Mirror, Mirror on the Wall… - Sovereign Health Group
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06-01-11 Category: Therapy

From:  A Therapist’s Notes: Self-Esteem, Relationships, Guilt and Other Messy, Complex Stuff Made Simpler

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

Sarah Steinmeyer, Ph.D.

A recent issue of The New Yorker features a cartoon in which a woman shopper, with an armload of garments, complains to the sales clerk, “I want that dressing room mirror fired!”  If only it were that easy!

Almost everyone has trouble with what he or she sees in the mirror. In response to our image on that silver surface most of us immediately adopt a critical mode: our thighs are too thick; our stomach is too big; our arms look awful; we have the beginning of a double chin and new bags and wrinkles seem to have sprouted over night. A few moments of this kind of self-punishment make it very difficult to face the day with much enthusiasm.

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We go to the mirror with hopeful expectations. We don’t want to see what we ‘look like’, because we are pretty sure that it’s not good enough. We want to see what we want to look like. I’m just as vulnerable as the next person to this phenomenon. For example, I go to the mirror wanting to look 20 pounds lighter and 10 years younger. Every morning there’s a secret part of me that says, “This is going to be the day when the mirror says what I want to hear.” Of course, every day my mirror says, “Are you serious?” I am always disappointed.

Not everyone has this ‘reflection’ reaction. My granddaughter, aged four, was checking herself in the mirror as she tried on a skirt she hadn’t worn in some time. Her mommy commented that it looked a little tight. “I know,” said my granddaughter, “but I sure look good!” It is sad to think that perhaps in a few years the fit of the skirt will define her for the day.

How does the mirror come to have such power? Well, we start with the belief that the mirror image is ‘accurate’. We assess what we see against what we believe is some socially acceptable standard and we are instantly and inevitably struck with such an assortment of inadequacies that our very membership to society seems likely to be revoked. “I’m too ___ to be acceptable. Nobody is going to like… want to be around …someone like me,” a mindset that makes it impossible for anything positive to sneak in. After all, anyone who looks like we do in the mirror couldn’t deserve nice things from others.

Let’s agree to approach the mirror with a different attitude. Like I said, I am no less vulnerable than any other adult woman when it comes to feeling uncomfortable about what I see there. But the advantage I have is the absolute confidence that nobody on the face of the planet can see what I see in my mirror. Those with whom we interact throughout the day do not expect us to suddenly appear in our ideal form. They would in fact be shocked out of their socks if we did. They expect to get exactly what they get—the ‘us’ of the moment. We all do. It’s not only enough ? it is in fact reassuring. “What I see in the mirror stays in the mirror,” might be an appropriate mantra as we leave the bathroom.

But of course, there will always be those moments when we have to address ourselves in those dreadful dressing room mirrors. Perhaps we could mandate that they be embossed with the following warning: “Caution: Objects in the mirror will appear to be larger and older than is actually the case.”

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