self is reliant on the reflection of others. Every person he encounters is like a mirror to him. This is why he’s incapable of brushing off criticism and why he relishes political rallies. It’s also why Trump cares less about having real achievements and more about being recognized for achievements he doesn’t have.
Donald Trump is what I call “a cup with a hole in it.” No matter how much positive feedback you give him, he will keep needing more. Without it, he is empty.