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Archive for November 19th, 2008

On my blog entry entitled Unmet Needs after Child Abuse: Age Six to Twelve, a reader posted the following comment:

I’ve subconsciously taken on mannerisms and speech patterns (including regional accents) of other people, once I’ve been around them long enough to consider them friends. Long ago I recognized this about myself, but had no idea why or where it came from, just that it happened. Now, it makes sense! – Midge

This is a common aftereffect of child abuse called mirroring.

Abused children do not know how to interact well with other people. Their abusers (obviously) do not socialize them well. In fact, it is in the abuser’s interest if his victim does not know how to make friends. An isolated victim is much less likely to tell about the abuse.

Human beings are social creatures by nature. Because the abused child’s ability to learn how to socialize well with other children was stunted, many abused children learn how to “mirror” the behaviors and mannerisms of other children whom they want to befriend. As the saying goes, “Birds of a feather flock together.” By mirroring other children, the child seems more like those children, making those children much more likely to bring the abused child into the fold.

I, personally, did not have the first clue about how to make a friend. I spent most of seventh and eighth grade sitting alone at lunch because I did not know how to make a friend. In ninth grade, a “new girl” moved to my school, and she became popular (as in well-liked, not in the snobby way) instantly. I began mirroring her behaviors and, voila, I suddenly started having friends.

Fortunately, this girl was a wonderful role model. I still hold onto many of the traits I learned from her to this day. Now that I know how to befriend others, I generally look for the person who is feeling left out and use the skills I learned from this girl to make the other person feel more comfortable. So, mirroring is not necessarily a bad thing.

The problem is when you become like a chameleon – when you only reflect the personalities of the people you spend time with and lose who you are in the process. Or, worse, you never even knew who that person was to begin with.

I used to believe that healing from the child abuse was about turning myself into a new person. I have come to recognize that healing is really about discovering who I have always been. Beneath all of the pain, shame, and mirroring has always been a unique personality that is all mine. Learning how to stop viewing myself through the distorted lens of my abusers opened me up to discovering myself.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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