Being a Mirror

Being a Mir­ror is all about help­ing oth­ers to hear them­selves by reflect­ing back, with­out judgement.

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I sus­pect that the rea­son that most cou­ples have prob­lems with com­mu­ni­ca­tion is that they have grown up wit­ness­ing poor communication. 

So let me define a few things that good com­mu­ni­ca­tion is not.

Good communication is not:

  • get­ting anoth­er per­son to agree with you.
  • teach­ing, explain­ing, or lecturing.
  • manip­u­lat­ing anoth­er per­son into doing things your way.
  • bar­gain­ing, cajol­ing, or begging.

Good communication is:

  • clear­ly dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing between thoughts and feelings.
  • being self responsible.
  • being will­ing to hon­est­ly state what you know about your thoughts and feelings.

Most peo­ple grow up hear­ing the adults around them speak­ing from a place of self-right­eous­ness. They hear about wound­ed feel­ings, and learned (erro­neous­ly) that oth­er peo­ple or exter­nal sit­u­a­tions are respon­si­ble for what each adult is feeling. 

And speak­ing of feel­ings, most adults have real trou­ble grasp­ing the dif­fer­ence between a feel­ing and a thought. So let’s start there.

Feelings Are Just That

Here’s a 100% rule for you:

Every­thing that is going on inside of you is about you, or bet­ter put, is “caused” by you. 

The Bud­dhist con­cept of empti­ness speaks to this. We’ve talked about this a lot, but when we say “emp­ty,” we mean “emp­ty of meaning.” 

So, using the illus­tra­tion of speech, what some­one says to you is noth­ing more than sound. What you do with that sound is 100% up to you.

It’s not that I don’t believe peo­ple can say some­thing that they intend to be hurt­ful. It’s that, and here’s the hard part, the inten­tion of the oth­er per­son has noth­ing to do with what I do with his or her action.

Adults have com­plete free­dom to, for exam­ple, walk out, as opposed to sim­ply blam­ing the oth­er person.

Once we become adults, we always have a choice about who we hang around with. 

If the per­son we’re with starts using ‘his’ words in an inten­tion­al­ly hurt­ful way, I can choose not to hurt myself over them, while at the same time stat­ing that we either do ther­a­py or I will leave. 

Instead, what typ­i­cal­ly hap­pens is the per­son on the receiv­ing end metaphor­i­cal­ly “picks up the knife and stabs her­self,” demands that the per­pe­tra­tor stop, and goes imme­di­ate­ly to, “This isn’t fair! He shouldn’t be treat­ing me like this!” 

This vic­tim-based approach changes pre­cise­ly nothing.

Three things

In any sit­u­a­tion, there are actu­al­ly only three choic­es.

  1. The first is to continue, 
  2. the sec­ond is to leave, and 
  3. the third is to whine. 

Under “con­tin­ue,” there are two sub choices. 

  1. One is to accept things as they are, and 
  2. the sec­ond is to head into ther­a­py, or some­thing sim­i­lar, to shift the situation.

I find it odd that most people choose the third option.


So, to go back to the 100% rule, words are words, no mat­ter what mom­my told you. Here’s how it actu­al­ly works. 

Let’s imag­ine that Sal­ly says to Sam, “You nev­er lis­ten to me!” 

Now, let’s remem­ber that Sally’s inten­tion is imma­te­r­i­al to Sam’s response. In oth­er words, despite Sally’s inten­tion, the words only mean what Sam makes of them.

There’s real­ly no way to deter­mine whether feel­ings or thoughts come first. But what hap­pens is this: 

  • the elec­tri­cal sig­nals that are Sally’s words reach Sam’s brain. 
  • At that instant, Sam’s brain simul­ta­ne­ous­ly inter­prets the words, (decides who “you” is, remem­bers what “nev­er” means, etc.) and
  • then ascribes mean­ing, while also, per­haps, attach­ing a feeling. 

All of that is Sam’s doing, and has every­thing to do with who Sam is, how he was brought up, and what his lev­el of self-aware­ness is.

If Sam is nor­mal, (mean­ing bro­ken, and inept at com­mu­ni­ca­tion…) Sam is going to react instead of respond­ing.

  • For exam­ple, he might flat­ly deny what he assumes is an accu­sa­tion. “Of course I lis­ten to you, you nev­er shut up!” 
  • Or, Sam might specif­i­cal­ly chal­lenge the word “nev­er.” “I spent an hour lis­ten­ing to you this morning.” 
  • Or, he might go on the offen­sive. “What you mean I don’t lis­ten? You nev­er lis­ten to me! And besides, we haven’t had sex in a week!”

And then, depend­ing on the feel­ing he cre­ates, he might sulk, walk away, start yelling, etc.

A self respon­si­ble per­son, on the oth­er hand, would do two things. 
First, he would indi­cate what choic­es he is mak­ing inter­nal­ly. 
Sec­ond
, he would express curiosity.


Internal Choices and Being a Mirror

Here’s where we begin to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between feel­ings and thoughts. Accord­ing to the com­mu­ni­ca­tion mod­el that we fol­low (the Haven Mod­el), all feel­ings are felt in the body. (Thus, “I feel you don’t under­stand me” is NOT a feeling.)

For exam­ple, we can feel warm toward some­one or cold toward some­one. We can feel close to some­one, or dis­tant from them. We can be attract­ed, or repulsed. We can feel open, or closed.

Sam might say, “As I hear you say that, I feel cold and distant from you.” 

Now, notice that Sam did not say, “You made me…” He uses his lan­guage to own his feel­ings.

There is a very prac­ti­cal rea­son for doing this. If Sam were to say, “You are mak­ing me sad,” Sam would be declar­ing him­self to be a vic­tim, and it’s quite pos­si­ble that the con­ver­sa­tion will get derailed — either Sam and Sal­ly end up talk­ing about Sam’s sad­ness, or they end up argu­ing about whether mak­ing Sam sad was Sally’s intent. 

In either case, Sally’s (poor­ly expressed) issue gets trumped by Sam’s. 

Rather, the self respon­si­ble per­son uses “I” lan­guage to describe their inter­nal, self-cre­at­ed “feel­ing-state.”
“Here’s who I am, and here’s what’s up for me.”

Sam might then shift to what he is thinking.

Dar­bel­la and I love to use the fol­low­ing clause — “So, the sto­ry I’m telling myself is…” You could sub­sti­tute “judg­ment,” or “inter­pre­ta­tion” for “the sto­ry I’m telling myself.” 

Sam: “So, the sto­ry I’m telling myself is that you’re try­ing to pick a fight—and I am mak­ing myself anx­ious, and judg­ing that you no longer love me.” 

Now, while the lan­guage is a bit kludgy, this is actu­al­ly a descrip­tion of what’s going on inside of Sam, and it’s devoid of any blame direct­ed at Sally.

Curiosity and Being a Mirror

being a mirror

If Sal­ly is wise, she hears what Sam is say­ing — that he’s describ­ing his inter­nal expe­ri­ence and in no way is he blam­ing her. So Sal­ly can have a breath, as opposed to get­ting all defen­sive. In oth­er words, at most, Sal­ly might say, “Tell me more.” 

If Sam is wise, hav­ing expressed what’s up for him, he might remem­ber where the con­ver­sa­tion start­ed. Sal­ly was rais­ing an issue about think­ing that she was unheard. (Remem­ber, you can’t “feel” unheard — it’s a thought, not a feeling.)

Sam might say, “I’m curi­ous about what you think I’m not hear­ing.” This is an open invi­ta­tion for Sal­ly to share more infor­ma­tion, while also notic­ing her own thoughts.

This is Sam, being a mirror for Sally. 

The curios­i­ty ques­tion is a very clear mir­ror — “Here is what I heard — please tell me more.” And it’s called a mir­ror­ing ques­tion because it acts like a mir­ror. The reflec­tion in a stan­dard mir­ror is nei­ther more, nor less, than the object reflected.

Now, as some of you are going to want to argue that real peo­ple don’t talk like this — that fight­ing and argu­ing and name-call­ing are the basis of relating. 

All I can say is, “How’s that work­ing for you?” 

The only thing the “nor­mal approach” gets you is more of the same — resent­ment, more fights, the silent treat­ment, anger, drama.

If that’s what you want, by all means keep doing it. 

Or, you could grow up, and get over yourself.

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is known on the web as the Sim­ple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Pri­vate Prac­tice Coun­sel­lor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the lat­est being The. Best. Rela­tion­ship. Ever.

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