Mirror, Mirror before me, what is it I don’t want to see?
When I find myself resenting someone, especially when whatever I resent about him or her is something that doesn’t actually cause harm to others, I find myself asking this question: Am I staring into a mirror?
Mirror work is about recognizing in others parts of myself that have fallen into the shadowlands. The shadowlands are the dark, untrod places in ourselves where we hide what we don’t want to or cannot express. They’re akin to the Jungian Shadow.
When I encounter the shadow aspects of myself in another person, I’m frequently confronted with the emotions my shadow aspect feels over being unrecognized, unacknowledged, and dishonored or by the emotions I feel over being forced to face that aspect of myself. I may feel anger, fear, disgust, resentment, horror. I may find my mind reeling in judgmental thoughts, may even hear myself voicing them as I condemn the behavior of the individual who’s so kindly serving as my mirror. Occasionally, I worship my mirror. It’s not as much the specific emotion or reaction, it’s the intensity that tips me off.
To face the lost, cast away, and denied parts of myself takes humility, strength, compassion and patience. Sometimes, it includes apologizing…to myself, to the individuals on whom I volleyed my emotions, to my family who gave me support and patience even as I careened about in my confused craze. Sometimes it includes changing my lifestyle or my philosophy or my direction. Always, it includes a moment of awakening when I must acknowledge at least to myself that what I thought I saw when I looked at the person who had been my mirror wasn’t that person at all. I know I’ve completed my work when I can finally see beyond the mirror into the being who’d held it and feel deep and soulful compassion for the both of us.
Mirror work is a powerful tool for self-actualization and compassion practice. I don’t have a specific source for information on it; I’ve picked up bits and pieces through the years and put it together more intuitively than anything else. The core of it is to recognize when you’re looking into a mirror, to use the tools you have to explore and honor the aspect of yourself you’re seeing, and to allow the mirror to vanish so you can awaken to the reality of the world and the beings of around you.
Right now, I’m filled with a strange kind of joy. It’s mingled with a touch of resentment. I took a look at my sister’s website for the first time in years. She’s blossomed in ways I’d never dreamed possible. Her photographs and poetry are poignant and insightful. She is an artist.
I’ve dreamed of being an artist since I was in grade school. Literally, I’ve dreamed of it. Pottery and quilting were my main mediums. I painted and drew occasionally. It was fun there, in the Dreamtime, where I was unencumbered.
Mom said I wasn’t the creative one. My art teachers in school pretty well agreed. So did my sister, my father, friends…Actually, most everyone agreed. My talent was for books, math and secretarial work according to the TAGS test I had to take in seventh grade social studies class to match my personality with a career path ala The Simpsons episode 8F15, “Separate Vocations.”
I’ve traveled the path they set me on. I was successful in the corporate world. I didn’t like it there, so I left. I pursued a career as a writer of fiction. Writing was the only creative career I was allowed. My authoring career wasn’t so successful, at least not in fame or fortune. I learned a lot about myself, including that I really don’t love writing.
Words are shallow, even when they’re put together well. I can’t communicate clearly with them, no matter how hard I try. Words are my third language. They fail me, betray me. They twist my voice into a mockery and invite war into my life. The most profound truths I’ve found are beyond words anyway.
So, I see her out there, expressing her experience with such a powerful voice, and I resent that my voice has never been that powerful. I don’t resent her, though I have. I resent the Envy who lays his hand on my shoulder sending a sickening sort of chill through my chest and into the pit of my stomach when I look into the mirror my sister has become and see a blocked bud of an artist still struggling to open.
Mirror Work is a subset of Shadow Work. Both are about casting light on the shadow or rejected aspects of one’s self. The mirror analogy is a convenient, non-confrontational tool for recognizing when a shadow aspect of the self has surfaced. The strong emotional response you get from looking at someone else is akin to your shadow self screaming for a bit of attention.
- Mary Hoffman does a terrific job of describing the basics of Shadow Work.
- Meredith B. Mitchel has written a book on Jungian psychology. Her Article on Shadow Work includes a good explanation from the Jungian perspective along with a couple of tools for delving into this kind of work for yourself.
- Scarlet Wolf’s video “What is Shadow Work?” on Youtube does a good job of explaining how Shadow Work is a tool for personal growth.