By DrLibbyNugent, Oct 1 2021 02:49PM
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?”
“Thou, O Queen, art the fairest in the land,” said the mirror.
Little Snow-White. Grimm. 1812
I’m sure many reading this blog will know the story of Snow White: a powerful, insecure queen seeks reassurance of her insurmountable beauty from her reflection in a magical mirror. One day the mirror declares her step daughter (Snow White) is the fairest in the land and on hearing this the Queen becomes envious and Snow White is the object of her murderous hatred.
Of course, the story wouldn’t be quite the same if the queen actually made use of her reflection to improve herself in some way - maybe practice some mindfulness and notice her body responses with compassion, engage in some radical self-acceptance, channel her aggression and envy into challenging internalised cultural scripts of hierarchy, power, and position that are contributing to her own lack of self-worth? Instead the Queen uses the information offered by the reflection to blame others - to scapegoat and attack the people around her. Her effort goes into removing the external obstacle she observed could exceed her beauty, and also dethrone her from power and position, her happy ending. Rather than self-improvement, she chooses to maintain both her self-image and position of power by trying to kill off Snow White.
The importance of reflections dates back to ancient Greek and Roman times. The first ‘mirrors’ were pools of water or streams where the ancient Greeks and Romans told the future. Later, they created small, heavy hand-held mirrors from copper or bronze. However pools of water and murky copper and bronze set mirrors were known to require peering into and an awareness that the reflecting image could change and be manipulated easily.
The Romans believed every person goes through seven-year soul cycles. Broken mirrors would bring bad luck to the physical being and the soul. Beliefs about mirrors as soul portals persisted through medieval times and into today. In many cultures still, when someone dies, it is customary to cover up all the mirrors in the house to ensure safe passage of the soul to the afterlife. In our modern day stories we are accustomed to vampires and supernatural creatures having no reflection on account of being dispossessed of a soul. Thus, as a means of disclosure, the image/reflection that appears in a mirror can be thought of as being more revealing than the mere surface appearance of a person. It can give us access to our soul.
Interestingly the word psychology comes from the Greek ‘psukhe’, meaning "soul" combined with the Greek logos or "-ology," as "the study of." So psychology can mean the study of our inner mental life or the study of our soul.
As for the discipline of psychology, we use the concept of mirrors and reflections a great deal. Just one example is that belonging and being part of a group has been compared, in group analysis, to a 'hall of mirrors'.(Foulkes 1957). This refers to how as individuals in a group we look at other group members and are faced with seeing many versions of ourselves and our own stories that can feel like alternative universe versions. So each group member is thought of as the same human template having been subject to various interacting aspects of social, psychological, and body influences which create differences. Group analysis suggests if we use each other as mirrors and engage in a careful inner assessment of these aspects of sameness and difference we can link our hidden parts up and get a better picture of ourselves: we can grow and heal.
The Founderof Group Analysis Foulkes in 1957 described how “In the development of a baby, the so-called 'mirror reactions' help in the differentiation of the self from the not-self. The reflections of the self from the outside world lead to greater self-consciousness, so that the infant Narcissus eventually learns to distinguish his own image from that of other images. The mirror reactions are, therefore, essential mechanisms in the resolution of this primary narcissism.”
Mirrors, magical and otherwise, appear a great deal in stories and art. The symbolic meaning of mirrors is pretty ambiguous. Two apparently contradictory themes emerge, one associated with mirrors and their reflections holding a way to see the truth (the mirror is said not to lie) and the other shows how reflections encourage us to avoid or distort the truth (encouraging our obsession with creating or sustaining an ideal image or persona). This pivot point of truth versus distortion appears to sit with our ability to reflect on ourselves when noticing our reflections. The ability to attend to ourselves as we reflect, of course, is called reflexivity. As the Snow White story shows, engaging in reflection without reflexivity is a potentially dangerous task to those around us.
Life experiences combined with our socialisation into gender, race, ethnicity, social class and professional status draw and shape our curiosity and gaze, inform what we pay attention to, and shape what we do not consider important (Denzin & Lincoln, 2013; Finlay, 2016). When we engage in reflexivity it compels us to confront the choices we make regarding what we chose to pay attention to and what we chose to ignore when looking at our reflections.
To play around with the initial quote from Snow White and reflect some more. The word ‘Fair’ can be understood in a variety of ways, as an adjective, adverb, verb, and noun: In its traditional sense we might hear it as meaning a beloved and desired person; fair can mean ‘pretty’; it can mean light skin tone (whiteness ?), a clear complexion or having blond hair; the word fair also describes something as being free of bias or injustice; fair can describe something as being done according to the rules or as being neither good nor bad - if something is fair, it does not favor one side or the other.
Returning to the evil Queen, and maybe thinking about myself as an evil Queen - we all want to be desirable and appear beautiful in our social mirrors but if my ability for self reflection is lacking, I may share the fate of Evil Queen. In trying to protect myself from my terror of not being fair (maybe in many of its meanings) - I may justify my destruction of others
The idea of reflection and reflective practice has become a foundation skill within psychology/ mental health professionals. Yet do we reflect to unveil the truth of our professional soul, or, to use our reflections to legitimise enactment of power to hold onto our powerful social identities? In the Queen’s desire to appear ‘fair’ whilst also protecting her positive self image whilst in a powerful hierarchical position, she behaved very ‘unfairly’. Likewise we can be so determined to sustain a ‘fair’ reflection of ourselves - that we attack others who might make us look unfair or challenge our position of power.
Could we be able to stay with some self-compassion and humility that we might not always be seeing clear eyed about our fairness, or be the wisest judge of what fair is? Can we be curious that the image we see in our reflections might be under the influence of manipulation - personal and collective, conscious and unconscious?
As a society we are increasingly invested in the notion we create change by destroying those around us. Structural and systemic change is necessary and urgent in so much of our world, especially clinical psychology. This task for all of us, begins with ourselves and our personal and professional contribution. We can choose to turn inward and observe ourselves, using each other to enhance consciousness, unite outer and inner worlds, of feeling, and thinking - or we can invest in discrediting those who might make us feel unjustly described as ‘unfair’.
So how do any of us go about trying to influence our reflexivity?
When we ask ourselves reflexive questions we are referring back to ourselves to make sure we are connecting with our soul and not just our desired image.
James Hollis on p99 of his book ‘The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other’ generated a list of Necessary Questions that can draw reflexivity out of us.
1. Where do my dependencies show up in my relationships?
2. What am I asking my partner/ colleague/ friend etc to do for me that I, as a mature adult, need to be doing for myself?
3. How do I repeatedly constrict myself through my historically conditioned attitudes and behavior patterns?
4. Am I taking too much responsibility for the emotional well-being of others? - Am I taking on his or her journey at the expense of my own, and if so, why?
5. Am I living my life in such a fashion that I will be happy with the consequences of my choices? If not, when do I plan to start? What fears, lack of permission or old behaviors block me from living my life?
6. In what ways do I seek to avoid suffering?
List By James Hollis from p99 of his book ‘The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other’
As Hollis explains, these questions are not for the faint hearted. They can stir up painful memories, uncomfortable feelings, trigger our defensiveness and draw attention to some of the power games we play in our lives.
My hope in writing this blog is that others connect with me on this task of strengthening our personal and group ability for reflexivity (and not just think this would be something useful for others to take up).