Since the pandemic, many of us feel that the once-familiar world of the past has turned upside down. In the sequel to Lewis Carroll’s influential novel Alice in Wonderland, called Through the Looking Glass, Alice is astonished to find that she’s able to step through a mirror into an alternative world. In the Looking Glass World things are often reversed and upside-down, which makes Alice question her assumptions about what she’d previously considered normal.
Inspired by Lewis Carroll, in 1902 the American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley developed the concept of The Looking Glass Self, which explores how we shape our identity, based on how we think other people see us. This theory is that we shape our sense of self, not from our own inner viewpoint, but from how we imagine we look to others; how other people may be judging us. Once our sense of self is formed, it becomes self-fulfilling and reinforced as we conform to how we imagine we’re being perceived. One way of exploring this is to consider the differences in your sense of self when you’re by yourself, like walking in the woods with your dog, compared to a meeting at work, or a busy social situation. Interestingly, Cooley’s work was followed up almost 100 years later when neuroscientists discovered, what are called mirror neurons in the brain, which allows us to model other people’s emotions, behaviour, and intentions in our own heads.
Every human experience brings together two things; there’s the objective reality of whatever’s happening in the moment and how we interpret and shape the experience through past habits, assumptions, judgements, and emotional reactions. So, using the looking-glass analogy, the mirror reflects the raw reality of a particular situation, but we look through our own overlay of what we see and believe.
Another interesting test is when you look at your face in the mirror, is the way you see your face the same as a recent photograph or different?
As social animals, we’ve evolved to understand others and express ourselves so that we’re also seen, heard, included, and connected, which is great when it works.
But there’s a downside to this internal mirror-self we construct that can make us feel ignored, unnoticed, insecure, overly defensive, anxious, and unworthy. All of these deplete, limit, and lower our energy, mood, and access to inner resources. In a state like this, we’re unlikely to feel happy and perform at our best, which re-enforces the self-fulfilling downward spiral.
So how can we be more aware of the power of our mirror-self; free from limitation and distortion; seeing the world and other people in a clearer, kinder, compassionate, and less judgemental of others and ourselves? The simple answer is to cultivate greater openness; allowing things to be as they already are, free from the limiting judgements and interpretations that we habitually impose.
- Embracing whatever arises; turning towards the pleasant or unpleasant with the same welcoming attitude
- Being open to new possibilities of each moment, each person, and situation you encounter
- Remaining alert to identifying with limiting thoughts and feelings, as they are not who you are
- Having the courage, flexibility, and insight to let go of how you habitually defend yourself
- Releasing past patterns of thought, feelings, or behaviour that no longer serve you
- Bringing self-compassion and kindness to yourself, rather than judgement and self-criticism
When you next find yourself feeling a bit limited and diminished, the chances are you’re inhabiting your mirror self. To break out of this habit, try opening your awareness to what’s going on, working skilfully with your experience with kindness and curiosity, then bringing an openness to the possibilities of this unique moment and seeing what difference that makes.
Suggested weekly practice
- Use openness, kindness, and curiosity to explore the differences in your sense of self when you’re by yourself, compared to a social situation, and see what insights emerge.
- Whenever you judge yourself or others, bring openness, and see what difference that makes.
- See if you can spend a day being open to new possibilities of each moment, each person, and situation you encounter.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore and experience openness as you open and expand awareness in the present moment.