Our Deforming Mirrors

The Pentitent Magdalen

Every one of us carries a deforming mirror in which we see ourselves as too small or too large, too fat or too thin…One discovers…that one does not need to remain in bondage to that first imprint made on childhood sensibilities, one need not be branded by the first pattern. Once the deforming mirror is smashed, there is the possibility of wholeness, there is the possibility of Joy. 

– Anaïs Nin

I really like this quote by Anaïs Nin. She captures one of the most common problems that affects many people who show up in my counselling practice: withering self criticism. They don’t just passively witness themselves through the deforming mirrors, they judge what they see.

Even worse, because the images are within, they can be relentless. They haunt one’s every turn. They drive one to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, choose the wrong careers, pass up advancements, or take an advancement that creates even more pressure. They also influence one’s closest relationships from behind the scenes, even influencing our choices of partners.

These deforming mirrors, of course, are all initially created by trauma. The definition of trauma is anything that happens to us that we are unable to metabolize. And the worst of these traumas are those that happened when we were young, before we had the consciousness to see them as something done to us. This is what Nin means about being branded by “the first pattern”: the pattern that was stitched in to our forming personalities—the original pattern of our abuse.

Of course, many of us can relate to these problems. Who does not carry some amount of shame—the feeling that something is not okay with us? For those of us who have been so afflicted, we don’t only carry the scars of our branding, we hide them as best we can, even from ourselves. It is no wonder we cannot feel the possibility of joy, because we carry dark secrets. We even may identify with them.

As Nin also stated, unless we each find a way to “smash” the mirror, in other words, do out “psychological work,” the images repeat, and in innumerable ways. Theses image are not static, but ghostly apparitions that come true again and again. Even if we don’t see them, we are flooded with emotions—indeed the very emotions of the original traumas that were buried so long ago. It is no wonder there is no possibility of joy or wholeness, for who could be their truest, fully-actualized self if they are so haunted?

Smashing the mirrors is not easy, for their images are so unbearable that they lie, at least partly, shielded from one’s view. This is where a good therapist comes in handy, and especially a Jungian or Depth therapist who is trained to work with the unconscious. For unless the mirror is found—in other words, brought to the light of consciousness—it can not be “smashed,” or healed.

One does not actually find a “mirror” to smash, one discovers its images. The smashing is in the act of bringing them to consciousness. As Jung described in his autobiography, during a time when he was in a profound personal crisis, “to the extent that I managed to translate the emotions into images—that is to say, to find the images which were concealed in the emotions—I was inwardly calmed and reassured” (p.177). Just the act of bringing the images and emotions into the light can be enough to profoundly change them. Consciousness, in and of itself, really can transform our suffering.

That said, in a lifetime of repetitions, each mirror creates a great many images. The psychological task is to discover each one and process it. Like all trauma work, it must all be known and held and grieved, for only then can we be healed, and a new chapter begin. In so doing the mirror isn’t as much smashed, but becomes what it always should have been, a repository of images from our pasts, not our futures.