19-03-2014 at 12:19

Mirroring and mirror reactions in group analysis.

Lars Bo Jørgensen
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Mirroring - mirror reactions - is like a conceptual dynamic matrix. Mirror reactions can be regarded as a web of interconnected processes which take place in dyadic, triadic and on group-as-a whole levels as well as on an individual level in the sense that you can reflect about yourself in the “here and now”, the past history etc.


Mirroring - mirror reactions - is like a conceptual dynamic matrix. Mirror reactions can be regarded as a web of interconnected processes which take place in dyadic, triadic and on group-as-a whole levels as well as on an individual level in the sense that you can reflect about yourself in the “here and now”, the past history etc.

Sensory - perceptual processes are constantly in play, in the way we look - recognize, hear - recall and how one feels and experiences oneself and others in the group consciously as well as unconsciously.

Literature on mirroring and group analysis stems primary from S.H. Foulkes (1948, 1964), Malcolm Pines (1982 ) and L. Zinkin (1983). The latter authors also is inspired from psychoanalytic literature from D.Winnicott ( 1971) and J. Lacan (1966).

1. Mirroring is a specific term that is actively dyadic and triadic - multiple in a group therapeutic context.
2. Mirroring is a general term that has features in common with other group -specific factors and psychological processes as identification, introjection, projection , projective identification, affective atonement, sympathy and empathy etc.
3. Mirroring – negative as well as positive aspects must be seen in a continuum and further more non-existing or absent.
4. Mirroring is a sensory - perceptual process – both non-verbal and verbal.
5. Mirror reactions are constantly present / active - consciously or unconsciously in a group therapeutic context.
6. Mirroring contribute to group cohesion and mirroring is an inevitable part of the matrix ' communicative network.
7. In developmental psychology mirroring is a key concept.


Foulkes has roots in the individual psychoanalysis and the curative factors that are active in individual analysis are also active in group analysis. But he added specific factors and here mirroring / or mirror reactions is one of these – like socialization, condensation and exchange as the main concepts.
The concept turns up twice in Foulkes’ first book from 1948. At first, when he says (p.28 ) that the therapist learns from the (a part of the) neurotic patient , as the patient reflects the therapist's incompetence when he says; “ … Neurotic patients are, after all, like you and me and part of our annoyance is due to the fact that they show us our own incompetence in a mirror, like a caricature”.
And at the end of the book S. Foulkes defines mirror reactions /mirroring as a group-specific phenomenon’s among other concepts like resonance, condensation, socialization and exchange.
He states; “The discussion, interpretation or analysis of such material (problems discussed in a group), is therefore, effective in a number of people, even if they merely listen to it ………. forces of identification and contrast are at work here. This whole set of factors we feel inclined to distinguish by giving them a special name, for which we propose “mirror reaction”. (p.167).

A particular reflection or the reaction is part of the field in where therapeutic- and developmental processes take place.

Mirror and mirror reactions are described by Foulkes in the following way:

"Mirror reactions are characteristically brought out when a number of persons meet and interact. A person sees himself, or part of himself - often a repressed part of himself - reflected in the interactions of other group members. He sees them reacting in the way he does himself, or in contrast to his own behaviour. He also gets to know himself - and this is a fundamental process in ego -development - by the effect he has upon others and the picture they form of him ". (p.110)


Mirror reactions and the mirror metaphor imply that each group member can get feedback from other group members, which can correct distorted experiences or perceptions of themselves or the other.
This is a dialectical process in which both reflected similarities (" he sees them self-reacting in the way he does himself ") and differences ("or in contrast to his own behaviour”).
Foulkes perceived mirroring essentially as a benign process in which the individual /group member can learn about themselves and the way others see and perceive him.
Foulkes calls the group "a hall of mirrors." This means that there exist many mirrors in the group. Unlike individual psychotherapy where the therapist acts as a mirror and constantly have to move the mirror. The group is considered as a hall of mirrors.
Pines (1) say that the therapist/conductor is not just a reflective surface, but through his intervention, vocabulary and behaviour, he holds a mirror up to the individual group members and the group- as - a whole.
The dialogue, interaction and mirroring in the group contributes to the individual in the way finds herself in that there is a "(re) establishment of self-unity and coherence” or a changed identity. (Foulkes and Pines). In this process “the group- as - a whole” also change gradually.

Group Analysis is relational and interpersonal in nature but through the group process also a self-developmental process takes place. According to Foulkes mirroring unfolds at all “levels of communication”.

The concept of “malignant mirroring” is outlined and described by Louis Zinkin ( ), in response to a description of "negative reflection” which Pines ( ) briefly describe, as a process that starts when we no longer can "negotiate" and reflect when a conflict is stocked. In such a situation, learning and reflection is no longer possible. ”We are as Perseus without his mirror”in the myth of Medusa meaning there is no "third position" present or space for reflection.

In the article "Malignant Mirroring” by L. Zinkin he points out that mirroring as a concept has not been further developed since Foulkes.

He demonstrates the "paradoxical nature" of mirroring. It can serve as a therapeutic factor and also be a rather destructive element in the group.

The paradox is a result of - " the fact that self-knowledge makes us increasingly aware of our self-knowledge; that knowing ourselves means seeing ourselves and that seeing ourselves means seeing ourselves and that seeing ourselves means ourselves seeing ourselves. This very act of self-knowledge also produces self-estrangement.”
Mirroring has an alienating quality and not only a ”benign" quality as Foulkes proposed. In the quotation from Zinkin the intrapsychic process is highlighted.

As an interpersonal process Zinkin describes how two people are trapped in a "double - mirror reaction" which are fixed by projections that are adjacent to distortions.
The nucleus is - that two group members either see themselves as similar or as opposites to each other. The relationship characterized by a special attraction and repulsion of each other at the same time, while the group is unhooked. And those involved will not /cannot look at their part in the conflict.

Both Zinkin and Pines sees this as early dyadic conflict and to terminate/dissolve the conflict a “third level/third position” is necessary of interaction to which both participant’s similarities and differences can be accommodated.

In a dynamic perspective, challenges or threats to the self, introduces paranoid - schizoid aspects into the fore. Feeling challenged in a non-recognizing/ or in a non- acceptable way, can be solved by a regressive and destructive option, as a defence against anxiety, shame and doubt. These processes are particularly humiliating and shameful when they are played out publicly as in a group.

The concept of mirroring is heavily influenced from diverse developmental perspectives such as D. Winnicott, J. Lacan and in the latest decades from D. Stern and P. Fonagy et all.
Inspirations from individual psychoanalysis especially Kohut has influenced the overall thoughts about mirroring.
These sources are implicit in the making of an group analyst but not specific related to group analysis.

Lacan J. Le stade du mirroir. Ecits 1966.
Fonagy,P. , Gergely,G, Jurist.E.L and Target,M. Affect Regulation, metallization, and the development of the self. New York. Other Press.2002.
Foulkes, S.H. Introduction to Group Analytic Psychotherapy. 1948 ( Karnac 1984)
Foulkes, S.H Therapeutic Group Analysis. 1964. (Karnac reprint 2002).
Pines, M. Reflection on Mirroring. Group Analysis, vol.15, 2. 1982.
Stern.D. The Interpersonal World of the Infant. Basic Books. 1985.
Zinkin,L. Malignant Mirroring. Group Analysis vol.16, 2 1983.
Winnicott. Playing and Reality. London, Routhledge 1971.

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