Essay

The World is Not Your Mirror

By Duff McDuffee on May 3rd, 2012

hall of mirrors

“The world is your mirror” is a popular phrase in self-help culture. In reality the world is not a reflective glass surface. So this is a metaphor that means something like, “instead of blaming others, examine your own thoughts and behaviors and how you are contributing to the problem.”

This can be a very helpful strategy in many contexts. For instance, if you have the same kinds of problems in intimate relationships with partner after partner, finding yet another partner (“The One”) without determining your role in the situation is not likely to be a good approach. A better strategy is to introspect and change your behavior first. For instance you might ask yourself, “how do I manage to choose the same kind of partner again and again? How can I improve myself in this situation instead of blaming the other person? In what ways am I contributing to creating this problem?” This approach is commonly referred to as taking responsibility and is a sign of maturity.

The phrase “the world is your mirror” can also be used to avoid blame or responsibility. For instance if you confront a person about their harmful behavior and they deny causing harm, saying it’s your fault because “the world is your mirror,” they are implying that you must have created the situation somehow and that you should introspect and change your behavior instead of confronting them about theirs. This is commonly referred to as denial and is a sign of immaturity.

Some people always turn things back onto themselves and never confront anyone else. I did this for many years. This is commonly referred to as being a doormat and is a sign of a lack of assertiveness.

Too Much of a Good Thing

I’ve observed that in personal development culture, all too often people take a good idea and push it way too far. While it can be helpful to examine one’s own map of reality and habitual behaviors for areas of improvement, believing that the world actually is your mirror can trap you in a narcissistic hall of mirrors. Everywhere seeing only your own reflection, a person can become completely alienated in their own reality, unable to see anything but themselves. (Some Beyond Growth readers may recall that I’ve covered this before.)

Here’s a quotation that illustrates this sort of thing (source):

“All of your relationships are inside of you. There’s no relationship out there. There is only the reflection of what you are doing inside yourself and how you’re dealing with relationships inside of you, not out there. It may look as if a relationship is you with another person or with other people, but it is always you within you, and relationships are one of the greatest mirrors you can have for yourself-your patterns, your beliefs, your conditioned responses.”

-John-Roger

First off, this quotation begins with a direct falsehood. Relationships between people are between real people, not merely ideas. We have ideas about our relating and ideas about other people, but the relating and people are actually real and not reducible to our ideas about them. While I’ve found that improving relationships with various parts of myself has improved my relationships with other people, it does not follow from doing so that I don’t really relate with other people or that other people are really just projections of my consciousness.

To give an example, in second grade I had a crush on a girl for the first time. Since I never approached this girl and shared with her about my feelings, my idea of our relationship became very distorted compared to the actual relating we did. Our actual relating consisted of being in some of the same classes, but did not go much beyond that. My fantasy of our relationship on the other hand involved a mutual romantic interest. If my relationships were only inside of me, I couldn’t even make this comparison between the idea of our relating and our actual relating.

This narcissistic reductionism traps us in a hall of mirrors, the exact opposite of the purpose for saying the metaphor “the world is your mirror.” The whole point is to see that we are driven by our maps of reality but that the map is not the territory. Our ideas about the world are not the world. If our ideas about reality were equivalent to reality, then there would be no need to introspect because it would be impossible to update them to be more accurate and useful.

The world is not our mirror–the world is the world. The truth is we can never completely know the world, and the world was not created for our introspection or our personal growth. Introspection and personal growth are choices we make in response to life situations, and can be very helpful at times. But we should not confuse our choices for some Ultimate Truth. If I love others only because I believe they are truly part of me or were sent here to teach me about me, that’s not love at all, but selfishness disguised as love.

Other People are Other People

The one distinction that has most improved my intimate relationships more than anything else is to treat the other person as an other, as precisely not me. Other people have their own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, reasons for doing things, personality styles, and personal histories. Other people make their own decisions, which means I cannot force anyone to love me, or want to be in a relationship with me. I also cannot force anyone to change. This means giving up on any attempt to manipulate someone to be more like how I’d want an “ideal” partner to be. I can make requests, but the other person can just as easily deny my requests. Most of the time when people deny my requests, they provide me with information that I wasn’t aware of, reasons why the request I was making doesn’t fit for them. When I consider the other to be other, I am more open to actually listening to this information, even though it is often difficult, precisely because I cannot know it a priori.

Many times when people are in arguments they will say things like, “I just don’t understand why he did that.” But rarely do they say next, “…and I’d like to know, so I’m going to go and ask him.” But since other people are not reflections of me, I can’t know until I ask. Even more disturbing is that they might also not know, for as human beings we are also strangers to ourselves, no matter how much introspection we’ve done or how many personal development workshops we’ve attended. Our inner workings are forever mysterious, changing, and never quite completely fit our ideas about them.

Here’s an exercise for you that I’ve found interesting:

1. Close your eyes and allow an image of a tree to come to mind. Notice all the details about it–the shape, the size, etc.

2. Now go outside and compare your image of a tree to a few actual trees. Notice what’s different from your image compared to the real trees you see. Focus especially on subtle details that are different or that you didn’t expect.

3. Now think about some quality of a person you know that you consider to be true and unchanging. For instance perhaps you think of a friend as quick to become angry.

4. When you are actually interacting with that person, look for what’s different from your idea about this person and the quality you thought was true and unchanging. Again, focus on subtle details that are different from how you imagined this person to be.

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