Self-perception: Super Ego, Mirror Stage and Self-Image


For Freud, the super ego is the part of a person’s mind that acts as a self-critical conscience, reflecting social standards learned from parents and teachers. This provides evidence that humans are conscious of their behaviours and acts, which assures Butler’s theories of gender being performative. However, Freud makes it clear that the super ego is conscious of conforms and expectances of its given culture and society.

In the Freudian model of the psyche, which Jacque Lacan, as a Freudian, takes as a point of departure for his ideas, the “ego” is not fully self-aware or in control of itself. Instead, the ego’s perception of itself and of the world is shaped, in part, by the desires and fears arising from the id and from the injunctions imposed by the superego. Lacan’s concept of the “Mirror Stage” tries to dramatize how the ego itself becomes divided and still tries to repress diversions and express normality’s. The ego may set its own standards, which don’t comply to conform, which for Lacan indicates a strong super ego, fearless of being shamed. But what is the ‘mirror stage’?

An animal, including are closest relatives the chimpanzee, will lose interest in its reflection very quickly unlike the human species. Viewing our reflections in a mirror becomes a source of fascination and tremendous delight for humans, even during infancy.  Before the child can even articulate the thought of “that’s me”, the child can gain a sense of being situated in the world, of being a being. This thought is developed when an image of the physical self establishes itself in the child’s psyche in relation to the images of other elements of the world. The image of the self shows the child as a separate entity, which helps the infant understand that they are a being. This is also reinforced by the attention of those around the infant, such as the mother playing and calling upon the child. This recognition and fascination with one’s own image can occur as early as six months of age.

By eighteen months, the child will begin to use language, gestures and form social bonds with others, which as a result is the end point of the mirror stage as a developmental phase. However, the dynamic relationship between image and self remains a perpetual force in the individuals’ psychic life. Having an image of one means the image is separate from us. The image can be changed and constructed to reflect who we think we are. In a sense the image is “someone else”. Taking this idea of identification, Lacan develops his mirror stage concept as a process in which the infant does not simply live up to the image being portrayed in front of him, but is rather transformed by the vision of his image. The infant will represent itself in an image they want to be seen and strive for the best possible visual results. Lacan refers to Judeo-Christian theology of humans being made in the image of God.

Judeo-Christianity teaches that God made humans distinctively more special to any other creation on Earth. This is known as, “Ontological Discontinuity” between animals and humans. Fundamental to this Christian understanding of human nature is the belief that unlike any other creation, the first humans, Adam and Eve, were created in “imago dei” the image of God. This derives from the story of creation in the book of Genesis 1:26-27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”. This teaching separates humans from any other creation immensely, as humans are the only beings to possess such a specialty, a part of God. Genesis also describes how God “breathed life” into the human species. God’s breath is often interpreted as being the soul of a human, another specialty God only gave to humans, which separates us from all other living things as well as giving us a self-aware consciousness and mind. This means that the nature of humanity is not all material but spiritual.

Lacan’s mirror stage is interpreted as an ironic version of this Judeo-Christian theology. Lacan suggests that to be human is to be the creation of one’s own image, that humans in being conscious of one’s self-image can created and change it to represent their “inner” being upon their “outer” public bodies.

However, the desired image and the image, which is reflected in the mirror do not always align and meet the individuals’ expectations of themselves. Throughout life, the image of ourselves that we hold in our minds fails to correspond completely with our actual physical, historical, emotional being, thus insecurities, disorders and low-esteem can ensue. This difference between the projected image and the desired or actual self continues to disrupt the experiences of one’s existence in various ways. I will explore later what impacts our desired self-images and concepts of self by exploring media representations of bodies, identities and genders.

Lacan associates the idea of image with Freud’s ego ideal calling it Ideal-I. The formation of this projected image of a self is important to the development of secondary identifications such as interest and desires in other things and people. The primary identification is with the image itself. Lacan through the formation of Ideal-I strives to make it clear, that the image is “fictional” and will never fully conform to the person’s actual experience of existence or its desired and stylized image. “I” is permanently incomplete. Humans will always desire a better image and strive for more, to change the way they represent themselves but their image will never fully embody the real them or be perceived in the same way by others. Lacan wants to make clear that the mirror image does not reflect the real person sufficiently. This is also made obvious by the fact the mirror reflection is reversed, and so images never exactly correspond to their originals. The image represents all the potentialities of the “I” it establishes in a persons psyche, however, the image is still separate and it’s full potential can never be realized. Thus, anxieties, limiting self-concepts and disappointments become a reality to people’s self image.

Lacan turns to biology to evidence why humans have an image of self and what triggers desirable ideals. For example, female pigeons reach sexual maturity only in the presence of other members of their species; a female pigeon in isolation will mature if she sees her own reflection in a mirror. Lacan links these observations from biology with aesthetics, suggesting a connection between certain animals’ tendencies to respond to visual forms that resemble them. Ideas about beauty for example are shaped by notions of scale and symmetry derived from the dimensions of the human body. Such studies on Angelina Jolie’s face for example, show how symmetrical her face really. Being named one of the most beautiful women in the world, it’s fair to see that symmetry is desirable.

Lacan becomes particularly interested here in how psychic events such as identification are connected to physical reality-the body and the physical environment the body occupies. The sense of selfhood is bound by the mastery of physical attributes, mimicry, and gestures, displays that will fill a social space that the self imagines it will occupy. This idea I’ve already explored. For example, the physical differences between the sexes are both biological and cultural. Females must be smaller and weaker in stature so males will feel a natural need to protect them. During human development, as males could not give birth, they took over other customs and roles which could validate their sex such as hunting. In order to be a good hunter, the male had to be strong and aggressive. As a result males became bigger and stronger then females. As males became more dominant, females became softer and more submissive as they took on the other roles such as childrearing. Females did not need to be big and strong, as males had taken on that role of protector, provider and master. As a result, a divide between both the cultural and physical properties of males and females were formed.  This shows how individuals express and mimic other individuals, which appropriate their own self-image and the image they want to represent to others.  Lacan also claims that the human brain contains an organic component that serves to register the human organism’s image of itself-a mirror inside the mind. This helps us form an image of ourselves and understanding of it in relation to other things.

The mirror stage develops a relationship between the subject and the image (Ideal I) but not a coherent and simple unity. Throughout the subject’s life, the experience of the physical sensations and emotional impulses arising from the physical body remains something different from the subject’s “I” enshrined in the image of the self. The “I” itself is something other, which taps into natural human paranoia. All humans are paranoid in the sense that we feel we may not be in control of our lives, that sense of other who influences and is in charge of our thoughts and actions. The image of ourselves is needed in order to establish relationships with other people and to negotiate the physical and social reality of our world. The “I” puts us on the map. The image of ourselves offers coherence and stability, that we are a being that we can think up our own self-concepts, ideas and images that we have some control. We are a being.

Lacan claims that the mirror stage projects individuals into history. The development of the ego is “fictional”. If our lives are just stories, our experience of it a mere progression through time, each of us needs to become a “character” a protagonist to the life story. The mirror stage helps us distinguish and fabricate the character we are and will become offering a sense of stable position in the world. In bringing into being the “I” who will play the protagonist in the subject’s life story, forming a link between the subject’s psyche and the world outside, the mirror stage lays the groundwork for the cultural formation of identity. For Lacan social conforms and conventions can interfere with the formation of the image and identity of an individual, which can cause mental illnesses.

The mirror stage ends only in its status as a phase of psychic development, but continues as a structural element of psychic life. We all have ideas of self and how we want to be seen. The initial relationship between the infant and his or her Ideal-I becomes the foundation for the child’s social relationships and for the child’s self-image as a social being. It allows for the infant to recognize they are being a being, that their reflected image is separate to their physical reality and that the image can be subject to change and interpretation. It also allows the child to recognize that they are a separate entity to others, which allows them to form social relationships but will continue to be dependant on others for means of stability and coherence. This is because the gaze of the image alienates subjects from themselves by causing the subject to identify with itself as the objet a, the object of the drives, thus desiring scope satisfaction. This theory shows how humans have a conscious image of themselves, thus they reflect these images onto the surface of their bodies for public gaze and interpretation through style, gestures and behaviour. This validates their appearance and self-concepts and makes them feel worthy. For example, a person may want praise or approval from another person to validate their self-image and concepts.

For Lacan we are “who we are” only in relation to other people. Our desires, aims, knowledge are shaped and come from other people. Even the language we learn to speak pre-exists us and to a great degree our thoughts conform to premeditated concepts. These ideas are up coming from the existence of social norms within cultures. Incest, sexuality and other instinctual drives appear as threats and are therefore repressed and prohibited. Thus, the Ideal-I never reaches it’s full potential due to social norms and instead becomes frustrated and jealous of others. Part of the ego’s investment in its own image is to nourish its body and preserve it from harm. However, because the Ideal-I never expresses fully the desired images we have of ourselves, the subject experiences disappointment and anger and this appears in the form of envy and hostility is our psychosocial lives. Lacan suggests that even the greatest acts of self-sacrifice are driven by our desires to express ideal images of us.

The ‘mirror stage’ is when humans recognize their reflected image as a separate entity to themselves as well as others around them. It makes humans consciously aware that they have an image they represent to the world. As a result, people create their own idealistic images of themselves and strive to make such images public through their reflected images. However, their Ideal-I never matches up to the ‘perfect’ images cultivated in the mind of the individual. Self-images and the images in reality are separate and never unify. Instead, they share a relationship and inform one another what images are acceptable and expected. However, what is acceptable and ‘normal’ can vary. In fact for Lacan, there is no “normal” mind, the socially elaborated idea of “normality” is, in fact, one of the misrecognitions of the ego and, as an unattainable characteristic of the Ideal-I. Of course, cultural customs and what is deemed sexually attractive and beautiful will impact the individual’s self-image and images they want to present to the world. In summary, the ‘mirror stage’ shows how humans are conscious of their bodies and appearances and how they express themselves publicly. This theory helps back Judith Butler’s claim if gender being performative.



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