Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Having brushed my teeth and washed my face, I settle into my chair in front of the mirror. Reluctantly opening my eyes, I am greeted by dark circles and berate myself for not prioritizing sleep. Rubbing lotion onto my face, I close my eyes tightly to avoid seeing the awkward constriction of my tired facial muscles. Brushing my hair, my eyes dart away from the mirror, and I am frustrated at the sight of the serum I forgot to apply. The tangles in my hair annoy me even more, and I look away as I painfully brush my hair faster. As I begin my day, I’m disappointed in myself.


Person looks into a mirror with pink thought clouds above their head

Person looks into a mirror with pink thought clouds above their head


Let’s paint an alternate picture.


Having brushed my teeth and washed my face, I settle into my chair with the mirror in front of me. I silently acknowledge the dark circles around my eyes and make a mental note to try to get to bed a little earlier tonight. As I rub lotion into my face, the image of my facial muscles relax, and I am reminded that, even as an incredibly stressed undergraduate student, I am still physiologically capable of relaxing. Making eye contact with myself as I pull my brush through my tangled hair, I remind myself that I am a human being deserving of kindness and start to brush a little gentler. As I begin my day, I’m centered.


It is undeniably awkward to look in the mirror. At the first mention of “mirror meditation,” which is when we look at our reflections and perform introspection, many of us cringe at the thought of having to spend more time looking at ourselves. However, if we are able to transcend this discomfort, mirrors can be an immensely helpful self-care tool. Looking at your reflection has been shown to promote character development through increased self-awareness and heightened self-compassion [1]. In the mirror, we appear as corporeal beings and are reminded that we are not just our thoughts but are physically present as well. Humans tend to hold others to a lesser standard than they hold themselves to [2]. Therefore we are inclined to offer ourselves milder criticism when looking in the mirror [2]. Mirrors display a real-time picture of ourselves at a given moment, causing us to evaluate and alter behaviors accordingly. Bags under our eyes, for example, signal us to rest more in the example above. Furthermore, mirror meditation has been shown to amplify and enhance the effects of other therapies such as positive self-talk therapy or body-image therapy [3-5].


When I think of comforting myself, I envision heating pads, warm tea, foam rollers, and other related accessories; however, many contemporary studies suggest that I should add a mirror to that list. A 2021 experiment conducted at Osaka University reported that seeing your own face can activate dopamine pathways, generating feelings of comfort [6]. In this study, researchers conducted an experiment with 22 women ages 20 to 25 in order to investigate the brain’s response to three facial conditions: seeing one’s own face, a distorted version of one’s face, and somebody else’s face. Photos were distorted with a beauty retouching app by severely manipulating the size and altitude of eyes, cheekbones, lips, and other facial features. Participants were shown each image for 25 milliseconds, which is considered subliminal because it cannot be perceived by the conscious mind, and for 500 milliseconds, which is considered supraliminal because it can be perceived by the conscious mind. An fMRI machine was then used to measure changes in the functional brain activity of each participant after seeing each photo. fMRI results showed that seeing an image of oneself, both in a subliminal and supraliminal way, activated the ventral tegmental area, a part of the dopamine pathway [6]. Seeing one’s own face, regardless of how long, increased dopamine levels.


Cup of tea with a cloud of smoke


We often use a mirror for a quick check on our appearance when we are about to go on a date or when we think we may have lipstick staining our teeth. But how often do you use your mirror as a quick check on your health and well-being? People tend to reflect their internal troubles externally, and mirrors can help them check for physical manifestations of poor wellness, such as dark circles, that prompt changes in our routines. In fact, fMRI results from the aforementioned study at Osaka University found that seeing a distorted image of oneself sparks activity in the amygdala, the area of the brain that regulates fear [6]. This is extremely relevant to mirror meditation, as it shows we are physiologically affected by abnormal facial presentations, which one may notice during mirror meditation. In her 2019 TED Talk, Dr. Tara Well, a pioneer of mirror meditation and psychology professor at Barnard College, reported an emotional flood of fear and shock when she looked in the mirror, unable to recognize herself one day because she hadn’t realized how exhausted she really was [7]. This parallels the findings of the Osaka University study; Dr. Well’s amygdala was likely triggered when she saw a distorted image of herself since she reported feeling fear [6,7]. Mirrors show us pictures of ourselves in real time, so we are forced to face how we appear to the world. As described in the aforementioned study, seeing that we appear differently than we realize can cause feelings of fear through activation of the amygdala [6]. Though this may seem daunting, it is an opportunity to reflect on why we appear atypically, whether it be a stressor or a looming illness, and make positive changes.


It is important to note, however, that in order to benefit from mirror meditation, one must transcend the initial discomfort that comes with looking at themself and shift their perspective so that the mirror is a place of introspection instead of criticism [8]. Essentially, one needs to make their mirror a safe place, where they can recognize both their typical facial presentation to find comfort in its familiarity and their atypical facial presentations to take action against them [9].


Getting comfortable in front of the mirror may feel awkward at first, but many self-care methods involve breaking down this sense of comfort. Positive self-talk is another self-care method that might feel odd at first, but results from a recent study show that the benefits outweigh the awkwardness [4]. Researchers in Italy found that looking in a mirror enhances the efficacy of positive self-talk when compared to positive self-talk without a mirror [4]. First, participants were divided into three groups and asked to recall a time they criticized themselves. This was done to simulate a self-critical mental state, which is when positive self-talk would be used organically. Then, they were asked to choose four soothing phrases they would say to a friend who was being overly self-critical. Group A repeated their chosen phrases to themselves in front of the mirror; Group B looked in the mirror silently; and Group C repeated the phrases without a mirror [4].


Group A, the group engaging in positive self-talk in the mirror, reported the highest “soothing positive affect” and the best (lowest) heart rate variability when compared to Group B and Group C [4]. The goal of all compassion-focused interventions is to increase activation in the positive affect system, prompted by signals of social connectedness and safeness [10-12]. From infancy, humans learn to identify soothing social stimuli such as warm voices or cuddling [11]. Specialized systems recognize these stimuli and act as major regulators of arousal and emotions throughout life [11]. Thus, the soothing positive affect is an excellent indicator of the efficacy of positive self-talk because it is a universal human experience, familiar from birth [4]. Furthermore, heart rate variability is an extremely relevant quantitative measure because it is connected to the emotional state of compassion, and the goal of positive self-talk is to amplify one’s compassion towards themself [4]. This study supports that mirror meditation has versatile mental and physical health benefits, as it is not only soothing but can also calm our heart rates, which is useful after a particularly stressful situation. Moreover, it shows the power of coupling a mirror with meditation over only meditating or only looking in the mirror.



Journal with ileisms written in it, surrounded by pens, a succulent, and a cup of tea

Journal with ileisms written in it, surrounded by pens, a succulent, and a cup of tea


Another key benefit of mirror meditation is that it allows one to change their perspective. Did you know that when Elmo and his friends on Sesame Street refer to themselves in the third person, they are actually practicing a strategy of self-acknowledgement called illeism? Illeism is the practice of speaking about oneself in the third person and is often cited in the context of examining a situation from a third-person perspective, like when Elmo says things such as “Elmo feels hungry” or “Elmo is happy” [1]. Research has shown that when retelling a conflict from a third-person perspective, people tend to be more humble and more likely to consider the perspectives of others [1]. Our reflections in the mirror also allow us to mimic the same unique third-person perspective as illeism. It has been shown that we hold others to a lesser standard than we hold ourselves to [2]. Therefore, when we temporarily view ourselves as separate beings through mirror meditation, it pushes us to be more self-aware and mild in our self-critiquing [1, 3].

Recently, psychologists have been trying to show that illeism amplifies characteristics indicative of growth, such as wisdom. In one such study, a research team randomly split a sample of 120 participants into two groups to investigate the impact of illeism on their individual intellects [1]. Each participant wrote an initial diary entry which was consequently qualified with a wisdom test. One group recorded these events in the third person via illeism and the other in the first person. Researchers were scoring open-mindedness, intellectual humility, and consideration of multiple viewpoints when conducting the wisdom test. Each participant kept a diary of their days—highlighting difficult encounters or altercations—for four weeks. At the end of the study, participants using illeism in their diaries scored higher on the wisdom test than they had at the beginning of the study, while the other group showed no change in their wisdom test scores [1].

Illeism creates a type of internal self-awareness, which is when we actualize the way we treat ourselves. External self-awareness, by contrast, is when we actualize how we appear to others. For true growth to occur, one must enhance both their internal and external self-awareness [7]. Mirrors are already used in clinical practice and research to enhance external self-awareness and have been shown to produce more compassionate and empathetic decision making [4]. This is because in a mirror we appear as corporeal beings separate from the “ourselves” we speak to in our minds [2]. In the mirror, we are forced to recognize ourselves as a person, causing us to treat ourselves like a person: with respect and kindness [3]. For instance, recall the earlier example of painfully yanking a brush through my hair in the morning. If I were looking in the mirror, it would be more difficult for me to abuse myself that way because I’d have to watch myself wince in pain. Mirrors produce a state of external self-awareness by showing us how we appear on the outside, and illeism creates a state of internal self-awareness by reflecting how we’re treating ourselves on the inside. Because mirror meditation promotes illeism, it heightens both our internal and external self-awareness.


The empathy we extend to ourselves through the mirror can be even further enhanced with eye contact. Eye contact is an imperative part of mirror meditation since it, along with other gazes and various facial expressions, greatly impacts how we craft our empathetic response [13]. Eye contact is also one of the soothing stimuli humans learn to notice from birth that yields positive effects [10-12]. Therefore, making eye contact with ourselves during mirror meditation may have such a profound impact because of its psychophysiological nature [13]. Dr. Well also recommends making direct eye contact in the mirror to ease the discomfort one often experiences when beginning their journey with mirror meditation [14]. Dr. Well further explains that a “soft gaze” into your own eyes can be instrumental in treating yourself more kindly [9].


Brain reflected in a mirror, with the amygdala

and ventral tegmental area labeled

Brain reflected in a mirror, with the amygdala and ventral tegmental area labeled

Social anxiety is more prominent than ever in the young adult demographic, and students everywhere are searching for appropriate methods to combat this pertinent affliction [15]. Mirror meditation has been shown to provide a therapeutic effect for those afflicted with social anxiety as they often have a difficult time recognizing their own emotions and those of others [8]. Mirror meditation works to combat this in two ways: helping patients recognize their own emotions by viewing their self-face in the mirror and simulating face-to-face contact or sometimes even conversation with others [9]. However, experts hold varying opinions on whether or not to speak during mirror meditation; there are both positive effects of coupling positive self talk with mirror meditation as well as negative ones, such as possible distraction from deep meditation [4, 14]. For example, Dr. Well recommends performing mirror meditation in silence because talking can be a distraction from the act of looking at ourselves [14]. It has been found that through this deep, silent introspection, patients with diagnosed social anxiety are able to better recognize their own emotions and soothe themselves [3, 9].


Mirror meditation has many uses for those of all ages, but it can be especially useful in the routine life of a college student. Its beauty lies in its simplicity. To begin, locate a safe space with a wall-mounted or stationary mirror. Dr. Well recommends avoiding the bathroom as mirror meditation should be about introspection and not vanity or grooming [14]. Similarly, avoid phone mirrors because they are distracting. Start by just silently watching yourself breathe in the mirror. If it is uncomfortable to gaze into your own eyes at first, watch your collarbone rise and fall as you breathe before graduating to a soft gaze into your eyes. The recommended time for a mirror meditation session is ten minutes, but if that doesn’t feel right you can always start small and build up to longer periods of time [8].


For further information on mirror meditation, I recommend reading Dr. Tara Well’s new book, Mirror Meditation: The Power of Neuroscience and Self-Reflection to Overcome Self-Criticism, Gain Confidence, and See Yourself with Compassion, which includes her research, observations, and tips on getting the most out of mirror meditation.


References


1. Grossmann, I., & Kross, E. (2014). Exploring Solomon's paradox: self-distancing eliminates the self-other asymmetry in wise reasoning about close relationships in younger and older adults. Psychological science, 25(8), 1571–1580. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614535400


2. Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Batts Allen, A., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(5), 887–904. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.92.5.887


3. Vinai, P., Speciale, M., Vinai, L., Vinai, P., Bruno, C., Ambrosecchia, M., Ardizzi, M., Lackey, S., Ruggiero, G. M., & Gallese, V. (2015). The clinical implications and neurophysiological background of using self-mirroring techniques to enhance the identification of emotional experiences: An example with rational emotive behavior therapy. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 33(2), 115–133. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10942-015-0205-z


4. Petrocchi, N., Ottaviani, C., & Couyoumdjian, A. (2017). Compassion at the mirror: Exposure to a mirror increases the efficacy of a self-compassion manipulation in enhancing soothing positive affect and heart rate variability. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12(6), 525–536. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2016.1209544


5. 10. Windheim, K., Veale, D., & Anson, M. (2011). Mirror gazing in body dysmorphic disorder and healthy controls: Effects of duration of gazing. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 49(9), 555–564. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2011.05.003


6. Ota, C., & Nakano, T. (2021). Self-Face Activates the Dopamine Reward Pathway without Awareness. Cerebral Cortex, 31(10), 4420–4426. https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhab096


7. Well, T. (2019, November). What Mirror Meditation Can Teach You [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/tara_well_what_mirror_meditation_can_teach_you


8. Well, T. (August 5, 2018). Why Is Seeing Your Own Reflection So Important? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-clarity/201808/why-is-seeing-your-own-reflection-so-important


9. Well, T. (June 29, 2021) Seeing Your Own Face Activates Dopamine Pathways. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-clarity/202106/seeing-your-own-face-activates-dopamine-pathways


10. Carter, M., & Maxwell, K. (1998). Promoting interaction with children using augmentative communication through a peer‐directed intervention. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 45(1), 75-96.


11. Depue, R. A., & Morrone-Strupinsky, J. V. (2005). A neurobehavioral model of affiliative bonding: implications for conceptualizing a human trait of affiliation. The Behavioral and brain sciences, 28(3), 313–395. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X05000063


12. Wang, Q., & Fivush, R. (2005). Mother–child conversations of emotionally salient events: exploring the functions of emotional reminiscing in European‐American and Chinese families. Social Development, 14(3), 473-495.


13. Cowan, D. G., Vanman, E. J., & Nielsen, M. (2014). Motivated empathy: The mechanics of the empathic gaze. Cognition and Emotion, 28(8), 1522–1530. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2014.890563


14. T. Well, personal communication, October 26, 2021


15. Jefferies, P., & Ungar, M. (2020). Social anxiety in young people: A prevalence study in seven countries. PLOS ONE, 15(9), e0239133. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0239133




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