What Mirror Meditation Can Teach You

Coming face-to-face with yourself is powerful.

Posted Dec 13, 2019

 Tara Well
Source: Tara Well

In a recent TEDx Talk, What Mirror Meditation Can Teach You, I shared my work using mirrors to shift self-criticism to self-compassion, regulate emotions, and improve face-to-face contact. Over the past few years, I’ve taught mirror meditation to hundreds of students and they’ve shared some amazing insights with me.

Do you remember the first time you saw yourself in the mirror? Reflections are powerful. As children, we learn to who we are through the reflections of those around us. In fact, psychologists have found that we need face-to-face contact for our social and emotional development. Seeing facial expressions helps us understand our own emotions. And through the back and forth of emotional expression, we learn to manage our feelings. We also learn empathy, by sensing, and sometimes even emulating emotions of others, as we’re relating face-to-face.  

Yet, our digital technology has drastically changed how we relate to each other – in one sense we are more connected than ever through text and social media. But we aren’t spending as much time looking at each other. In fact, we have far less face to face contact, even with ourselves.

When I go to parties and people ask, “What do you do?” I tell them I’m a mirror-gazing expert.

Some turn away believing they’ve spotted a narcissist enabler. Others are intrigued, and sometimes even a bit terrified at the thought of looking at themselves in the mirror.  

Did you look in the mirror today?

Do you try to avoid looking at yourself?

Or maybe wish you could stop looking?

I think you’ll agree that mirrors can evoke some strong feelings in us. But they can also be incredibly useful in ways you might not have imagined. In fact, I believe the mirror is one of the most essential tools we have to deal with the challenges in our world today. Because mirrors allow us to come face to face with ourselves. And being reflected is one of the most important and powerful experiences we can have as humans.

A recent Nielsen study found that we spend an average of 11 hours per day face-to-face with our screens. Texting, checking for updates, looking for likes—instead of looking directly at each other. As we spend more time alone and on our devices, we miss out on the face-to-face reflection that is so important for staying emotionally connected to ourselves, and to others.

Research reports from the National Center for Biotechnology have found an association between screen time and anxiety. We don’t know for sure whether more screen time increases anxiety, or whether the more anxious people are, the more they reach for their devices. But what we do know for sure, from the research, is that anxiety involves difficulties in regulating our emotions.

This is where the mirror comes in. As adults, glancing in the mirror can become second nature. We use it for personal grooming, and to check how we look before we go out in public. But what if you took a different approach to how you see yourself in the mirror? Remember back to when you were a child? What it was like to see yourself in the mirror? 

When I was a little girl, I used to look at my reflection in the side of the shiny chrome toaster on the table for as long as my parents would let me, clowning around, making faces, and imitating the adults around me. When I saw myself, I felt a sense of comfort and delight. But like most of us, as I grew older, society’s expectations for me changed, and I started to use the mirror to scrutinize my appearance and compare it to the actors on TV and models in fashion magazines. What I saw in the mirror never seemed to measure up.  

Then one day, I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror, and I was shocked by how sad and distressed I looked. I hadn’t realized I felt that way. I’d been walking around thinking I felt “fine.” In that moment of realization, I knew that, by trying to create a perfect image for others to see, I’d lost touch with how I felt inside. After that, I began to take time to look at my reflection in the mirror, not to focus on my appearance, but to simply acknowledge how I felt. Over time, it became a way to look beyond my appearance, and see deeper into my own eyes with compassion. It became a meditation.

The mirror was so helpful to me, and as a research scientist, I wanted to understand why. So I began conducting mirror-gazing experiments in which research participants meditated on their own reflection. At first, they seemed awkward and self-conscious, their faces were often tense, and their eyes were harsh and critical. I guided them to see beyond their surface appearance and take a deeper look. In the process, something magical happened. By the end of the session, their faces had softened, and a glint of delight shone in their eyes. And, they reported some amazing insights. It was fascinating how a simple mirror could be the catalyst for so many different kinds of realizations for people. 

For instance, a research participant I’ll call Clare was obsessed with her appearance. To everyone else, she looked like a bright and beautiful young woman. Yet, she was never satisfied with the way she looked. I invited her to shift her attention from seeing her imagined flaws to seeing herself as the recipient of her own harsh judgments. It wasn’t easy for her to break the habit of looking through critical eyes. But eventually, she realized that she was creating her own suffering because she could see it on her face. Over time, she came to see herself with kinder eyes, she was less obsessed with her appearance, and had more time and energy to focus on what mattered most to her.

Another research participant I’ll call Katrina had a selfie addiction. She posted outrageous selfies all day long—with and without makeup, smiling, crying, grimacing, licking the camera lens—you name it. I asked her to try an experiment: when she felt the urge to post a selfie, turn her camera on herself instead and look with a neutral expression in silence for two or three minutes. This felt like an eternity to her and it turned out to be much harder than she expected. By giving herself her own attention instead of trying to get attention from others, she uncovered some difficult emotions that she’d been trying to avoid. She found a therapist she trusted and worked out her feelings in private. She used our mirror-gazing exercises between therapy visits to focus on how she was feeling and began to treat herself with kindness and respect. As her relationship with herself improved, she made more real friends and began to value face-to-face conversations more than likes on social media.

Then there was Anne. As a therapist, she was intrigued by the idea of mirror meditation and thought it might be helpful for her clients, but she resisted trying it for herself. After some probing, she finally confessed, “I’m really afraid to look at myself.” As Anne grew older, she started to feel invisible, and she became content with staying in the background as she supported others. I suggested that she try mirror gazing for herself, to push out of her comfort zone and practice letting herself be seen. As we worked together, Ann realized the fallacy of believing that she had to avoid the spotlight so others could shine. We all have a basic need to admire others, we need everyone who is doing good work in the world to let themselves be seen, and appreciated. Finally, Anne came to see her invisibility as getting in the way of her fine work. Once she allowed herself to be seen—and even admired—her therapy practice was elevated to a new level.

As I worked with more people and asked them how meditating with a mirror had changed them, they reported some amazing revelations: Three changes stood out.

First, they became aware of just how much they criticized themselves—whether it was their appearance or something else that they habitually found unacceptable. The mirror brought it to light. And the mirror revealed just how much their criticisms were affecting them because they could see it on their face. Then they had a choice, and a practice, to treat themselves with more acceptance and compassion.

The mirror also reflected their facial expressions with exquisite accuracy, so they were much more aware of how they were feeling moment-to-moment—which, at first, was a bit shocking for many. Some became more aware of emotions they typically avoided like fear, anger, or disgust. Their capacity to feel and accept a broader range of emotions grew and become more integrated over time.

Lastly, a change I wasn’t really expecting, but happy to find: many noticed a positive impact on their relationships. They became more aware of how they were seeing others and being seen. By practicing giving themselves their full attention, they were able to be more present with others and their relationships deepened.

I believe the mirror is one of the most valuable tools we have today, especially as technology plays a more central role in our lives. In a world of uncertainty, simply taking the time to look into your own eyes can calm you and awake self-compassion. I want this for us all. Imagine our world, if we all took the time to reflect, to see ourselves, and each other, with unwavering clarity and compassion.

Copyright 2019, Tara Well.

References

Adults spent an average of 11 hours per day looking at screens: https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/article/2018/time-flies-us-adults-now-spend-nearly-half-a-day-interacting-with-media/.

Screen time is associated with anxiety: Association of Facebook Use with Compromised Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28093386.