Unreliable Mirrors

A woman poses in a fun fair hall of mirrors, circa 1935 (BBC.co.uk)

I’m never sure if it’s a compliment if someone says “you’re really photogenic”. Do they mean “you are attractive and this photo shows it!” Or do they mean “this is a nice photo of you… in real life you don’t look really as good?” One thing is for sure: depending on the photographer and the angle, the same face can look a variety of different ways.

My children and my husband, for example, have a different perspective (literally) on what my face looks like. One looks more down on my hair, the others get to see much more of my chin (I try not to think about this, actually.) As for me: I see myself eye-to-eye in the bathroom mirror, which is the closest I can get to seeing an accurate reflection of what I look like. But often, others can reflect things to me that I don’t see: the tag sticking out of my shirt at the back. The bit of fluff behind my ear. Or, later in the day, the proverbial piece of spinach between my teeth. We need mirrors—glass or human—to tell us what we’re like.

Much more important than our physical appearance, though, is that we all rely on others to reflect back to us what we are really like as people. There are no bathroom mirrors that can tell us if we are kind, or self-deluded, or mentally unstable, or genuinely hilarious. We gather information about what we are like from the human mirrors around us: our family, our friends, our communities.

However, we human mirrors vary wildly in our ability to reflect truth. None of us are perfect mirrors: every part of us is affected by sin (this is what I understand by the phrase total depravity… not that we’re as bad as we can be, but that every aspect of our being is tainted by it). We all are prone to self-deception, self-focus, and self-interest; we are finite, fallible, and foolish—as one of my professors used to say—and so we all give somewhat “warped” feedback to the world around us.

But, some people give healthier reflections than others. And this post is my reflection (<< cannot resist puns) on whether the most significant relationships in our lives are providing us with reliable or unreliable mirrors about who we are as people. So much of our emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being depends on it.

The healthiest of relationships are ones where a person show us, as closely as they can, how God sees us. They see our dignity, our gifting, our strengths. They also see our flaws and our struggles, and they are able to reflect back to us when we might need to “take a good, hard look at ourselves.” They are able to help us identify our talents. They are able to name our blind-spots. The best of friendships, and the best of marriages, are those where we are loved by a reliable mirror. This person doesn’t always take our side in things (they are not a permanent instagram filter for our character!), but they are not critical by default (like the mirrors in the Target dressing room).

The most toxic of relationships, by contrast, are ones where the person is close enough to be playing a major role in you forming your self-perception of you, and they reflect a deeply distorted version of yourself. This, I think, is what gaslighting is at its worst (you need to know what gaslighting is. Read about it here.) This is what abusive relationships look like: where you begin to see yourself as a crazy, awful, terrible person and a blight on human existence… but the terrible twisted image you are seeing of yourself is not accurate because it isn’t you which is twisted as much as the twisted mirror which is reflecting back a distorted image.

So my question to you is this: take stock of the relationships in your life, and consider how reliable the “mirrors” are among your inner circle.

Are your mirrors telling you that you are wonderful and perfect and lovely all the time? If so, your mirrors may need to be sharpened up a little. We need others to help us see and identify our weaknesses, to gently point out where maybe we took offense too quickly, or are responding to some trigger from a past insecurity rather than the person in front of us.

Are your mirrors just pointing out your flaws? Do you feel like you’re always failing? Always responsible for someone else’s bad behavior? That you might be a little bit crazy? Do they see you for who you are? Or for what you can do for them? We need mirrors that also see our strengths, that hear and validate our voices and our value. If your primary relationships (with your parents, spouse, boss, best friend) show the signs of being deeply unreliable mirrors, please – get help. Not all our loved ones reflect the truth about ourselves back to us accurately.

Are your human mirrors reflecting both the beautiful and the broken in you? And do they love you, regardless? Ultimately, this is the way God sees us, and this is the self he wants us to see when we look at him. One day we will see him face to face, we will know and be fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12, 1 John 3:2), but until them he has given us Scripture as a mirror in which we can see our true selves, and he has given us other people who, as they themselves become more and more like Jesus, should also be better able to reflect true to us.

I’m hoping and praying that we will be increasingly reliable mirrors to others, and be loved and known by increasingly reliable mirrors in return.