Some time ago, I wrote a blog about the man who cleaned my car windows, knowing I had no cash to give him. After it happened, I tucked a neatly folded twenty in a pocket of my purse and zipped it in, hoping I might see him again someday. For weeks, even months, I craned to look for him as I passed the gas station, but never saw him. Slowly he dimmed from my crowded mind, and the twenty languished and perhaps crumpled a bit as it got buried deeper by time. This morning, rushing, stealing a minute on my way to the office to get gas, a man with a squeegee approached.
Lo and behold, it was him! The other time he was wrapped in a blanket and was a rather shapeless, assumably human form. Today he was in black jeans and a loose, ragged hoodie, so I could see his skinny shape. His short, sparse hair was graying, his brown skin wrinkly in that ageless way of the streets. He came into focus; I mean, I could see him. I set about pumping gas, he set about cleaning windows, and when I finished, I dug up the twenty I had squirreled away for him all those months ago.
Approaching the man, I said to him, “I want to tell you something…” His eyes widened, startled, as if he weren’t used to being spoken to, or not softly. I said, “a long time ago, I was here. I did not have any money, and I told you I had no money. But you cleaned my windows anyway.” I said it again. “I had no money, but you cleaned my windows anyway! I was so moved!” My throat wavered with emotion, and my eyes filled just a bit. “Thank you.” And for a long moment, I looked deep into the ageless brown eyes, which could’ve been anywhere from 50 to 80 years old. They teared up a bit too. We were just two humans together on this earth. “Thank you,” I said, “you are a good man.” I gave him twenty. With a modest, toothless smile, he muttered, “God bless…” I don’t believe he had seen a twenty in a very long time. He finished making his way around the car, doing an extra good job on the windows, and I drove off into the early morning dark to start my day.
For that one long moment, we were simply two humans connecting in the complex and simple endeavor of being human on this earth. That nameless-to-me man could check how many of the most salient neglect boxes? He was homeless, of color, aged, who knows what else? At the end of the hard workday, warming up the car to go home, the gas gauge lit up “full,” and my heart lit up “full,” too.
Thirty years into a blessedly happy marriage, the early days seem like a dim nightmare. Cycles of mutual trauma activation were endless, and we could not stop fighting. I truly believed we were the couple from hell. After firing five couples’ therapists and burning through an exorbitant amount of money, we lucked onto one who practiced then new to me, Imago Relationship therapy. We learned the structured Intentional Dialog, and that is where things began to “pivot” (to use the latest “word du jour”) and improve, to the point where I quickly went out and trained in Imago, which was my portal into becoming a couples’ therapist. Before our own life-changing experience, I would not have dared to venture a toe into that swirling vortex, certainly if trauma and neglect were involved.
The first step in Intentional Dialog is mirroring, where the listener or “receiver” repeats back the precise words of the speaker or “sender” line by line. Needless to say, it was tedious and time-consuming at first, but I will never forget my first experience of mirroring. Having my very words come back to me, unadulterated, uncensored, unedited or “corrected,” simply, authentically mine, was dazzling. That was when I first came to understand the priceless value of being truly seen, heard, and known.
From the very beginning, the nascent sense of self emerges from the intentional and consistent (“enough”) presence and mirroring of the mother or primary caregiver. Seeing one’s own reflection in the loving eyes of the other, resonating from right hemisphere to right hemisphere, the child’s brain slowly develops, a rhythm emerges between the two, self-regulation and a growing default which evolves into “me,” begins to form. Mirroring is the seed from which the human organism sprouts, grows, blooms, and fruits. Being seen and known is a core, essential developmental hub, and it is what is glaringly and tragically absent, or largely so, in neglect. Neglect is tantamount to being born, or cast into the world without a spine. How is one to stand up? No wonder neglect, barely visible to the untrained eye, is the most devastating of all trauma.
Having my very words come back to me, unadulterated, uncensored, unedited or “corrected,” simply, authentically mine, was dazzling. That was when I first came to understand the priceless value of being truly seen, heard, and known.
Like a caterpillar into a butterfly, cheesemaking is another seemingly magical metamorphosis. My little measuring spoons begin at 1/64 of a teaspoon: a minuscule amount of some microbial culture added to the vat of simple milk inspires a bubbling cauldron of coagulation into something solid, wonderfully nutritious, and delicious.
So it is with mirroring – being truly seen, heard, understood, and known: these immeasurably primal and fundamental developmental experiences are the essence of being, and being in a relationship. A measure of that elixir is the birthright of the fortunate. It is the traumatically missing experience of neglect, most necessary for healing. And every time we experience a moment of it, in therapy, in all manner of relationships, in the world, one’s sense of self is fertilized, reinforced, and encouraged.
Although I occasionally had clients who had been homeless sometime before I met them, my experience with the window-washing man woke me up to realizing, that perhaps I had never really looked at and seen a homeless person as an actual person; more than simply an avatar of the “homeless problem” which is notorious and ubiquitous here in San Francisco. First, recognizing and then looking into the eyes of this man, reminded me of the essential and transformative magic of real “sight.”
Mirroring is a prime ingredient in the psychotherapy of trauma and neglect, not sufficient, but unquestionably necessary, as is the presence which makes it all possible. And indeed, my clean windshield makes it possible for me to see! I hope our window cleaning protagonist is having a good breakfast somewhere!
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.