“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” Thus the Queen in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” commands the mirror to tell her the truth, in this instance about beauty. Honest mirrors show us what we look like. As an image, the mirror reflects what it “sees.”
A Google search for “mirror, mirror on the wall” netted (yes, that is a very bad pun, but I did need a verb) “about 106,000,000 results” in 0.68 seconds. Those 106,000,000 hits cover a vast range: “spiritual life1; the story of Snow White2; a Psychology Today piece on longevity3; a 1979 speech by the commissioner of the Church Education System at Brigham Young University4; and then on to really bad taste examples, such as getting drunk5, an ad for local medical care6, jokes from Comedy Central7 and, of course, more advertisements (for mirrors, paint, interior décor, birthday parties, etc., etc.).
Hence a question: Why our fascination with mirrors? Does the mirror perform some essential and necessary function in our psychic economy? That’s want I want to explore this month. And these questions take us back to the story of Snow White and the Queen.
The Queen needed to know something about herself. More exactly, she needed reassurance of her self-worth which, for her, depended on being seen as “the fairest of all.” It is as if her personhood depended on other people view of her (“fairest,” in her case). The Queen’s need and question take us directly to the importance and function of the mirror, not so much the piece of polished metal or silvered glass, but the other people who reflect what they see when they look at us.
We mirror other people when we tell them how we experience them and what we see in them. Especially in our dealings with children and young people, the way we adults “mirror” them contributes to forming their sense of themselves—for better or worse, affirming essential traits and qualities or imposing our vision of their abilities, acceptability, and worth as individuals.
For our part, we utilize the mirroring from those people who see and experience us to shape our sense of ourselves. In a sense, for better or worse, they tell us who and what we are and can become. When we can take it in, honest and accurate reflection contributes to our developing a grounded sense of self and an inner core of self-acceptance and strength. In a word, honest and accurate feedback that we can embrace gives us to ourselves. But when other people, acting consciously or unconsciously on their agendas, “tell us who we are,” they can also contribute to estranging us from our authentic being and to our creating a “false self.” A “false self” may appear to look good in the eyes of other people, our family, friends, or acquaintances. What it lacks is the solid, inner core of identity and recognition of what interests and enlivens us. That inner core enables us to know what does and does not suit us. Such inner strength calmly but firmly allows us to follow our personal vision and, when challenged, stand our ground.
I can state the basic idea fairly simply: All infants, children, young people, and no-longer-so-young people need people around them as “honest mirrors.” An honest mirror accurately reflects beauty and ugliness, accomplishment and failure, potential and lack of potential. An honest mirror tells no lies, gives neither false praise nor damning criticism. The honest mirror gives us back to ourselves. Because the honest mirror truly sees us both as we actually are and as we really could be, we get affirmation, vision, and encouragement—we are “seen,” beauty, warts, potential, and all—as well as invaluable feedback about our effect on other people.
Mirroring, as it is called in psychology, helps you (and me) become real: attuned to the surrounding world and attuned to our innate potential, the “inner” world. With honest mirroring (honest mirroring has no hidden agenda) you come to know yourself: what you really are, what you aspire to become, and enjoy the knowledge that you can do it.
In the absence of honest mirroring, an individual’s sense of self lacks cohesion and resilience. Lacking inner cohesion, the individual develops coping strategies and mechanisms in the attempt to shore up the wobbly emotional foundation. Then we see the attitudes and behaviors mentioned below: charm and temper tantrums, seduction and intimidation, boasts of fullness and ravenous hunger.
In psychology, this phenomenon carries the name “pathological narcissism.” As unpleasant as it is to experience in another (or in oneself), pathological narcissism becomes progressively more dangerous as the narcissistic person gains more power and influence. The belief that one can “manage” it in another, or that the level of toxic narcissism will decrease in the course of time prove vain and futile. Confrontation evokes explosion and retaliation. Support and encouragement feed the bottomless hunger without changing the pattern.
Much suffering—often life-long—results when somebody else’s vision has molded and shaped an individual. We can see evidence of this painful condition in other people when they appear
- Charming, charismatic, confident, persuasive
- Superior, entitled, manipulative
- Perpetually hungry for attention, adulation, admiration
- Unable to tolerate criticism
- Vicious in attacking those who differ from them.
The list could continue, but these few characteristic behaviors and attitudes suffice to identify the phenomenon.
When dealing with the behaviors I have described, we may experience the temptation to indulge and endure without pushing back, in order to evade the nasty reaction when we challenge. I suspect each of us has chosen this coward’s ploy at one time or another in the hope of preserving whatever passes for peace. Unfortunately, the ravenous narcissistic hunger sometimes drives an individual to high levels of accomplishment and power. Then we are challenged to dethrone the emperor who has no clothes. One of the sobering truths about our human condition states that unless and until a person becomes a problem to himself or herself, nothing will change. The narcissistic person remains a problem to others, and sometimes a danger.
Narcissism has another face that doesn’t look at all grandiose, seductive, hypersensitive, or vindictive. What I have described so far turns toward the “outer” world, an extraverted, and therefore more visible, manifestation. The other face turns inward, creating an invisible civil war in the individual:
- “I don’t deserve . . .”
- “I’m not good enough . . .”
- “Good people get to have this. I don’t get to have this.”
- “I’m a have-not.”
Viewed from the internal civil war, the individual does see “good people:” They are the ones who are bold, who have ambitions and are making plans, who are potent and going somewhere. These people are perceived by the narcissistic individual as highly deserving. All of which may be said with an engaging smile.
The outside of these folks seldom reveals the civil war within. They may appear polite, competent at what they do, articulate, witty. But they may also hold back from engaging other people, or tasks, or challenges. They frequently have “explanations,” “cover stories” in which they claim not to be interested, to prefer spectating rather than participating. The civil war rages on between visions of greatness and the paralyzing sense of inadequacy. The grandiosity of the introverted narcissist consists in negatives: don’t deserve, not good enough, can’t measure up. Their obvious intelligence gives the lie to their professed deficiency and worthlessness.
The mirroring they have received has not been honest, or when they may have received a realistic assessment of limitations, they have not been able to metabolize the feedback. Strange as it may sound, they have not failed enough. Most of the time, what we do falls somewhat short of the initial glowing vision of perfection. True, once in a while we do come very close, but usually, our efforts yield something that’s “pretty good” or even “good enough.” Enough failures shift the viewpoint from “being the best and greatest” to “pretty good” and “good enough.”
In both extraverted and introverted narcissism, we find a grandiose core: “It’s all about me!” The one expresses that core toward the outer world, seeking confirmation of greatness. The other conceals the grandiose core, believing that trying to realize it is futile. For the one, keep trying; for the other, why try? Yet both suffer, albeit in opposite ways. The extraverted version is a problem to others people; the introverted version is a problem to self.
All infants, children, young people and no-longer-so-young people need honest mirrors to reflect what is real. When the people around us truly care enough about us, we can trust them to be honest mirrors who give us back to ourselves, reflecting our real abilities, our real accomplishments, our real potential and our real short-comings and failures. An honest mirror could be life changing for the narcissistic individual who can open up to caring, honest mirroring.
In all relationships we have the opportunity to mirror the other person. If we care about the other, do we care enough to be an honest mirror? And when we need to recover a part of ourselves, where do we find the trusted persons who will honestly reflect our virtues as well as our vices?
May 2017 Boris Matthews, PhD, LCSW practices Analytical Psychology (a.k.a. Jungian Analysis) at the Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine in Pewaukee, WI. He is a teaching and supervising faculty member of the C. G. Jung Institute of Chicago, IL, and again he will serve as Director of the Analyst Training Program at the Jung Institute, beginning in September, 2017. To schedule an appointment, contact him at 608.217.5184.