Of Mirrors and Identity: The Hardest Question

Sep 28, 2022

For 15 years, I devoted myself to psychological assessment, with a specialized focus on men entering the seminary. I focused in learning how to understand, at a deep level, the individual humanity, the unique personhood of each of these men who were offering themselves in service to the Church.

Seminarian candidates from all over the US presented themselves in my office for an all-day assessment. I was charged with evaluating these men’s psychological fitness, their personality organization, any developmental arrests, and how they were doing in the domains of identity, relationship, emotional regulation, cognitive operations, sexuality, body image, dynamic issues, and many other areas.

These years were during the height of the sex-abuse crisis, and so the vocations directors, seminary staff, and spiritual directors were keen on not just knowing who these men were, but also on assessing their potential risk of acting out. I took the responsibility of getting to know them very seriously.

Those seminarian assessments were eye-opening in so many ways.

The Mirror Interview

As part of the intake process, we did the “Mirror Interview.” For the Mirror Interview, I brought out a 6-foot-tall mirror and asked the candidate to stand in front of it, looking at his reflection. Then I read the instructions:

I’m going to be asking a few questions while you look at yourself and your body in the mirror. You’re probably used to looking at yourself – some people spend a lot of time looking, some don’t. We’re interested in how it is for you. What I would like you to do is really look. (20-30 second pause). Let me know when you are ready.

Looking at themselves was hard for many candidates – usually, their whole experience was awkward. Meanwhile, I stood nearby with my clipboard and noted down my observations (they didn’t like that, either).

After the 30 seconds were up (it often seemed like five minutes), I instructed the candidate to continue looking at himself or herself while I asked this question:

Who are you?

This was by far the hardest question most seminarian and religious candidates faced in the interview. The fidgeting, foot shuffling, looking away, sighing, nervous smiling, rapid breathing, sweating, fumbling speech, pupil dilation, trembling and other outward manifestations of anxiety increased. For nearly all of them, this was the most stressful moment of the assessment. Here is a sampling of typical responses to the question, “Who are you?”:

  • You mean my name?

  • I’m not sure how I am supposed to answer that.

  • I am [insert name], the son of [insert parents’ names].

  • I am a guy with a checkered past with a lot of struggles and failures.

  • I am a man, a living substance, a rational animal, a body and soul composite, consisting of a material body that dies and a spiritual soul that is immortal, made in the image and likeness of God.

  • I am a convert to the Faith, I joined the Church at the Easter Vigil X years ago.

  • I am a man who hopes to become a priest, I think I have a vocation to the priesthood.

  • I am a guy with a good sense of humor who likes praying and baseball and the Lord of the Rings

  • I am X, I am tall, I graduated from Y University, I’ve been working as a project manager at Z company.

  • I am [insert name], I am a Catholic man, I am a beloved son of God by adoption [said very rapidly and nervously as the man looks at me out of the corner of his eye].

Nearly all these men struggled to describe who they were in their individuality. Remember, these were not men in distress who were presenting for psychotherapy because they were in distress. These men were already screened, and deemed fit to go forward with the application process for seminary.

Who are you? – that was the hardest question.

[Quick aside: It was probably the Mirror Interview along with the detailed sexual history questions and the Rorschach that earned me my nickname in seminarian circles – “Dr. Malinoscopy.” I never heard any of the seminarians directly refer to me that way, but multiple credible secondary sources confirmed the story. I imagine the seminarians said that nickname in a warm and affectionate tone…but maybe not.]

Brief exercise

Take a minute, pause in your reading. How would you answer that question…

Who are you?

Consider writing down what comes to mind.

Brief review

In last week’s reflection, titled The Deepest Human Formation Work a Catholic Can Do, I introduced you to two new terms: self concept and self image. Let’s review them.

Your self concept is what you have chosen to believe about your identity – how you conceptualize yourself in your intellect, it is who you profess yourself to be.

In contrast, your self image is who you feel yourself to be in a particular moment. Self images are much more impressionistic, much more intuitive, more emotionally driven, very subjective, and more dynamic.

In the reflection from two weeks ago, Are You A Heretic? Distorted God Images Catholics Hold, I argued that we build whole religions around our distorted God images.

Constructing our own [unconscious] religions

Today, I am presenting how we build up a personal internal religion around each corresponding distorted God image / self image pairing. Our God images and our self-images pull us, in ways that we do not even realize, in directions that are opposed to our God concept and our self-concept.

For example, I know of many Catholics committed to the Faith who have very poor self-images. Some see themselves as unlovable, abandoned, and ignored. They feel they have nothing good to offer God or anyone else. Others see themselves as ontologically bad because they fall into the same sins repeatedly, regarding themselves as unacceptable and pathetic.

With these distorted God images, these Catholics find it very hard to give themselves to God or to other people. How could they make an offering of themselves to God when they find themselves so unlovable, evil, or worthless? How can they make a gift of self to anyone else when they find themselves contemptible, disgusting, or morally bad?

When these Catholics avoid relating with God in personal prayer, it makes sense. The religion constructed around their negative self image, with a corresponding judgmental and distant God image, would invite them to relate with God in only the most peripheral and indirect ways. That religion would center on somehow becoming less distasteful to God and not imposing one’s defective or bad self on God. The result? Very little prayer time, and that prayer time is likely to be made up of rote vocal prayers, not meditation and certainly not contemplation. Avoidance of the sacraments would be expected. These Catholics also avoid close connections with others, the kind of connection needed to really love their close neighbors.

An example of a distorted religion stemming from an inaccurate self image and God images from the Gospel

[Jesus] said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. [Luke 5:4b-11]

Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.As is so often the case, Peter gets some of it right, but some of it wrong. In this moment Peter accurately recognizes that he is sinful man and unworthy of Jesus. But Peter does not consider the idea that Jesus loves him anyway. He does not hold on to an identity as a beloved son of God or friend of Jesus.

As a result, Peter, caught up in a negative self image that has become his self concept, tries to drive Jesus away from him. That’s the worst thing he could do in that situation.

Peter also gets Jesus partly right and partly wrong in his God image. In the passage, Peter calls Jesus, “Lord” – the first time in Luke’s Gospel anyone bestows that divine title on Jesus. In the shock and awe of the miraculous catch of fish, Peter realizes that Jesus not only a man, but is also God. That’s a tremendous insight. But Peter’s God image doesn’t include the possibility that Jesus as true God and true Man loves him and wants to be with him, even in his sinfulness.

But Jesus continues to love him and intervenes: Do not be afraid; henceforth, you will be catching men.” Peter is open to that love, and the way that love and connection with the living God changes both Peter’s self image and his God image. Jesus offers Peter a partnership in a completely different lake for fishing, fishing in the lake of mankind. Peter accepts the offer.

We see this pattern of Peter’s God images and self images being partly right and partly wrong in so many other situations – in the walking on the water and in the denial and the reconciliation with Jesus, for example.

Further examples of distorted religions growing out of negative self images: spiritual reading

I cannot tell you how many times as a treating psychologist I’ve pried The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis out of the hands of depressed and shame-burdened clients. The 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia states “With the exception of the Bible, it [The Imitation of Christ] is perhaps the most widely read spiritual book in the world.” And it is a spiritual classic, praised by many saints throughout the centuries – but here’s the thing.

The Imitation of Christ can easily be misused by those with certain kinds of negative self-images. The Imitation of Christ is the quintessential example of what I call the “wretched worm” genre of spiritual reading.

What I found is that many serious Catholics (usually women) with grave distortions in their self images would be reading The Imitation of Christ in part because they could find in its pages support for perpetuating their negative self images. Such misused passages include the following quotes (in green):

  • To think of oneself as nothing, and always to think well and highly of others is the best and most perfect wisdom. [frequently held on to by those suffering physical, sexual or emotional exploitation or abuse (often in marriage) as a way of to avoid setting appropriate boundaries against violations of their dignity]

  • The man who is not yet wholly dead to self, is soon tempted, and is overcome in small and trifling matters. [held on to by those who are trying to “die to self,” but achieving only a caricature because they have a diffuse, fragmented sense of self, and allowing others to take advantage of them, rather than giving themselves freely – and believing that mistreatment is God’s active will for them]

  • He who is not always ready to suffer and to stand completely at the will of his beloved is not worthy to be called a lover, for it behooves a lover gladly to suffer all hard and bitter things for his beloved, and not to fall from love because of any irksome thing that may befall him. [held on to by those who condemn and berate themselves for their minor failures to love and their natural reactions to the suffering in their lives, leading to greater despondency and even despair as Deism creeps in]

  • Why seekest thou rest when thou art born to labour? Prepare thyself for patience more than for comforts, and for bearing the cross more than for joy. [held on to by those (especially mothers) who are exhausted and yet driven to perform more good deeds to in a vain attempt to make up for their sense of ontological badness in a Pelagian effort at self-redemption]

Almost always, the person misusing The Imitation of Christ chose to read it herself or himself without consulting competent spiritual counsel. This is one reason that it is best to entrust the selection of spiritual reading to a competent spiritual director or confessor, one who knows you and who can see more clearly the deficits in your God images and self images that the spiritual reading may remedy (or at least not exacerbate). Much better for the individuals described above to read Personal Prayer: A Guide For Receiving the Father’s Love or a work by Fr. Jacques Philippe than the Imitation of Christ.

Unchallenged, distorted God images and self images make Satan’s work so much easier

Let’s change gears.

Satan has a staffing problem. He has a limited number of demons under his command with which to subvert God’s plans.

In 1467, the Spanish Franciscan Catholic Bishop Alphonso de Spina calculated the number of demons to be 133,316,666. That’s a lot of demons.

However, the number of Catholics in the world is much larger, estimated at 1.36 billion. That means that if Bishop de Spina’s estimate is accurate, there is only one demon for every 10 Catholics in the world right now.

Satan must figure out how to allocate his demonpower most effectively. I can see him with his senior staff in the “demon resources” office of hell (perhaps consulting with Catbert) arguing and trying to figure out how to try to ruin us all with the limited number of demons he has.

Thus, Satan wants “low-maintenance” cases, he wants to see us Catholics sabotage ourselves, Catholics who don’t need any demonic assistance to lead them along the road to hell. Satan wants “low-maintenance Catholics” who are undermining themselves in order to free demons up to tempt those “tougher cases.” The “tougher cases” include Catholics who are at tipping points, those forks in the spiritual road as well as those holy ones, who, through their sanctity are leading souls to accept the love of God and to love Him back. As Thomas à Kempis writes in The Imitation of Christ, “Satan leaves unbelievers and sinners alone because he already has them in his grip; he goes after believers who are faithful and devout.”

There is no better way, in my opinion, for people to lead themselves away from God and into Hell than by allowing distorted God images and self images to remain unchallenged and unresolved, and to build up religions (consciously or unconsciously) around those distorted images.

Spiritual “dark place” exercise reprised

Two weeks ago, in my weekly reflection Are You A Heretic? Distorted God Images Catholics Hold, I invited you to explore your God images in a spiritual dark place exercise. Now I invite you to do this exercise again, but this time, looking at your distorted self-images. Do this when you have about five minutes of quiet uninterrupted time, when you can engage and connect with a time of spiritual darkness or difficulty. Here are the steps.

  1. Remember a time when you were in a spiritually dark and distant place. It could be from a long time ago or recent.

  2. To a moderate degree, enter back into the experience of that memory. We don’t want it to be overwhelming. But we are seeking, in a mild way, to re-experience that time, to reconnect with the emotions, thoughts, body sensations, visual imagery, and any other inner experience of that time.

  3. While experiencing a mild amount of the pain and distress and suffering of that spiritually dark place, who did you feel that you were? How would you have described yourself, based just on your emotions and intuitions, not your self concept?

  4. Did you experience yourself as the beloved and cherished child of God, the Father and Mary, your mother?

  5. What kind of conflicts about who you really were emerged within you in that time?

  6. If you are willing, write down how you felt yourself to be in that spiritual dark time – how did you feel toward yourself? What criticisms did you have of yourself?

  7. How did your felt self image and your professed self concept differ from each other?

What did you learn about your self images from this exercise?

Action Plan

Are you up for taking the Mirror Interview yourself? If so, I’ve shortened and customized a version for you and you can download a PDF here. Do you want an audio version that you can listen to while you do it? Grab your ear buds, get a clipboard, pen and paper, find a mirror, and hit play on this 7-minute audio, and you will hear me read the prompts for the modified mirror interview. It isn’t psychological assessment, but it may evoke some self images for you.

Also, check out episode 93 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, titled Three Inner Experiential Exercises. The first experiential exercise walks you through the ways you refuse to love yourself and the ways you reject or condemn yourself. The second examines your inner tension around self-protection vs. connection with others, bringing in polyvagal theory. The third explores the internal rigidity and inner chaos within you, two markers of a lack of integration, informed by Interpersonal Neurobiology. That whole episode is 80 minutes long.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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