Mirror, mirror

Charlie Weinberg, Khatuna Tsintsadze and Whitney Iles
Thursday, 14 January 2021

The function of the ‘mirror’ in psychoanalytic theory is, very simply, that the earliest ways in which the infant begins to recognise itself are through the ‘mother’s’ gaze.*

The relationship between mother and infant is that of giving, taking and giving back. The infant, too young to understand the world or itself, feels raw and overwhelming emotions. It is the mother’s role to ensure the infant, and its feelings, are seen, responded to and ‘given back’ in a manageable way. This process, known as containment, helps the infant to learn about itself, its existence and impact upon the world.

If a mother’s returned look is of distraction, is without many expressions, is blank, or absent, the child learns they are not worth looking at or does not represent anything of interest. Whereas being seen, responded to and given back excitement, concern, pleasure, annoyance, fear or anxiety, means the child will similarly recognise itself as the cause of those sensations in the world.

It is for these reasons that consistency, recognition and self-awareness in adults caring for infants and children are such essential qualities. We are giving the world to children through our interactions with them.

This idea of ‘giving back what is there to be seen’ is worth thinking about in terms of the work we do in custodial environments, the broader criminal justice system and the voluntary and community sector (VCS). To give back what is there to be seen, we must have the internal capacity to hold space, to think about things that are unpleasant, shocking, frightening and uncomfortable. 

The mother may not look, smell, talk or be like the infant. For those of us who look, smell, talk or are different to the ‘infants’ in our care, we are often expected to fulfil these unrealistic expectations. Black leaders and leaders of colour, particularly but not only women, are often required to prove their leadership, professionalism, credentials and value in ways European or Caucasian leaders are not. The mirror is not a simple device, nor is it free of internalised and externalised imagery.

Leaders of organisations in the VCS represent the primary caregiver in this theory and act as mirrors to those who look to us to see themselves (including our peers), for us to hold space to see what is often uncertain, insecure and in cases unethical or hypocritical. It is our responsibility as leaders to see and respond to emotions and issues that are overwhelming and give them back in manageable ways.

To be able to hold space as individuals and organisations, a process of creating space must occur. This process of creating space allows for the examination of self and the exploration of our value systems and thinking frameworks. However, this authentic self-awareness can also lead to feelings of extreme vulnerability in a sector that promotes the wearing of a ‘metaphorical mask’.

The battle for funding and contracts requires the wearing of the mask that consistently presents our best selves. The armour is awarded by wins and awards, encouraging the development of a superhuman image, which leaves little room for others to be seen and see themselves in us. We become the distracted mother, neglectful due to the necessity to survive inhumane standards. 

This reflection presents the question to leaders of VCS organisations: to whom can we give the world as it is if not to ourselves and each other? Suppose we cannot look ourselves in the mirror and stand before each other with the reflection of our realities in each other's eyes. What hope do we have of delivering high-quality services that focus on honest and authentic conversations with those we serve?

In the current climate, it is difficult to have conversations that make us vulnerable, scared, exposed or open to criticism. The metaphorical mask created from an unsustainable environment promotes a system that is unable to hold space.

We have come together to create space to present a realistic and unedited reflection of our experiences. We wish to develop a platform for critical analysis, review and dialogue of issues raised with us within the overlap of the VCS and CJS.

* Mother is a predominant feature of psychoanalytic theory and in attachment theory the mother figure is a huge presence. We recognise the absolute importance of the role of the mother figure and also recognise that a primary carer may not be a biological mother or a woman; and still has the same capacity for attachment and early influence on a child’s development.

The Critical Care series is intended to provoke, promote and invite colleagues from a range of situations and positions, to think through and engage in debate about the ways we lead, follow, invest and deliver our own individual and institutional authority.