Are You A “Friendly Mirror”?

Mirror: A reflective surface
that reflects a clear image.

One of the most valuable aspects of any relationship is that it provides an opportunity to receive feedback from another person about who we are, and our impact on them. Friends, family members or co-workers are unique in positions to reflect back to us information about ourselves. And often the closer the relationship, the more valuable the feedback.

This process is sometimes referred to by therapists as “mirroring”. We “mirror” back to others an emotional picture or reflection of themselves. “You’re so cheerful”. “You’re such a good friend.” “That was so brave of you to speak up at the staff meeting!”

At first blush, one might think that we would all be rushing out to ask our friends and partners to tell us about ourselves. Yet I bet more than a few of us are quaking in our boots are the mere thought. Despite the obvious value of this process, many people are deeply afraid of hearing about impact on others. And they may be equally afraid of sharing their reactions to others with them.

Why is this?

One reason is shame. We are afraid people are seeing something in us about which we feel ashamed. “Oh, I do interrupt people too often. I am such a jerk.” Or, “I was sarcastic to Sally in that meeting. What kind of awful person am I?” (If you’re interested in reading more about shame, I highly recommend The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go Of Who You Think You’re Supposed To Be And Embrace Who You Are, by Brene Brown.)

We may also be afraid that if reactions are spoken, it may threaten the relationship itself. “If I tell her how much it annoys me when she talks about politics, maybe she won’t want to have coffee with me any more.” Or we believe we will hurt someone’s feelings. “I can’t tell her how uncomfortable I feel when she criticizes her husband in front of me. I wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings. And she might think I’m being critical.”

And in fact, these fears are not always unfounded. Often people do share their reactions in critical ways, either explicitly or implicitly. They tell you that you interrupt others, but they say it in a critical, judgment and angry tone. Or they let you know they’re tired of hearing you complain about your husband, and by the way *they* would never stoop to airing their dirty marital laundry in front of others. Their mirrors aren’t particularly friendly, and they may not even notice this is so.

So how do we mine this potential vein of relationship gold in a safe way?

The first step is for us to learn how to be a “friendly” mirror. A friendly mirror is not one that only says “nice” things, like compliments or supportive statements. A friendly mirror is one that reflects the truth, but with an attitude of compassion and helpfulness towards the other. A friendly mirror is one that reflects an accurate image, but at the same time let’s the other person know you are “on their side” and care about them.

Here’s an example. “You know, you may not be aware of it, but I’ve noticed it you interrupt Sally a lot in the meeting. Is it hard for you to wait your turn? Do you feel like Sally talks too much in these meetings? Maybe we could find a way to deal with this together a different way?”

You can also mirror back to people that you’d like them to be more friendly in their mirroring. “I know you are commenting on my overeating because you are worried about my health, but it just sounds so critical when you do it. Is there some way you could talk to me about it up more gently, realizing that it’s something that I’m sensitive about?”

There’s a lot more to be said on the subject of friendly mirroring, but hopefully you’re getting the idea. If we are a friendly mirror and encourage those around us to be one, too, we can get a lot more helpful information about ourselves. And that can only be a good thing.

Photo credit: cobalt123 via Flickr

About Karen Caffrey

I'm a psychotherapist in private practice in West Hartford, Connecticut. I enjoy helping people become more fulfilled and resilient, so they can lead better lives.
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