Have you ever noticed that people in relationship tend to mirror each other? When someone smiles, we often also smile. When a bad tackle happens during a football game, a spontaneous chorus of “Ow!” erupts from the spectators. When Aunt Mary winces as she describes in detail how she broke her toe last week, you might find yourself wincing and wiggling your toe. Or maybe you notice that Uncle Joe’s southern drawl starts to creep into your own voice whenever he comes for a visit.
Humans and other primates have a mirror neuron system (MNS) in our brains, which consists of specialized nerve cells that “mirror” the actions and behavior of others. It was discovered by researchers studying motor control in monkeys. They observed that the same group of neurons that fired in their brains when they performed an action, also fired when they observed another monkey performing the same action. The MNS is important for social thinking, language, empathy, and perspective taking. It’s speculated that the MNS helps us learn through imitation, build rapport, understand the meaning or intention of others’ actions, and anticipate what others might do; capabilities that are advantageous to our survival.
It can be an interesting experiment to notice your own mirroring as it happens in your interpersonal interactions. You might even enlist a partner to experiment with deliberately mirroring one another’s movements or facial expressions, noticing any body sensations, feelings, thoughts, and urges that arise as you do so. Often people experience a sense of increased connection and camaraderie when they practice mirroring together.
Being mindful of mirroring in our day to day interactions can help us meet social conflict and tension with greater wisdom. If we view our emotions as signals indicating something inside us needs attention, our emotional reactions become opportunities for self-reflection and insight into our patterns and habits. By pausing to investigate these signals, we also become more aware of the pattern of additional inner experiences that arise in relationship. We may even begin to welcome these experiences as a useful mirror, reflecting important information about ourselves that enables us relate more skillfully.
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” – Carl Jung
Awareness of mirroring becomes especially important when we recognize that our own unfriendly or irritated nonverbal cues, such as facial expression, subtle body movements, posture, and vocal tone (which are largely unconscious) will eventually be mirrored by those we are interacting with, creating a negative feedback loop. Instead of seeing this for what it is (a survival instinct), our knee-jerk reaction is to make cynical assumptions and attributions about the other person or about the relationship. And when we broaden the scope of this pattern from individuals to groups, it’s no wonder we find ourselves in intractable conflict among social identities, across political parties, and between nations. As Carl Jung stated, “Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face.”
The “unknown face” Dr. Jung spoke of is our lack of self-awareness, and often also includes a lack of self-compassion or an attitude dominated by fear. The unexamined mind holds others to the same impossible standards we misguidedly set for ourselves. It also succumbs to the illusion that it is protecting us from some perceived threat. We can instead notice when unpleasant emotions arise in relationship, identify the thoughts or beliefs that create these emotions, and ask ourselves what personal vulnerabilities might be mirrored in these interactions. Reflecting on the most common perceptions I’ve encountered among clients that tend to lead to unpleasant social interactions, I offer the following examples of the corresponding beneficial qualities that might benefit from some strengthening (it will vary from person to person and there can be a lot of overlap in needs):
Someone perceived as:
May reflect my need for cultivating:
|pushy or unkind||clearer boundaries|
|careless or disappointing||flexibility or acceptance|
|gossipy or distracting||attentional control or self-discipline|
|annoying or boring||patience|
|exhausting or overwhelming||self-care or resilience|
|selfish or advantage taking||balance or equalization of self and others|
One possible strategy for reflecting on our afflictive emotions when they arise in social interactions is “the turnaround”, a method of inquiry described by author Byron Katie. First we identify the thought that underlies the emotion, which often involves a judgment. According to Katie, a judgment about another person or interaction can be turned around to the self, to the other, and/or to its opposite, so that we can “try it on” (or meditate upon it) in order to discover any insights that might be available. For example, the thought “They are annoying” can be turned around to:
- I too have annoyed people
- I may be annoying them
- They are not annoying; rather, sometimes I feel annoyed when I am with them
Through this mode of inquiry, we might learn to take things less personally, challenge any black and white thinking, let go of blame, accept complexity and ambiguity, and shift our energies to where we are most empowered.
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
– Derek Walcott, Love After Love
Jaffe, E. (2017). Mirror Neurons: How We Reflect on Behavior. Association for Psychological Science.
Meltzoff, A. (1990). Foundations for developing a concept of self: The role of imitation in relating self to other and the value of social mirroring, social modeling, and self-practice in infancy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. pp. 139–164.
Rajmohan, V., & Mohandas, E. (2007). Mirror neuron system. Indian journal of psychiatry, 49(1), 66–69.
Winerman, L. (2005). The Mind’s Mirror. American Psychological Association; Vol 36, No. 9.