The Distorted Mirror Phenomenon
Every relationship shows you a reflection of yourself, but no reflection tells the whole truth.
As much as I say I love my body, I’m a former bulimic and 20-something woman in America, so let’s get real: my body-love is not yet unconditional. In the past few months, between Covid and winter and general existential malaise, I’ve put on a bit of weight. Not much, I don’t think… or didn’t think, until I went to stay in an apartment with a full-length mirror.
I realized it was the first time I’d looked in a full-length mirror in months, and what I saw staring back at me was not what I’d hoped to see. I knew I’d gained a few pounds, but this reflection was well over the edge of what my body-insecure psyche found acceptable. Try as I might to just shrug it off, the image of my now-ballooning thighs infected me. In unrelated moments, I’d find myself wracking my brain for what I could’ve eaten so wrong. Was it just bloat? How had the miles and miles of cycling led to this? Why hadn’t I done enough to stave off the worst?
As I was preparing to leave that apartment, an idea occurred to me. I stood up on a stool and looked at my body in a different mirror, and I laughed. There, staring back, was an entirely different reflection. Not quite my perfectly-toned biker bod of the autumn, but something more what I’d expected: a bit of extra fluff, but otherwise still pretty hot by my standards. The full-length mirror was just distorted.
And it hit me like a rubber chicken to the face that this was all, y’know, a metaphor. Bear with me:
Every person we meet reflects us back to ourselves. We compare ourselves to them. We measure our qualities against theirs, analyzing how our desired traits and our shortcomings match up. Other people’s reactions to us are our cues for how to behave. We see in their responses where we might want to tweak our behavior, or where we want to tweak theirs. We assess ourselves through our relationships. It’s natural, and I’d say it’s inevitable until such a time as we’ve all fully disidentified from our Egos and reached Nirvana.
The problem with this, of course, is that no person is going to show you an honest reflection, not through any fault of their own, but because the human experience is fundamentally subjective and conditioned. Every person you encounter will see you filtered through their own past experiences and corresponding judgments. To make matters worse, you will see your reflection in them through your own past experiences and judgments, too.
The distorted mirror in that apartment did not reflect back to me that I was a worthless sack of mold. It didn’t even say whether or not I was physically attractive. It was my own judgment that saw an unexpected wideness of the thighs as an obliteration of my own value. I believed in that bizarre judgment like it had something to do with reality. It didn’t. It never does.
The thing is, not one of these relational reflections — either the judgments and behavior of others, or your own interpretation of those judgments — can ever be objective. Anything anyone says about you is a filtered perspective, which you are then filtering through your own perspective. Ultimately, all of it means what you decide it does. What you decide it means is conditioned, too.
So often, we spend quite a lot of time staring at ourselves in mirrors that distort us negatively. Rather than gravitate towards reflections of ourselves we enjoy being around, we’ll get hung up on the ones we don’t, as though through sheer force of will we can negotiate with them into showing us something different.
When we talk about this phenomenon with literal mirrors, it’s clear how absurd it is to try to change the reflection. When it comes to relationships, though, we take the reflections personally, especially when those reflections come from the very people we’re supposed to be able to rely on for unconditional positive regard. In my experience, very few people engage in truly unconditional love, and fewer still can sustain it long-term. Everything about us is conditioned; our love is conditioned, too. Bit by bit, we can start to disentangle ourselves from our harmful conditioning.
To clarify, that process does not begin with berating yourself for trying to change your reflection in an unflattering mirror. Why wouldn’t you have tried? It’s perfectly natural to want to be regarded positively, or at least accurately, and the accurate truth of your character is never that you’re some kind of hideous swamp creature. Your intentions always come from love, for yourself or others, and you are always doing your authentic best in each moment. That does not absolve you of responsibility for how you impact others, but it does mean that any judgment of your core essence as inherently bad is just plain inaccurate.
Instead of using all this mirror talk as another excuse to punish yourself, you can use it as an invitation to start shifting your relationship to the mirrors in your life. This practice typically takes two forms: you can change what you do in response to a negative reflection, and you can reallocate the time you give to different mirrors to improve the overall quality of your reflections.
First, understand that most of our judgments are unconscious. We’re not often aware when we’re making judgments, or why, and we easily mistake our subjective judgments for objective reality. We also didn’t consciously consent to have most of the judgments we have. They were ingrained into us from infancy, by our families, cultures, media, schools, countries, religions — in sum, they could’ve come from anywhere. An unconscious judgment always comes from somewhere other than you. While you can’t necessarily snap your fingers and change the distortion in the mirror, you can start the process of changing what that distorted image means to you.
Second, you can consciously practice looking in different mirrors. Some people won’t get you. They won’t like you. They literally just won’t vibe, and it literally has nothing to do with you. But if they’re the mirror you’re looking in every day, you’re almost certainly going to start thinking it has everything to do with you. Many of us take an unflattering mirror as an unconscious motivator to change the reflection, rather than an obvious sign to walk away. This is normal, but like any unconscious habit, it can be broken with conscious attention and effort.
If you struggle with this, I recommend making the act of walking away from unflattering mirrors a conscious practice, and prioritize it the way you might prioritize quitting an addiction. Commit to changing the habit, remind yourself about it every day, reward yourself for progress, and adjust your other habits and relationships as-needed to make breaking this habit easier on yourself. You probably aren’t in the position to ditch every unflattering relational mirror you have right now, and that’s okay. Start practicing it when and where you can now, and let the process build slowly over time.
Last, only after you’ve gotten some distance from the most distorted and unflattering reflections is it time to start assessing whether you might want to change what you’re putting in front of the mirror. You are not going to make any accurate assessments of your own behavior while you’re fully immersed in other people’s negative judgments of you. The changes you make to yourself from this place will almost invariably hurt you, because they’ll be driven by self-loathing and a desire to appease someone else’s unrelated trauma.
After you’ve walked away and done the healing to revisit yourself without someone else’s filters in mind, that is when you might see where they could’ve had a point or two. Changes you make from this space just feel different. Changing your own behavior becomes about creating joy for yourself; cultivating positive responses in your relationships becomes an act of self-love, rather than an act of self-flagellation.
You likely have people in your life who reflect you in ways that help you to love yourself more. Their reflections of you are just as accurate as any reflections that look a bit more critical. If you take but one thing from this article, let it be this: no one’s opinions of you can possibly be objective, so you might as well stop using those as your gold standard.
Your response to other people’s negative judgments isn’t going to shift overnight, but with time and attentive practice, it will. The sooner you start making the change, the sooner the change will be made. Then, the point of mirror-gazing can be seen accurately for what it is: to experience art, rather than to obey subjective and arbitrary judgments. When we stop believing that judgments can be accurate, the panoply of relational mirrors in our lives feels more like a funhouse, and relating gets a lot more fun.