Can Empty Attention Evolve into Mirroring?

Twins attract attention whether they like it or not. If parents insist on dressing them the same, the identically clad children are magnets for comments and stares. I have been fascinated to learn how differently twins respond to this attentiveness as they get older. The outcome appears to be predicated upon each one’s specific role in the dyad.

An identical twin female in her thirties (Agnes) relates that her sister was the outgoing, gregarious twin who thrived on attention and praise for her social and academic accomplishments. In response, Agnes assumed a seemingly comfortable backseat position until a rupture with her twin occurred in their midtwenties. At present, both have become more successfully individuated and have found ways to work through conflict and differences of opinion and personality.

Nonetheless, Agnes repeatedly worries about needing excessive attention. In fact, sometimes she cannot distinguish whether she likes a romantic partner because he lavishes attention on her or she likes him authentically as a person. A portion of this confusion appears related to her lifelong role as the twin on the sidelines. She feels guilty and ashamed about wanting attention because it triggers old longings to be loved and cared about. As a result, she can get lost in desperate self-loathing because she feels empty and inconsequential without the attention.

Agnes felt stigmatized in her family as the unlovable, angry, undeserving twin. As much as she rationally desires to feel worthy of attentiveness and love, her default position takes over, making it hard for her to sustain a belief in her goodness and self-worth. These strings of emotion make trusting others difficult as well. Her wishes to date and be in a relationship are thwarted by fears of being intruded upon, duped, or physically violated. Her traumatizing twinship dynamic has made it difficult to be intimate and vulnerable with someone else.

As our work progresses, she is getting closer to managing this deep-seated trepidation and reframing her unique needs for attention and love in a positive, healthy way. Her challenge is to accept that her wishes to be mirrored by another do not mimic or repeat her function as an emotional caretaker without a separate sense of self. Mirroring plays a critical role in the development of one’s notion of self. If twins imitate each other rather than have opportunities to be mirrored by parental figures, their sense of validation and belonging may become compromised.

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