What do you see when you look in the mirror?

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It’s the time of year for reflection. A moment to look back at the year that has gone and look forward to the year ahead. Reflection is an important piece of internal feedback – a way of learning and growing from my mistakes, noticing and celebrating my successes, and spotting whether I’ve wandered off my chosen path.

But reflection is more art than science. When I look in the mirror I can’t assume that what I see is an accurate representation of reality. My visual system is inaccurate and incomplete. My range of vision is limited to a narrow spectrum of visible light. My human eyes can only see less than one percent of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. And I take the information that is in front of my eyes and I mould it. I don’t see I perceive. I make the information meet my expectations. I fill in the gaps. I can be blind to the things I don’t want to see. I create the image just as much as I see it.

Because we perceive rather than see visual ‘illusions’ are everywhere. There’s even one in my latest chapter. Having drawn the image below I thought ‘I’ve made a mistake – that ‘rewind arrow’ doesn’t line up properly either side of the elastic band’ – but it does. This is just my eyes playing tricks on me – filling in a blank and leading me astray.

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The openness to bias and interpretation is even greater when I’m doing something as abstract as reflecting on myself. When I reflect on myself I won’t be able to see everything – there will be things that are simply beyond my vision. And the things that I am able to see will be moulded by my expectations. I don’t see my reflection – I create it. And what do I create? Well just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder so is ugliness and unworthiness. If I focus on all the things I haven’t done over the last year, all of my failings, all of the many ways in which I am not good enough – then that’s what I’ll see staring back at me. If I only focus on my successes, on my strengths, and remain blind to areas of improvement then that’s what I’ll see staring back at me. Neither image will be accurate. Both will be of my own creation.   

Given that reflection is an important skill how can I reflect in a way that is useful and helps me grow? One of the first things I can do is to notice how I approach the task. A key question isn’t What do I see? but What do I look for? When I look back on my year what do I naturally focus on? Do I immediately focus on what I achieved rather than what I experienced? Do I immediately focus on ‘areas for improvement’ and forget to celebrate or even notice the successes? Does the experience of reflecting feel like getting a report card from a particularly strict school teacher or a glowing song of praise from a close friend? Knowing the answer to this helps me be aware of my own bias.

Having noticed how I automatically reflect the next useful thing I can ask myself is ‘How do I want to reflect?’ Whatever my natural default reflection process is – it doesn’t have to be that way. I can consciously choose to treat myself like a parent who can never be pleased or a supportive friend who wants the best for me. I can choose what questions I ask when I look in the mirror.

If I want the ultimate lesson in reflection I can turn to the ultimate moment of reflection. One day I may be looking back at myself and reflecting on my life in the knowledge that I am near the end of it.  In that moment how do I hope I approach the mirror? Will I have learned to reflect with awareness and self-compassion? Or will I still focus on the many things I have failed to do? The many ways in which I am not good enough? My hope is that I’ll focus on the questions that are truly important to me. Did I live my life in accordance with my values? Did I live my life as if I was the person I aspire to be? It’s the answers to these questions that help me grow and plan my path ahead. 

This blog post was featured on the guardian website – you can read it here

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