Upon reflection…

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us 
To see oursels as ithers see us! ”

Robert Burns, To A Louse

My favourite line from my homeland’s national bard. It is part of Scottish schooling to learn and recite Burns form a very young age where we would win certificates and the teary-eyed pride of tartan grandparents. In particular, this line struck me like no other, nor any ever since. For as long as I can remember, it has inspired me to think about the concept of ‘self’ and all those other the ‘selves’ that engage in a collaborative perceptual illusion of perceiving one another. The notion that there is any ‘self’ to perceive is seriously iffy in itself as there is really very little consistency to go on beyond memories that link our experiences together across time. But this is a huge topic so here I’m focussing in on the idea of how we think of ourselves, according to reflections around us – what we see and what we think others see.

Self as a reference:
When we look in the mirror, or any reflective surface we actually see a reverse of what is arguably ‘real’ and what others see when looking straight at us. Out left becomes our right and vice versa, so right away, we have this whole self concept backwards. Literally.

Perhaps this why so many of us find it uncomfortable looking at photos of ourself – we are the ‘wrong’ way around. Of course, looking in the mirror is always subject to light and how shadows are cast, making dramatic differences in our bone structure and fullness of face – try it yourself, taking a torch and experimenting with different angles in the mirror.

Paranormal enthusiasts often engage in psychomanteum (‘mirror gazing’)  where they simply gaze at their reflection to watch their own features morph seemingly in to the faces of departed others, looking back at us through the mirror from some other dimension. Psychology speculates that the perception of our faces morphing is perhaps less to do with ghosts or spirits and instead is due to the Troxler Effect (where our attention starts to fade or blur information surrounding our point of focus) coupled with our evolved sense of facial detection – an innate, unconscious threat finding ability – where possible faces and especially unfamiliar ones, can be seen hiding in any surface.  Better to mistakenly see the face of a lion hiding in a bush and run, than to simply see a quirky arrangement of leaves and get eaten. Mirror Gazing is quite a remarkable phenomenon, whether you believe in ghosts or not, the morphing will still likely work for you. I have engaged in it and also guided ‘ghost hunters’ in this with interesting results. Give it a go and ‘see’ who you become and, try to determine the exact point at which you are no longer ‘you’…

So, who we are is not a constant and is as changing as the sky upon the surface of water. As Narcis would testify, gazing too closely and too long can be fatal yet, perhaps the deeper wisdom is that self-reflection ultimately leads to the complete dissolution or ‘death’ of self. Rather than being a cautionary tale or Vanity issue, the story of Narcis is one of enlightenment – there is no “you”. 

Others as a reference:
Our relationships also act as mirrors and when our relationships change for whatever reason, we can feel hurt or compromised. We were seeing ourselves based on how those others treated us – Not how they actually saw or regarded us. This way, self-image is built on assumptions about the behaviour of others and their motivations toward us. Therefore when people leave you, you hurt and feel you must have done something ‘wrong’ to bring about the change – perhaps you are no longer attractive/ useful to them. When they seem not to care, it’s really about them – not you. The chances are it is their reflection of themselves that has inspired the change, not you. 

This can be really challenging as our sense of self according to others is what often provides our self-confidence. Like two mirrors eternally reflecting each other, trying to establish any truth  to which way round reality is, is impossible. So often as reflections of ourselves change we and to focus on questioning who we are – and often overlook the changes occurring in the perspective holder. Change is reflected and so we may in fact have an altered perspective of them too. 

 If friends or lovers or relations should ever leave us, it is time for multi-source ‘reflection’. We can reflect on who we are and build a more positive image than ever before by looking and examining a number of reflective sources from the past, present and even intended future:

  • history of projects/ career (what was the motivation/result)
  • History of friendships (how the begun/ended)
  • What/who is important to us now? (What/who do we think of first In the morning and last at night)
  • What do we aspire to? (Not ambition as this relies on reflection on /and comparison with others… see blog on aspiration V ambition here) and what holds us back or pushes us forward? 

It all leads me to think again that there is little point in worrying about what others think of us – and that anything other than self-acceptance is a reflection of egoic concern and pulling in the opposite direction of growth.


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