When Does the Mirror Hold You Hostage?

Not too long ago, nestled between the political rants, adorable animal videos and proverbial ‘happy life’ photos of my Facebook feed, this video stopped me in my tracks. In it, a young girl with a prosthetic leg receives a fancy doll who also has one, and she is overwhelmed by raw emotion that appears to be part joy for receiving a gift she so badly wanted, and part self-compassion, sparked from the experience of being mirrored.

“She’s just like me!” the girl exclaims through her tears. Embracing a doll that was different from other dolls in the same way she is different from other children, helped her feel less alone. In hugging the doll, she is embracing herself. Staged as these videos may be, the power of this one to reflect the power of mirroring is undeniable.

As children we have an ingrained need to be accurately mirrored. It is how we discover our talents, our impact, our core strengths and weaknesses, and receive the necessary validation from others that we matter, we are okay and on the right track.

In an ideal world, the constant need for this type of mirroring diminishes as we venture further into adulthood. We learn to pay attention to our inner signals for direction. We learn to pay attention to outer signals and make necessary adjustments to best serve our environment. We are able to internalize that we are decent people doing a good enough job, and we grow to trust ourselves — not to be perfect — but to be responsible human beings.

But sadly, many of us never get adequately mirrored as kids and we fear that the core of who we are and how we are different will never measure up to some invisible standard. The adult desire for mirroring and approval can hold you hostage, and is one surefire way to remain disconnected from your authority (and up late at night obsessing about what others have said about people like you in the media).

Consider these scenarios:

  • A young wife becomes furious with her husband when he criticizes her, cannot relax, and pesters him to understand her point of view and motivations until finally, exhausted from the back and forth, he relents and pretends he never meant it. Mysteriously, this them both feeling more estranged and dissatisfied.

  • A boss, highly concerned about the mildly negative reaction his employee had in response to some feedback, overcompensates and puts his pressing work on hold while he spends half the day on the phone with HR explaining what happened and working out what to do next.

  • A mayoral candidate, marred by publicity about his disturbing sexual habits, gets into a heated pissing match with a disgruntled constituent who judges his reputation, ruining a hopeful canvass to an important neighborhood.

The need to be mirrored constantly is one surefire way to remain disconnected from your authority. Share on X As adults, we do need mirroring and reassurance from time to time. Am I still on track? Do you still love me? We can receive this mirroring without much fanfare by asking for it directly where appropriate, but we cannot expect our spouse, boss or best friend to approve of or understand our every action. We cannot expect them to solve complex work or personal issues they know nothing about. This is where professional guidance is needed. The mature desire for guidance and occasional reassurance is different from a burning need for validation at every turn, a need that results in an immense frustration and despair when the desired response is not given.

An essential step to embodying our personal authority is to gently confront in ourselves those tender spots that are still in need of mirroring by others and society at large, and begin the search for better coping skills that will engender self-respect. We need to find our version of the doll with a prosthetic leg, and cradle it in our arms. We need to accept and work with difference.

Maybe there is a place inside us all that wants to be mirrored perfectly. But we don’t really need others to approve of who we are. What we need is the courage to act with conviction, learn from our mistakes and move on.

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