Mirror Mirror on the wall… (what kind of mirror are you?)

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

The quote in the story about Snow White, “Magic mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?” was spoken by the beautiful, but wicked, queen. The mirror would respond “Thou, O Queen, art the fairest in the land.” All was well until one day, the mirror responded to the question with a different answer - Snow White - and the queen became enraged.

We all want to be mirrored, but frequently do not always like the answers we receive from the people around us. Like the queen, we confuse mirroring with validation. Validation focuses on general affirmation; “you are amazing, you are awesome…”, which most cynical people realize is simply someone “blowing smoke” and, therefore, not very helpful. Mirroring is accurate and helps us see who we are and know ourselves more deeply. It is the foundation of self-esteem and self-confidence.

What is mirroring?

Mirroring is the ability to see someone clearly, and then provide feedback to help them see themselves accurately. Picture a mother and infant imitating each other’s smiles, facial expressions, and cues. It’s cute on the outside and we tend to smile while we watch them interact in synchronicity. Behind the scenes, mirror neurons in our brains are creating a “brain to brain hookup”, which is responsible for the mom-baby imitation routine and the sidelong smiles at watching such wonderful play.

Unfortunately, when that infant cannot find itself in its mother’s eyes (maybe mom is depressed and not responsive to baby’s cues) it goes into distress. That need for mirroring and being seen never goes away. It is like oxygen. At our core, all of us long to feel seen and understood no matter what age we are. We also know the emotional pain of not feeling seen and understood. For those who grew up in dysfunctional families or families with addiction or mental illness, there was very little accurate mirroring. Children who grew up in these families are often chronically anxious and are not clear or confident about who they are. Other children know the experience of having to build up and “mirror” their parents at the expense of their own needs being met.

Every day, I sit with people in great pain as the result of never having been seen, or the pain of being in a relationship with someone they believe doesn’t know them. If mirroring is like oxygen, the absence of it can leave us feeling emotional starvation.

So, work on being a good mirror!!

This means that you recognize that the people in your life want to be seen and known no matter what age they are at. In order to do that: