“What’s one of the most impactful things your therapist has ever said to you?” I asked my friend Maggie across the dinner table.
I met Maggie a year ago when I ordered a coffee from her. She used to work at the café by my house. She was also an early-career psychotherapist, so we bonded quickly. This particular evening, I had invited her over for dinner and cooked a gloopy pasta dish. We had just opened a second bottle of wine to compensate for the meal.
Maggie and I often ask each other about our respective therapists. Therapy rooms are like marriage bedrooms—only two people ever really know what happens in them, but everyone is curious about everyone else’s. Or at least I am. What happens when Maggie and her therapist sit face to face, across from each other? Is it the same or different as when I face my own therapist?
“I don’t know about a single impactful thing,” Maggie answered. “But she just… gives me permission, you know? She told me once, ‘You are allowed a full range of emotions.’ No one had ever said that to me. She gives me permission to be human.”
Maggie’s voice cracked on the last sentence, and when I looked up, she had tears in her eyes. This is the first thing I learned about Maggie: She cries. A lot. She feels everything. Growing up, she was the conduit for all her family’s scary and difficult emotions. She felt all the feelings, while her parents and siblings coolly wondered why she was “so emotional.”
Like so many clinicians, Maggie’s greatest therapeutic gifts came out of her oldest pain. She can pick up on others’ unconscious feelings and show them on her own face. Maggie mirrors well. When I don’t know what I feel, often I can look into Maggie’s face for a clue. So, you know, free therapy for me.
We never stop craving to be mirrored, to see ourselves reflected in another’s face. Donald Winnicott wrote, “The precursor to the mirror is the mother’s face.” In interaction with babies, who are wordless, we reflect back to them what we see in them: joy at their joy, exaggerated surprise at their wonder when a balloon floats up or a cat slinks by, concern and fear when they get hurt. This, in Winnicott’s language, is us “giving back to the baby the baby’s own self.”
It doesn’t stop there. We seek “the mother’s face” throughout our lives, in friends and lovers and therapists. Psychotherapy, according to Winnicott, is not a process of “making clever and apt interpretations; by and large it is a long-term giving back to the patient what the patient brings.” In other words, therapy is mirroring.
“How about yours?” Maggie asked, still sniffling. “What’s the most impactful thing your therapist has ever said?”
I thought of my current therapist, a 40-something fat, gay man who sits comfortably in his chair, wearing khaki pants and a button-down shirt every day. I showed his website picture to a friend once, and she said, “Awww, he’s snuggly.” That embarrassed me, because I’ve thought it myself many times. My favorite thing is making him chuckle, because he never fakes his laugh.
What is the most impactful thing he’s said? He is often not that great with words. He stumbles around them—we both do—like awkward middle schoolers trying to dance. But his face, in the brief snatches that I have the courage to look at it, holds a lot.
If only I could look at him more often. Instead of looking at my therapist, I mentally trace the patterns of the rug at my feet. “Is that… are there baby forest animals in this rug?” I asked him once, “Jesus, this thing is hideous. Did you pick it out yourself?”
He chuckled, which turned into a real laugh. In the half-second I glanced up, I tried to memorize the image. This, yes, this is the response I want. I want you to enjoy me.
I looked away too quickly.
A few months ago, I brought in a childhood photo of myself. It sat in my bag for 45 minutes before I worked up the courage to pull it out and hand it to my therapist. He took it and studied the image, holding it with both hands as his elbows rested on his knees. He happened to be dressed like Mr. Rogers that day, cardigan and all, and as he looked at my photo his face grew sad. I watched him watching the 5-year-old me and thought, “what an odd three-way mirror this is.”
After a long minute, he said, “Her mouth has a smile, but her eyes are watchful and unsmiling. She looks frozen and unsure.”
“Oh my god,” I said. I’d had that photo for twentyseven years and was never able to articulate why it made me sad. The fear and the frozenness had never been mirrored by another, so I couldn’t see it myself.
Therapy is an act of constant mirroring, but most especially, of mirroring what is unconscious, unnamed, and unknown. Since we can’t speak of what we don’t yet know, the information lies in our faces and bodies. My face holds clues into what I can’t yet articulate. My therapist, and sometimes Maggie, respond via their own faces, with expressions of kindness and curiosity and sometimes confusion. Eventually this mirroring loosens the dangerous unknown places enough for us to start talking about them.
“But it’s a picture of a cute kid, too,” my therapist continued. “And I imagine that’s what people saw and responded to.”
In graduate school I had a colleague who would ask therapy clients to describe God. People would respond with the usual Judeo-Christian answers: God is Just, Kind, Strong, Tender, Loving. Then he’d ask them, “What does God’s face look like when God looks at you?” The disparity would be huge—people envisioned God’s disapproving face, judgmental face, God’s barely-concealed irritation underneath a phony smile.
Words lie, faces do not. Our words—for God, and for our selves—cover our true, moment-tomoment, face-to-face experience. We can so easily bury our actual experience of God underneath many words—words of scripture, prayer, liturgy. Sometimes our language makes it impossible to know our real experience. Sometimes we have to picture a face.
What if Jesus is not a rescuer or savior but only a compassionate witness? Is it enough to have God’s sad face, kind face, open and responsive face? If God only mirrors our helplessness, taking note of the rage that had no place to go, the sadness that went underground, and the fear underneath all our harsh judgments of ourselves and others, would we really need anything else?
Trauma researcher Peter Levine writes, “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside of us in the absence of an empathic witness.” The moment of seeing my own confusion and helplessness register on my therapist’s face somehow dissolved some amount of the internal horror I’d been unconsciously carrying for decades. Does God also see and mirror? Could that be enough?
Unable to describe the kind sadness in his eyes, I ended up repeating my therapist’s words about my old photo to Maggie. “Wow, Christine. Wow,” she said. And, having just gotten a hold of herself two minutes before, she welled up again with tears.
After she left, I sat alone on the edge of my bed with my old photo, remembering my therapist’s sad expression, and Maggie’s tears. And for the first time in months, I found my own sadness and tears too.