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In the mirror of others (part 2)

in the mirror of others (part 2)

From a perspective of ethical perfection, to see ourselves in the mirrors of others is to take everything that emanates from them (actions, words, behaviour, etc.) as means to better know ourselves. Such was the general conclusion reached by Sandrine Duplessis in the first part of her inquiry. In this second part, the author gives us a few pointers as to how to concretely put this into practice.

We can see ourselves in the mirror of others. Here are a few ways in which to put this proposition into practice. Given that we generally tend to overestimate our own qualities, we will focus on situations that can help bring to light some of our ethical shortcomings.

1) Case One

The most obvious case, of course, is when someone clearly and verbally points out one of our weak points. In this simple case, the other person acts as a speaking mirror. For example, a colleague blurts out at us: “You’re not reliable anyway!” or “You deliberately withheld information from me on this project so I wouldn’t get it right!”

Our initial reaction is likely to be one of irritation or denial. We strike back at the person criticising us by pointing out their own character flaws. Our ego is the one reacting here; by putting the other person down, it defends by all means, the overvalued opinion it gives us of ourselves.

Of course, in certain circumstances, it may be important to defend our honour, especially if we are attacked in public, in a dishonest way, etc. But as a general rule, it is good to ask ourselves whether what we are being accused of is not at least partly true. Besides, it is a well-known fact that “the truth hurts”. From a self-knowledge perspective, it may therefore be very interesting to reflect, once the anger has subsided, on the information received and to analyse it with a clear mind. Do I actually have this character flaw I was called out on? And if so, how bad is it?

Naturally, the mirror of others can sometimes reflect a distorted image of ourselves, but it remains an opportunity for introspection that, if grasped, will help us better know ourselves.

2) Case two

In their mere behaviour toward us and even if they do not mention them explicitly, others reflect back onto us our ethical gaps.

In this case, shrewd observation can be a revealing factor. For example, I notice that X, a colleague or friend of mine, has been avoiding me for some time, while continuing to be cordial and available to others. Thinking about the relationship we have and mentally going over some scenes, I suddenly realise that I have developed a tendency to make fun of him a bit, especially in the presence of a particular group of colleagues with whom I like to joke around. To find out for sure, I ask one of them what he thinks and he confirms that X has indeed told him that he feels uncomfortable around me and that he prefers to keep his distance.

3) Case three

The character traits that irritate us in others may reflect dysfunctional traits we ourselves have. How?

The following account (from Shifting Perspectives: Changing Your Outlook for Positive Results, Olivier de Brivezac and Emmanuel Comte, Paraview, 2007) can give further insight:

“Transferred to the international department of her company, ‘X.’ was brought in to work with a marketing director who had been hired a few months earlier:

It was not long before I realized that I found her unsympathetic. She represented everything that I hate. She constantly pushed herself ahead while belittling other people who did not adhere to her values; she loved to air other people’s dirty laundry, sit in judgment, and slander everyone. She referred to engineers as ‘techies’ and made no further attempt to get to know them. Her disdain particularly irritated me because I had worked for several months with the technical unit.

To put it briefly, I was put off in short order. I also found some of her remarks hard to swallow, such as ‘British people don’t bathe,’ ‘Japanese people are stingy,’ and ‘Techies have bad taste in clothes.’ I would constantly contradict her, and soon there was a charged atmosphere between us. Lunchtime and other breaks during the workday became increasingly distressful for me. I tried by every means to avoid being left alone with her. The worse things got, the less I was motivated to steep myself in work. After a while I started to feel sad and discouraged, without really understanding why…

Supposing I were Ms X, what could I learn about myself from such a situation?

  • that I might be harbouring some form of jealousy;
  • that I am incapable of coming up with an efficient strategy to work better with that person;
  • that I lack character because I allow her to destabilize me;
  • that I suffer a certain lack of self-esteem;
  • that I am dogmatic: I am judging her (the proof is in the words I use when speaking about her) and my judginess probably leads me to act inadequately too;
  • that I am filled with pride : I constantly contradict her, I tend to think that “I, for one, take the time to get to know others”;
  • etc.

In this case, my reactions and emotions are the revealing factors. I am feeling upset, uncomfortable, impulsively aggressive, angry, etc. : what ethical weaknesses or failings are these feelings symptomatic of?

4) Case four

The account above can lead us to one last example of how we can take advantage of seeing ourselves in the mirror of others in order to gain self-knowledge. It consists in asking ourselves if this character trait that we find so unpleasant in others, that we hate even, or that we are constantly making fun of, is not a flaw that we actually share with them!

The objective here is to proactively engage in making the best use of the symmetry properties of the mirror image. By adopting the precept that any character flaw we observe in others is possibly a flaw we ourselves have, we can effectively set out to conduct a self-diagnosis. This is an important step to take in order to avoid being duped by the ego that will try and discourage us at the onset of any ethical practice by saying: “Honestly, I might have a lot of faults, but that is one I definitely don’t have!”

The diagnosis then consists in looking within us for the dysfunctional tendencies we observe in others. To take one of the examples from the account above, is it really the case that I never drag out people’s private lives into the open? When do I do it and how often? With what people in particular? In what kind of situations? What does it trigger in me, what reactions does it cause in others, etc.?

To end on a more encouraging note, it is, of course, also possible to take action based on the ethical qualities we notice in others. That is, when I observe a person’s ethical behaviour (without making assumptions about their intentions), I should ask myself: am I capable of acting the same way? And if not, how can I learn from this?

What we need to remember is that all these strategies require us to turn our attention within, to our intentions, our reactions, the words we utter, the emotions that make us feel uncomfortable, etc. The point is not to burden ourselves with the unpleasant discoveries we may make or fall into despair when realising we are not who we thought we were. Self-scrutiny is aimed at seeing through ourselves more clearly. Doing so in the mirror of others helps us base our ethical efforts on real facts, rather than imaginary ones. This kind of reality check may be bitter at first, but placed in the right perspective it proves extremely stimulating, even exhilarating at times, provided we remember that every crack in the armour of self-delusion built by our ego may let in divine light and bring us closer to Him.

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  1. A. Apr 24, 2017 9:05 pm 1

    “… if this character trait that we find so unpleasant in others, that we hate even, or that we are constantly making fun of, is not a flaw that we actually share with them!”

    This has been my experience : as soon as I do not like a flaw I observe in someone – after some thoughts, I realise that I share the same flaw. For instance, I am somewhat sincere and someone who is not, makes me smile (I find him/her almost funny). But I certainly do not smile when confronted with someone who is a pessimist or selfish. Instead I get (sometimes) overwhelmed with negative thoughts and maybe even struggle to behave humanly towards the person.

  2. Linda P Apr 25, 2017 2:41 am 2

    That was very interesting and exactly what I needed to hear!
    Yesterday something happened which I thought was very negative but after reading your article, it turned it all around and I now see that it was in fact extremely positive for me.
    Thank you for helping me to realize this!

  3. A. Apr 27, 2017 7:45 am 3

    When analysing my interactions with others, I have realized that I avoid certain people. When in contact with them I feel anxious. Their presence brings out my lack of self-confidence. These are usually people who are very self-confident, men who have had successful careers whereas my own has been quite limited.

  4. coco Apr 29, 2017 6:25 pm 4

    Yesterday, in an example of what this article talks about, I had a mirror held up in front of me and I’m so grateful for what I learned.

    I had dinner with a person who holds strong social and spiritual views that are very different from my own. They like to converse on these topics and do so by referencing soundbites from “unimpeachable” sources as absolute facts which are indisputable and allow no room for explanation or discussion, effectively ending the conversation unless one agreed with them. Usually my ego would take over, rejecting their “facts” in as insulting a way as I could manage effectively ending the conversation and leading to a very awkward silence.

    This has happened on numerous occasions and afterward I feel that I should find a way to be respectful of their rights to hold opinions which differed from my own as I would want others to do.

    So this time I made a conscious effort to respect their rights and I invited them to expound on their beliefs in the hope I could carry on a mutually respectful conversation. Instead, they became even more condescending and belligerent. I managed to stay civil, only because I had set a clear intention before our meeting, but it was a struggle and I left confused.

    This article was in the back of my head as I tried to analyze it afterward and helped me to realize what had happened. This person was dealing with their beliefs in vitro, i.e. they have only ingested bits and pieces of talking points on an intellectual basis but they have not put these beliefs into practice and so they do not understand them. And with this revelation, I saw myself!

    There are many principles and beliefs which I hold that I cannot really explain to others because I know them only on an in vitro level. Clearly I have not yet put them sufficiently into practice and so I have not yet come to understand them. This has really heightened my awareness as to the importance of putting my beliefs into practice and motivated me to find ways to do so.

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