The Face of the Other

Chapter 2 of Meeting the Voices in My Head and Searching for an Inner Adult

Mother and Child by Bob Whitehead

It’s the first day of school and I’m late. As I step into the classroom, I feel everyone’s eyes. They’re judging me. I look down and realize something I should have noticed before. I’m naked.

This common nightmare is your everyday experience if you’re self-conscious. It’s not that you walk around naked all the time, but you feel like you do. It’s not that everyone is really judging you; but, in your mind they are.

Who are they, anyway? What is this they that got me so ashamed? They are a figment of my imagination. They are a construct I constructed early in my life when I was screaming in my crib and couldn’t say what was wrong. My parents came and I thought I saw in their faces everything I needed to know about me. All they needed to do was look. Their eyes said it all. Their eyes, which could have been windows into their souls, were mirrors reflecting mine.

I call this authority, so powerful it defines me, the Face of the Other.

I’ve been looking for my inner adult amid all the voices in my head. It’s harder than it sounds. I have a whole committee up there, but it’s a committee of children. Rather, it’s a mob of voices, for children don’t form committees. I promised to go through each voice in turn, as they arrived in my life, to see if I can find an adult amongst them.

As I said in Chapter One, there was a time in my life before I had any mob or committee. The only thing that existed for me was inarticulate emotion, sensation, instinct and need. When I was screaming in my crib, in evident distress, I was unable to even name what was bothering me. My caretakers eventually responded, but I couldn’t tell them what was wrong. They had to tell me. Of course, they couldn’t tell me in words at the time, for I couldn’t understand language. They had to tell me by their actions: feeding me, comforting me, changing my diaper. Everything they did said a lot. But what I mostly had to go on were their faces. They became the Face of the Other.

The Mirror Stage

A crucial moment in human development is what the psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan called the Mirror Stage. At around a year old, an infant can realize the image she sees in a mirror is hers. Sometimes parents can watch it happen, but it mostly occurs in her metaphorically and no actual mirror is necessary. The baby can now think of herself as an object she can view from outside herself, as if she saw herself in a mirror. More often, the caretaker is the mirror. When the infant experiences the caretaker responding to her in different ways, associated with the infant’s sensations, the actions of the caretaker introduce the Innermost Child to herself.

When the caretakers look at the baby with love, the baby experiences love. Later, when she has words, she will say, I’m loved. If the caretaker is annoyed by the baby, the baby experiences the caretaker’s annoyance. Later she will say, I’m annoying. Thus, the caretaker’s responses become the basis of what the child thinks of herself. The first she knows about herself is what others seem to think of her.

This ability to know myself from the faces of others was obviously an important step in my development. Even as I mature, a lot is still gained when I can see myself as others see me. I need others to tell me when I have spinach in my teeth, when I’m out of line, or when I’m beginning to make no sense. I value an outside perspective. This is why I ask other people their opinions of things. This is how emotions can be contagious; how when I’m around a sad person, I get a little sad; how laugh tracks tell me when something’s funny; and how one person’s startle will cause me to jump.

The Flaws in the Mirror

Having this mirror in my mind comes at a cost. The first, is that I can mistake who I am. I think I see myself in this mirror, but it’s not me that I see. It’s an image of what I think others think about me. I confuse this image with myself. In other words, the way people treat me, says something about me, but I shouldn’t let it define me.

I was talking the other day with a woman whose husband was more interested in pornography than he was in her. She thought this meant she was worthless. She thought the Face of the Other, as represented by her husband, had been saying she was less important than the women in those images.

When I get worried about what other people think of me, how do I know what others think? I don’t really, but I think I do by the way they treat me. I feel good about myself if they treat me well; and I feel bad if they treat me badly. It’s possible to overcome the message from the Face of the Other, but it’s not easy. It takes the presence of some strong other voices that I didn’t develop till long after I was a baby. The way I’m treated is a powerful force on my personality.

The Face of the Other is the reason it’s pleasurable to go to a spa or eat at a fine restaurant. The Innermost Child enjoys the sensual pleasure of a massage and the gastronomical pleasure of good food; but a great deal more of the pleasure comes from how the staff defer. If the masseuse was brusque or if the waiter was snooty, I wouldn’t like it as much. When I’m treated with kindness, dignity, and respect, I begin to feel as though I’m worthy of kindness, dignity, and respect. When I’m treated like dirt, as I might be in prison or calling the cable company, then I’d start to believe I’m dirt, and may begin to behave like it.

The way we are treated is never entirely about us. If the woman’s husband is more interested in pornography than he is in her, it may not have anything to do with whether she’s sexy or not. Maybe he can’t handle a real woman. If the waiter is snooty or the masseuse brusque, then maybe they’ve been on their feet all day. If I’ve put on hold by the cable company, they could still be interested in what I have to say but are getting a lot of calls right now. If the guards are mean to the prisoners, maybe it’s because they’re afraid of them. Babies are not equipped to know this. All they know are sensations and the way they’re being treated. They can see themselves in their caretakers, but they’re unable to put themselves in their caretaker’s shoes.

Mirrors to Each Other

The philosopher, Emanuel Levinas, based his whole philosophy on the Face of the Other. I borrowed the term from him. Levinas can take us a few steps further. If he were here, he’d add that I am also the Face of the Other to others. I have a face, too; so, I’m holding up a mirror to someone else, telling them what I think they’re like. They are getting messages about themselves from me.

Levinas takes it further than any baby can go. When a baby looks at your face, she sees an image of herself that she mistakes for herself. She does not see you. She does not yet understand the concept of a separate, autonomous creature. The thought of one would terrify her, for she is utterly dependent, and the idea that you might not think like she does would be highly disconcerting. Advanced humans, on the other hand, know that other people are sovereign, unto themselves. Other people are Other.

I say advanced humans, and not adults, because not everyone over twenty-one really appreciates how Other everyone can be. Most of the time, we treat other human beings only as extensions of ourselves, as mirrors, tools, and playthings. The worst are the narcissists. Even if I’m not a total narcissist, when I go to the bank and hand over checks to the teller, she might as well be an ATM, and I might as well be a robot handing her checks. If we were to flirt, then we’re treating each other as playthings. If I’m nasty to her, it might ruin her day. If she’s nasty to me, I might forget it’s not all about me, turn nasty myself, and complain to the manager. This is how we treat each other as mirrors, toys, and tools.

What would it mean to treat the bank teller as a separate, autonomous human being? Asking her about her day would be a start but would soon become rote. More important would be for me to realize that the day the bank teller is having is other than mine. If she’s nasty, it may not be about me.

As Levinas would say, when you look at another person’s face, you see something like your face: an outlet for all your emotions, a portal into your innermost being. But, at the same time, it is the face of an Other, a person who has her own emotions. Just as you have an Innermost Child, they have one, too. If you feel vulnerable, they feel vulnerable; it shows on the face. They could hurt you, but you could hurt them. The innermost part of them is always just beyond reach.

Levinas would go on. Because you have a face, it’s impossible to disregard a face. Just as you are not a number, a category, a toy, or a tool to be used, neither are they, because they have a face. The face reminds you that you’re in debt to and dependent on others for your very existence; but because everyone has their own agenda, we can’t count on them to follow through.

As a therapist, I’m faced with the Face of the Other every day, the portal into my client’s Innermost Child. It’s my job to look at that face as another’s face, not as a mirror of mine. I suspect most of the time, it doesn’t matter what I say, just as long as I see. When you feel seen, your humanity is affirmed. You wouldn’t feel real, otherwise. No matter what else is happening, at least you know you are seen.

So, is the Face of the Other the Inner Adult I’ve been looking for? When I was a baby, it was. When I was just a blob of sensations I couldn’t even name, then the face I saw over my crib made sense of everything. It told me everything I needed to know about myself. It taught me about another thing we will cover in this book. It taught me about my feelings. But first we should stay with the Face of the Other a little longer and see what I did with it.

Next Week: How to Cope with Being Left Alone

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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