I’ve been enjoying the furore around Nadine Dorries’ ill advised trip down under to take part in “I’m a celebrity…” and the upset it has caused in the Tory party. I’m not sure I wholly buy the idea that she sees reality TV as a platform from which to make her views heard, I tend more towards the lure of a £40K payday, (and if I were her constituent I would be righteously annoyed at her absence from the house). But, the whole situation has got me thinking about how we all want to be seen and heard.
Regardless of whether we have a point to make or a book/film/record to plug, it’s important to our wellbeing that we feel heard and seen by those around us, particularly those we care about. If you’ve ever tried to combine having a conversation with childcare you’ll know that the constant interruptions and demands for attention from your toddler make this a real challenge; it’s because they need to know that you haven’t forgotten them, that you can still love them whilst being attentive to another. A baby learns who they are from their mother’s reaction, in the first days of life, mother and baby are intertwined, mother’s attention is completely focused on her child, in fact the baby is nearly all she does see. When the inevitable separation begins and more space appears between them, the baby’s sense of who they are, develops from what is reflected back to them in their mother’s eyes. Daniel Stern describes this as “a correspondence (a “harmony”) between his inner state of satisfaction-pleasure and the appearance of his mother’s face”. Later, as a toddler, able to move about and explore on their own, they have to learn that mother still holds them in her mind, even when she doesn’t see them. And the child learns to do the same, Mummy’s not here, but I can “bear her in mind” until she comes back.
The need to be seen remains with us as adults and is an important part of subsequent relationships as well – healthy relationships that is. Abusers for example objectify, they don’t see the person, they see a victim, bigots generalise, they see race, colour, sexuality or gender, but not the actual person. Even happy, functioning well adjusted individuals can bring experiences of past relationships and impose them on the other person – “you’re just like my mother!”.
The flipside is that sometimes we try hard to ensure that others don’t really see us. The ever increasing diet industry and rise in “shapewear” and cosmetic surgery suggests that many of us, particularly women, find it hard to see our own selves. We learn from celebrity culture and advertising that we are not good enough for human sight, and need improvement, or at least for our flaws to be hidden before presenting ourselves to the world.
Think back to the baby learning about themselves through the love expressed through in their mother’s eyes, how damaging would it be if the baby saw hate, intolerance, and imperfection reflected back – isn’t that what we do to ourselves, when we can’t look in the mirror and accept our own self?
Part of the reason that therapy can be so healing is that it offers a space to be unconditionally accepted which is for many clients a new experience. Being wholly seen and appreciated in the therapeutic relationship has a lasting impact on a person’s relationships with their own self, and with others.