Posted by: silverliningsblog | May 17, 2011

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Seeing Who We Really Are

I want to come back to the notion of unconditional love that I spoke about in my last post, The Ripple Effect: To Love and Be Loved.

As I mentioned, unconditional love means loving others despite their failures, and wanting what is best for them, regardless of what they give or don’t give us. But it also means loving ourselves the same way, and accepting our own faults. And that is something I think many of us (myself included) struggle with.

What do see when you look at yourself in the mirror? Most of us have been socially conditioned to see our flaws. That grey strand of hair, the crow’s feet, the unsightly skin blemishes, the hair that shouldn’t be where it is, the hair that should be where it isn’t. We pick ourselves apart, as if, somehow, we are not good enough. As if being critical of ourselves will make us better, more deserving of love.

Why do we do that?

I’ve recently been reading about the concept of mirroring, and I will be talking about this more fully in a future post on parenting. For now, it’s enough to understand that when we are babies, our parents instinctively mirror what we do—they imitate every coo, frown, smile…even our gassy burps. They make sounds and faces back, effectively acting as a mirror so we can see what we just did. This is the beginning of communication, of saying how we feel and getting feedback to let us know we have been heard and understood.

When we are babies, this feedback is usually positive and responsive. “Look, she’s laughing—isn’t that cute.” “Oh, you must be cold. Let me get you a blankie.” Good mirroring allows us to develop normally, to believe in ourselves and in our innate goodness.

But as we get older, usually around the time when we begin to express ourselves with language, the mirroring changes. Suddenly, the image our parents reflect back to us no longer matches what we are trying to express. We say we’re hungry, and our parents say “No you’re not—you just ate.” We say we’re not tired, and they say, “Yes you are—it’s way past your bedtime.” We want to run and laugh and play, and our parents want us to stop, be quiet and sit still. (No wonder toddlers act out: parents are constantly contradicting what they think and feel!)

Over time, other people add to these conflicting messages. Our teachers tell us to act a certain way so that we fit the mould of the perfect student. Being unique isn’t appreciated—being “good” is. Our friends reject us if we look different, act different, dress different. Our spouses get angry if the way we are doesn’t measure up to the way they expect us to be.

Gradually, these messages we receive from others about who we are and who we are supposed to be chip away at our self-esteem and spirit. We start to believe we are fundamentally flawed, that there is something—many things—we need to fix in order to be loved and accepted.

The interesting thing is, people reflect back to us how we really see and feel about ourselves. If they say we’re fat and ugly, it’s because on some level, we feel that we’re fat and ugly. If they say we’re not worthy of their love, it’s because we feel we’re not worthy.

People act as mirrors through their behaviour too, not just through their words. Every time someone’s behaviour pushes our buttons, it is because we are rejecting that same behaviour in ourselves. Our tendency is to react and say “I am nothing like them.” But in truth, somewhere in our life, we are acting the same way, and we don’t like it. We don’t like that part of ourselves and want to be different.

When the image other people reflect back to us doesn’t match our true spirit or vision for ourselves, we feel unhappy, misunderstood, rejected. Part of us knows the distorted image we are seeing is not who we really are; the other part doubts our own goodness, our own worth. And so we struggle to find acceptance and love, to find someone who sees us for who we really are.

Sometimes we are blessed to find someone who reflects back our true spirit. But what usually happens is that we end up pushing them away, because we don’t see ourselves the way they see us. Like attracts like. We tend to pull towards us anything that matches our current beliefs and view of the world and ourselves; we push away anything that doesn’t.

Because of this, we typically won’t attract (and keep) people who see and reflect back our true spirit until we are able to change our own beliefs about ourselves. We need to be able to look in the mirror and see beauty, not a self-image fragmented by criticism and self-doubt.

Seeing things we don’t like about ourselves in our physical and metaphorical mirrors is normal. It offers us an opportunity to change for the better. But focussing all our attention on our faults to the exclusion of our positive attributes does not change anything. What we resist persists.

While it is good to be aware of what needs to change, instead of focussing on what we don’t like, we need to focus on what we do like. What we focus on expands. If we focus on those aspects of ourselves we can admire, the rest will evaporate, like long-forgotten pimples on our skin.

Babies come into the world complete, secure in who they are. They don’t stress about what is wrong with them, and they expect to have people love and care for them. You can see this if you ever stop and watch young children playing in front of a mirror. Kids love to look at their own reflection. My five-year-old son enjoys looking at himself when he brushes his teeth, when he’s “breakdancing” or pretending to be a superhero. My three-year-old daughter twirls her dress in front of the mirror and says she is a pretty ballerina, a big smile on her face.

Young children don’t see their limitations yet—they only see their true spirit and potential.

I know my self-image has been my Achilles heel for much of my life. I grew up feeling like I was too chubby, too short, not smart enough, not pretty enough, not worthy of being loved. And so I attracted experiences that reflected that self-image. I was bullied and picked on. I was told mean things. I was left out of games. I was picked last. And time and time again, I chose friends and partners who couldn’t return to me the love I gave them. While my childhood was certainly not all bad, I spent a great deal of it trying to convince people to love me. Really, I think I was trying to convince myself.

Every time I think I have slayed my self-esteem demons once and for all, they sneak in through the back door. “Aha,” they say, “we’re still here!” They pop up when I parent my kids and doubt myself for making a mistake. They sneak up behind me when I begin dating for the first time in over a decade, whispering that the kind of person I want won’t choose me. They hide in my office desk, keeping me from publishing the book that has been complete for over a year now, because I fear I can’t live up to my own expectations.

I imagine we all doubt ourselves to some degree. But when that self-doubt keeps us from seeing a positive reflection in the mirror, from knowing who we really are and doing what we really want to do, then it’s a problem.

We need to get back to the point where we can see our true spirit and inner beauty. Only then will we be able to attract the things and people into our lives that we so want, need and deserve.

So how, exactly, does a person do that?

One exercise my life coach Mary recommends is to journal all the things you love about yourself. You’ll be surprised by how much you can come up with, once you stop resisting the process.

Another is to stand in front of the mirror and look at yourself as if you were a child—not with the critical eyes of an adult, but with the adoring, curious eyes of a young child who loves to see their reflection. Focus on what you like about yourself. Realize that what others experience about you is more than just what you look like. They experience your entire being—your personality, warmth, smell, touch, energy. There is much more to you than meets your eye.

You can also write yourself a letter, telling your younger self all the things you wish he/she knew about how wonderful he/she really is. Or you can write your own eulogy from the perspective of a beloved friend, spouse or family member, extolling all your virtues and reflecting the image of who you know you really are at your core, underneath your wrinkles and mistakes and insecurities.

There are many other exercises that will also work. The basic idea is to focus on what is good about you. Put up pictures of yourself looking happy and enjoying the things you most love. Stick positive quotes or loving affirmations in places where you will see them during the day. Make a list of the top 50 things you love about yourself or are proud of, and read it whenever you feel down.

Before you can make major changes in your life, you need to change how you think about yourself. You need to rid yourself of the negative beliefs that are holding you back, and rewrite the unkind stories you tell about yourself. If you catch yourself thinking or saying harsh things about yourself, stop. Flip the thought to something positive. Treat yourself as you would a best friend and be kind to yourself—you are worth it. Soon, as you start to see your own inner beauty, people will begin mirroring back to you your own best qualities.

I hope this week your mirror reflects back to you a positive image of who you really are.


  1. Another great post Karen with lots of things to think about. I think I could do with using some of these techniques on myself, I think my view is sometimes distorted. I love the image you create of looking at ourselves as a child would, without comparing or criticising, just with curiosity and joy. Lots of wisdom here : )

    • Thanks Em! As they say, we teach what we most need to learn, so now I just need to apply the wisdom myself! 🙂

      You are beautiful, my friend, inside and out. A true earth goddess. I admire you.

      xo Karen

  2. WOW – this is incredible Karen!

    • Thanks Penny! 🙂 I hope all is well in your world…


  3. Karen, Another very timely post for me!!! I think we are leading parallel lives! We need to catch up soon, maybe in the summer I will take a much needed trip east. I love your posts; you are an excellent writer and have so much wisdom to share, thanks for sharing! xoxox sharyl

    • Thanks Sharyl. That’s funny, it does sound like our lives have been similar of late. 🙂 I would love to catch up. Feel free to call any time. I’d love to see you if you come up this way – stop by or you can also come stay with me. Also, I may be headed your way in August, so if I do, I’ll let you know!

  4. Thank you for writing this wonderful post!! The perspective your bring from watching your children play without fear of judgment is kind of compelling.

    The self-image improving techniques are interesting, but I’m not sure they actually tackle the issue head on. They make you feel better when doing them and since the exercises interfere with the spontaneous thoughts of inadequacy and doubt, they are effective self therapy. But when you get right down to it, the issue isn’t really the thoughts, it’s a lack deliberate action on the things that make you feel doubt.

    For example, your book. I don’t know why you won’t publish your book. You write well and you’ll connect with someone. But until you take the action and move its publication forward it will remain on the list of things that chip away at your confidence, stifling your forward progress. I bet you all the proceeds from it that your self-image will improve far more from finally getting it out there than from reading a list of 50 great things about you.

    Correcting self-image is about the moment of action when you address the things that make you feel negatively judged. And after a lot of action you finally see what others see, and know why they see it. They’ve been seeing the potential that you are taking action to actualize! That’s empowering.

    Thanks again for the post, it is thought provoking!

    • Hi Pat. Thanks for a very thought-provoking response! You make a very good point. Self esteem is a lot about our thoughts, but it is also about our actions and choices. I am actually planning a future post on overcoming fears, which will talk about the importance of “just doing it” and letting the confidence follow. I do, however, feel that it is important to start with correcting the way we think about ourselves, so that we can begin to open to the possibility that maybe we are more than the negative voices in our head. If you believe in the law of attraction (as I do), then this opening will help set the stage for future success once we do make the leap and take action. Thanks again for your thoughts!

  5. […] Mirror, mirror on the wall: Seeing who we really are […]

  6. […] Mirror, mirror on the wall: Seeing who we really are […]

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