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 resilience.
Psychotherapists call this 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 their feelings and encourages problem-solving improves their self-esteem. On the other hand, negative or even inconsistent mirroring does the opposite.
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 related to psychological milestones, such as trust, independence, identity and intimacy. A child who does not resolve the crisis of a particular stage will continue to struggle with it as an adult.¹
This is why it is crucial for parents to understand child psychology: so they can respond appropriately to normal 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 depicting a man and woman sitting alone in an empty auditorium with wide grins on their faces. Above them hangs a banner: “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 for reassurance they are worthy, competent, likeable, normal, etc. Pathology is determined by how much a person’s need for validation interferes with functioning and/or distress it causes.
Which brings me to Donald Trump. What the public sees as bragging, insulting, generalizing, contradicting and rationalizing, mental health experts recognize as defense mechanisms of someone 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.