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Mirror reflection

Illustration old lady

To complete and sharpen my self-portrait, I decided to consider others as mirrors. The idea was to observe people’s behaviour towards me in order to find clues about myself and about what to focus on to further perfect myself spiritually. Having made this resolution, I got ready for my day and went off to work. As I pulled the car out of the garage and was about to turn into the street, I realized I had forgotten my cell phone. I left my car on the sidewalk right outside the gate and rushed inside to get my phone. I rushed back out less than two minutes later, just in time to find the neighbourhood grumpy old lady vehemently banging her walking stick against the metal rim of my front wheel. “It happens every time!” I said to myself. “Every single time I leave my car for one second on the sidewalk she pops up out of nowhere and starts banging on it!” This time, I wasn’t going to take it and so I gave her a piece of my mind: “I never leave my car out here for more than two minutes, this is completely out of line, it’s technically my driveway”, etc.

I angrily got back into my car, started the engine and turned on the radio to try and collect myself. That’s when I heard the radio host say: “What about you? What good resolutions did you make this morning?” I froze. I had completely forgotten about my mirror reflection exercise… So I tried to see what I could learn from what had just happened, but it was hard. I was still pretty angry: let’s be honest, that woman’s reaction was completely out of proportion, she was making a fuss about nothing, I had only left my car there for a minute, how hard was it to just go around it? It would have taken her three seconds and it’s not as if she had anything better to do! No, there was absolutely no self-knowledge to be gained out of this story. Despite this lofty conclusion, I did not feel comforted. I kept seeing that old lady who had trouble walking, even with her stick. I could see the narrow street and the speeding cars. I could see my car that had forced her to step down on the street… At that point I had arrived at work and my train of thoughts was interrupted.

I had barely entered the lobby when the receptionist began to heartily thank me for covering for her for ten minutes the day before so she could go to the bank. “You are always willing to help. Very few people are like that.” I had already forgotten about this. It’s true that people always tell me that I am helpful. With my good resolution of that morning in mind, I concluded that I could add “helpful” to the list of my qualities. In the elevator I thought about it some more to ponder on how sincere I actually was when I was being helpful to others. In the case of the receptionist, I had spontaneously accepted to help out, without even thinking about where my own interest could be. Then I had forgotten about that favour and did not expect her to thank me. I therefore felt comfortable adding this quality to my list, though I told myself that I would still need to analyse other similar situations to see if I always acted as selflessly, no matter the situation.

The second I reached my office, I got caught up in the day’s work and devoted myself to it completely. In the evening, when I got into my car, I felt too tired to think about how people had acted towards me and look for clues to help me in my self-knowledge. I switched on the radio to listen the news update, and what I heard was that a lot of the accidents where pedestrians get hit by cars on the street happen right next to the sidewalk, by the curb. It hit me again—I pictured that old lady, small and stooped, making tiny steps with the help of her cane; I imagined myself in her shoes, weak, fragile, slow in my reactions, and having to step off the sidewalk knowing that, at any moment, a careless driver could speed by, and all of this because this young irresponsible neighbour woman was too lazy to properly park, an elementary act of civic duty on a street where so many moms go around pushing strollers with babies. I was mortified. Not to mention the anxiety over the consequences of what could have happened. And so I was struck by a new character flaw of mine: egocentrism. Or to be more optimistic, a new quality to develop: putting myself in other people’s shoes.

The conclusion I reached as the day came to an end was that other people’s reactions to me could really be a precious tool in the process of self-knowledge, by shedding some light on behaviours I either didn’t realise I had or for which I found infinite excuses. It’s not that other people need systematically be right, but it doesn’t cost anything to take a moment to look back at myself and reflect on my actions, thoughts and intentions. In fact, it seems to be one of the keys to self-knowledge.

One of the pitfalls is to refuse to see someone as a mirror because he or she is unpleasant and has faults of his or her own. I had found the old lady to be very unpleasant and aggressive (she was banging at my car with her cane!) and thus saw absolutely no reason to question myself, even though my own behaviour was potentially more harmful than hers.

Furthermore, I noticed that if I am attentive, many things reveal themselves as clues and nudges, much like the words I by chance heard on the radio. At a larger stance, it is not only the actions and words of others that can prove revealing. Almost everything that happens should potentially fulfil this role. Let’s say I hit my head. If I pause for a second and try to see if there could be an opportunity to learn something there, I may come to realise that I was embarked on a negative train of thought… And analysing these thoughts might help me progress in my self-knowledge.

What about you? Have you had similar experiences? What kind of reactions have you had from people around you in the past days? In what way do these reactions reflect who you are? Can they provide elements to refine your self-portrait?

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  1. Jimmy Nov 15, 2013 3:31 pm 1

    The example here uses another person (the old lady) as a mirror to learn about ones self. We may also consider events in general to serve as a similar mirror.

    For example, I recently received a hefty speeding ticket on the way to work, which is located over 40 miles from where I live. My first reaction was: “this highway is full of cops,” “this is just a revenue generating means for squeezing money out of people,” “the cop was unfairly recording my speed because I was changing lanes to safer one,” “I need to get a job closer to home,”etc.

    Using the event as a mirror, it did not take too long to discover that my driving had become more reckless on the highway, continued to be reckless even while driving my family, and it is simply a matter of time before I will have a bad accident.

  2. Saiid Nov 15, 2013 4:25 pm 2

    What a nice article. I think “mirror reflection” is an excellent practical exercise to better know myself. How egocentric am I and how much awareness do I have of it? The challenges are first, to remember to think about it immediately when I face a situation and second, to be honest and put myself in the other person’s shoes, Thank you for posting this nice article.

  3. m.m Nov 15, 2013 6:53 pm 3

    very good article. Today, I went to see my mother and in the midst of a conversation with her , she told me “I always act like someone who knows all and that makes her upset”. It was not my intention to be pretentious and show off, but I knew she was right that way and I had to be more sensitive, thoughtful and humble while talking to her.

  4. H Nov 15, 2013 6:56 pm 4

    I found this article extremely useful and practical. It is so true. I have never thought of using others as a mirror of my own behaviour and character. It is without a doubt a wonderful exercise and something that I would like to start doing. Just in a few minutes of reflection after reading the article I have thought of a few different occasions in the past few days where someone’s reaction to me was an indication of my own weakness. Thank you for this informative article.

  5. Naghme Nov 15, 2013 9:42 pm 5

    how can we discover the meaning in what has happened to us, seeing these experiences as gifts, lessons, or opportunities ?

    There is significance in every event of our lives, from the most joyful and empowering to the inexplicable or seemingly unjust.
    how can we decode the confusing or unfortunate moments in our lives and refine our self -portraits?

  6. Holly Nov 15, 2013 11:32 pm 6

    Thank you soooooo much for this article – it’s such a practical way of keeping an eye on what may cause certain behavioural patterns .
    It’s so easy to become critical and disappointed with other people’s attitude / behaviour – it’s about time to think more about what caused such behaviour , judgement and attitude .
    I will seriously try much much harder to dig deeper and delve within more, and see what I have done rather than what others are doing.
    Oh ! I just remembered, I used to sometimes say ” I will treat miss x just like a mirror – I will treat her just like she has treated me ! I will now give her a bit of her own medicine !” But hopefully this time I will turn the mirror around and see what I have done and how I can change .

  7. Bardi Nov 16, 2013 8:40 pm 7

    Thanks for the article, this is something that keeps my mind really busy yet I don’t see any clear answer. There is something occupying my mind, and I haven’t been able to conclude anything from it. It’s about setting priorities.

    My girlfriend is always complaining at me that I care too much about other people, almost the same amount that I care about her.

    I don’t share the same perspective though. One example is that once I was talking to her on the phone and my roommate’s girlfriend called me. I thought it might be something urgent about my roommate so I asked her to stay on the line and I switched the line to resolve the issue quickly. I don’t really know what I could do in this situation. Of course I am not switching the lines for every call but I don’t think I should ignore potentially important calls either.

  8. A. Nov 20, 2013 8:07 am 8

    “One of the pitfalls is to refuse to see someone as a mirror because he or she is unpleasant and has faults of his or her own.”

    Thank you for this article. I have worked on using other people’s reactions as a mirror and putting myself in other people’s shoes. During the last Christmas vacation, I paid my parents a visit (they live in another city) and extended my stay by 48 hours since my mother had been diagnosed with a cancer. Obviously, given the news, she was upset

    Hence I tried to be kind and empathic, but my mother was (understandably so) very grumpy, complained quite a bit and was ungrateful to those trying to support her psychologically. Instead of seeing that as a way to test my intention (had I tried to be empathic for His satisfaction or not ?!!), I calmed myself with some quite negative thoughts such as telling myself that she would probably be leaving this world sooner (rather than later) and that we would then have been freed from her cranky presence!!

    Obviously, I could have done much better had I seen her reactions as a mirror to my behavior. For despite trying to be empathic, I had probably come across as detached since I had spent quite of bit of time working (despite the Christmas vacation)

    Another lesson drawn from the three days spent at my parents’ was that short after my arrival I told them something, without realizing it, that hurt their feelings quite a bit. At first, I became cognizant of that not because I managed to identify the exact thing I had said, but rather because of their reactions as well as some other signs

    But instead of asking them right away, frankly and openly, what the problem was, I waited until the last evening (of my stay) to ask them the obvious question. My father’s reply taught me quite a few things

    @Charlotte Zendé That is where I think this article is incomplete (despite its obvious interest). The author’s analysis should have been validated directly with the old lady! It is a matter of common sense to understand that asking those involved direct questions is likely to teach us a lot and widen our perspectives significantly … but it is also quite difficult because we often have to fight against our pride. Worrying about other people’s feelings is also a way to apologize, I believe.

  9. yocto Nov 27, 2013 5:38 pm 9

    Let me tell you a story that depicts my self-portrait! I happened to attend a training for a group of nonprofits. My co-worker and I were attending as guests. At lunchtime we sat at a table with three other women from Haiti (let me first clarify that I did not know the women were from Haiti when we sat at their table). While having lunch, as a part of the training, the facilitator asked the groups at each table to get engaged in a conversation and asked each person to share one thing that s/he always wanted to do but never had the opportunity. I was busy eating my sandwich and didn’t want to go first. The other women didn’t seem to want to be the ones to start either. My co-worker started “okay I’ll go first” and talked about her childhood and how she always wanted to have a doll and she was deprived of it, so she made one for herself but lost it later or something like that. I wasn’t really listening because I was thinking about what to say when I get the turn and I was hoping that she would turn to her other right, the Haiti woman sitting next to her to continue, but she finished and looked at me like it was my turn. I really didn’t want to share anything. But I also wanted to be polite. I also wanted to break the ice so the other three women would feel comfortable sharing their stories. I didn’t want to sidetrack from my co-worker’s story and wanted to make sure what I said would be somewhat in line with hers, not too deep not too shallow. I didn’t want to make her feel that her story was stupid (which I thought it was until I realized she comes from a less fortunate family). I wasn’t ready but I had no choice, it was my turn, so I gathered myself and bravely and enthusiastically started talking about how I always imagined living and working in a neighborhood where I could walk to work, and on my way back go to a farmers market find my way to a bakery by following the smell of freshly made bread, purchase a crispy baguette, cheese, fresh vegetables for the night (I really don’t like buying in bulk and keeping things in the fridge for long) and I finished by saying: and I never ever had the chance to do that in my entire life…! My co-worker said well that is easy, why don’t you just move to such neighborhood…! We laughed and I turned to the lady sitting next to me. She started by saying “Back in the time when I was a teenager, I used to live in a very violent neighborhood. Girls were raped on the streets; boys were into guns and drugs; poverty, drug abuse, teen pregnancy were major concerns.” She continued “I myself am a victim of sexual abuse. I always wanted to help other girls and boys in my neighborhood and raise awareness about the issue. If I can save one youth from becoming a victim I have done my job and I will be happy.” My jaw dropped. My head was spinning and I kept it down to avoid looking into her eyes. I was speechless. What an embarrassing moment for me. The other two women said something along the same line (I can’t remember a word of what they said… I was embarrassed and was trying to find a way out). They were working together in a nonprofit with the mission to help victims of sexual violence in their communities in Haiti. Why me? Why should I be at their table? I wished I admitted my stupidity right then and apologized for my ignorance. I could have at least changed my story to a more meaningful one! I wished instead of being brave I would have kept quiet and tried to first get a sense of where they were coming from and what their story was before I opened my mouth! But nooooo… I had to tell them the baguette story!

  10. mer Dec 21, 2013 1:32 pm 10

    Thank you so much for this article which has had a huge impact on the way I look at myself. My recent experience was so obvious and yet I did not see its significance until I read this. Basically, at work, I was in the middle of crucial negotiations when someone tried to talk to me about a meeting they thought they had scheduled with me. I really snapped at this person. I must add that I had viewed this person as being the ruthless ambitious type and did not like some of the things they did. This person pulled me to one side and told me that I had to watch the impact of my behaviour on others and that what I had done had embarrassed them. My reaction was to quietly mock them for not realising that it was their behaviour that was wrong. I justified my action and negative thoughts by deciding that this was a good opportunity to stand up for my rights. After reading this article I analysed the situation again, mainly because I could not get it out of my mind and the waves of negative thoughts were becoming vicious. It took many days and nights of self suggestion and internal arguments (I hope that makes sense) to even accept that my initial analysis was wrong, and a lot of anxiety when I saw my pride, jealousy and twisted reasoning of the episode. Eventually I reached a stage where I reluctantly and with much inward complaining set an informal program to fight my jealousy which I had to admit was the root of the problem and manifested towards a certain kind of person. I have noticed that I feel more at ease and life seems a little brighter those times I sincerely work against this flaw. I have today been wondering why it has been an informal program and realised that I have yet to overcome procrastination – and there is still a voice in my mind which refuses to accept that I am wrong!! It has taken me more than one day but without this article I would not have even bothered to turn the mirror around to take a look at me.

  11. Haleh Dec 23, 2013 12:07 pm 11

    I would like to ask you some questions regarding your story: Would you have felt the same if the woman had told a more trivial story? Would you prefer to have told a more important story if you knew that then only your co-worker would have told a trivial story and would have been the only one to feel embarassed? It seems that one joins a group of nonprofits to make a change in the world, even if his/her childhood has not been as difficult. Is it important that you could not put it into words at that moment?
    What you did (telling a story just to keep the conversation, thinking about the feelings of your co-worker) – to me – was not embarrassing at all. It makes me think about how sometimes my conscience also rings when there is really nothing to blame. Think this way: after the conversation, the women from Haiti felt so much better about themselves, more serious about their goal. They might (just might) think that you are not as deep a person as they are. Well, is that really so bad?!

  12. yocto Dec 26, 2013 9:26 pm 12

    I hear you @Haleh, our conscience sometimes tend to blame us for the wrong reasons. However, for me it was not the matter of right or wrong, good or bad, but a chance to see myself in the mirror and understand which “powers”, for lack of a better word, were active during this in-vivo/in-contact-with-human-subjects “experiment”. Assuming that I wasn’t pretentious in recalling the incident, in simple words, being considerate of my friend to avoid embarrassing her was a positive energy moving from my psyche toward my conscious-self (earning one checkmark under the “good” column if you will!) Being negligent of my whereabouts, looking down upon my friend for her story, not recognizing who I was sitting with and my purpose for being in that meeting (both materially and spiritually), not pausing before talking, enjoying my sandwich and not wanting to be bothered…, all could go under the “not so good” column. And who knows what other forces were involved. I must admit I don’t know much about this self-knowledge business but I know none of these are really so bad and/or embarrassing as long as I understand what powers came into play during the experiment!

  13. Haleh Dec 31, 2013 2:04 pm 13

    @ yocto
    Beautiful answer! It helped me a lot in analysing experiences/experiments (both mine and others’). Thank you!

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