Updated: Feb 9
BY JEN MAKIN CMHC
This concept is very tricky to understand. I will do my best to explain in lay’s terms and in a way that is applicable.
When we think about a mirror, we think about what reflects back at us. For instance, if you look directly into the mirror, you would see your face or possibly other parts of your body, such as your neck, hair or shoulders. This image reflects back to you.
In a narcissistic relationship, the narcissist acts as the mirror, and they want to see themselves reflecting back in your image. Meaning, the narcissist wants you to think like them, act like them, hold the same beliefs as them and overall reflect back to them what they want for you.
Sometimes it’s more clear to see through examples or pretend scenarios. So I am going to give three: a child-parent relationship, a husband-wife relationship and a boss-subordinate relationship.
This scenario will be via phone call.
Narcissistic Parent: Hi honey. How are things?
Adult Child: Things are good. How are you?
Parent: Good. How did you do on that big assignment?
Child: I am not sure which one you’re talking about Mom.
Parent: The big Anatomy one. Are things good in your dorm and everything?
Child: Yes mom. Things are good.
Parent: You don’t have to be so short with me. I just want to make sure that you’re keeping up on things.
Child: I know, Mom. I get it but the reality is that I’m in college and want to do some things on my own.
Parent: Yes, I understand that. But Dad and I are paying for this and it’s our right to make sure that your keeping up on your grades.
Child: I told you I would find other ways to fund it.
Parent: So then what, drop out of college? What a solution!
Child: Mom, I have to go.
Parent: Just like you to run away from everything.
*click (hang up)
Husband: You ready to go?
Narcissistic Wife: Yeah, you?
Husband: Yeah. I’ll go grab the car.
Wife: Wait … you’re not planning to wear that right?
Husband (looking down): What do you mean?
Wife: Joe, you don’t match. Like at all.
Husband: We are going to the movies, Amy. It’s dark in the theater.
Wife: Come’on please. Go change.
Husband: We will be late for our movie.
Wife: Well, I’m not leaving the house with you looking like a clown.
Husband: Whatever (and walks toward the bedroom to change)
Narcissistic Boss: Jamie, can I talk to you:
Subordinate: Sure. Now?
Boss: Yes, now.
Boss: We need to discuss your behavior at the company dinner with other reps last week.
Subordinate: OK. The one at Olive Garden?
Boss: Yes, was there another one?
Subordinate: No, just making sure. I am just confused. What do you want to talk about with it?
Boss: Well, we had several complaints about your jokes and sense of humor.
Subordinate: You did? OK.
Boss: And I personally overheard you telling some off-color jokes.
Subordinate: OK, I don’t remember telling off-color jokes but …
Boss: Well, I heard it and so did others. It doesn’t represent the company well.
Subordinate: I understand and I would never not represent the company well. It just doesn’t make sense. Everyone I spoke with has followed up with me and we have made second appointments. I thought we had good rapport …
Boss: Don’t let it happen again.
In all of those situations the narcissist is attempting to break down the narcissist into submission and to think and behave as they do, or mirror them. When the non-narcissist attempts to think for themselves the narcissist use some tactic or form of manipulation to get them back into their mirror. Such tactics may be shame, blame, coercion, bullying or a myriad of things.
It is hard to find your own identity when you are trying so hard to live up to the expectations of others. Figuring out something as simple as your favorite color, food, book or even an even more complex worldview can be a struggle to navigate and find answers to. If these things are not totally in compliance with the narcissist, things can go sideways fast. It can be mind scrambling and numbing.
The key to healing is to shatter the mirror. The first step is to identify the mirror.
1. MIRROR IDENTIFICATION
What are some things that you do that are outside of what you actually like? An example of this would be you love sports but you have been dragged to plays or other activities your whole life and so you weren’t able to explore this side of yourself. Once you ask yourself the question, when it is safe to, “Do I even like (plays)?” Your body will tell you the truth. NO.
You may realize that the mirror is greater than just one person. This is OK. As you recognize the vastness of the mirror, you can isolate it and allow yourself to see more clearly. Tell yourself the bold truth, without sugar coating anything. Come out of denial and live in honest transparency. This doesn’t mean honest exploitation. Again, this is your journey, your business and your self-discovery. You have the right to keep this journey private.
2. IDENTIFY YOUR REFLECTION
Now that you are figuring out your YES and NO responses to the mirror, you can begin to identify who you are, including your worldview, likes and dislikes with the ability to freely say yes or no to life’s requests without any undue pressure. It’s never too old to learn something new. Explore and feel free to decide for yourself what your interests are.
This takes time. You have spent a lifetime looking into a distorted mirror and now seeing clearly can be terrifying and even painful. Recognizing that you may be in a career you hate, relationships that don’t serve you or stuck in a rut with your own creativity can be a silent grief. ALlowing yourself to be honest is the first step. Recognize the disconnect and fiercely move forward towards your truest self.
3. RESIST THE PULL
The narcissist may feel you pull away as you seek to find your own identity. It may become hard to resist the pull of the mirror. It’s easy to slip back into old ways, such as taking accountability for other people’s reactions to your choices. Like I have said before, it is your responsibility to have proper conduct, meaning, when you set a boundary you use strong language at times but never using abusive language or manipulation. Never give the narcissist any fuel to add to their slow, but ever burning, fire. Don’t fight fire with fire, you’ll just get burned.
Like the ocean’s pull, oftentimes you may not even feel it. You may believe you are simply standing in the shallowest of ocean water but then you look down and realize that your feet are buried in the sand, trapped. Keep your feet moving and mind active. Don’t allow the ocean waves to lull you to sleep. Wake up and live your truth. Identify what brings you joy and happiness and shatter what doesn’t.
4. SEEK FEEDBACK
Sometimes as we are finding ourselves, it's good practice to ask others around us what they believe we like. What have they noticed when you spent time together? When did they notice that you seemed happiest? What brought you to life? Did they notice times when you were sad? Any number of questions you come up with can begin this process of receiving feedback. The key is to seek it outside of the mirror’s edge.
Doing this exploration with trusted loved ones can deepen your relationship with your true self. It can be painful, but like a bandaid, rip it off and then allow it to heal, re-applying the bandaid with proper ointment (reality) before placing a clean bandaid on. Living in distortion is painful and dosing yourself slowly with reality serum can be the beginning of seeing.
5. SHATTER THE MIRROR
For once and for all, shatter the mirror. Live life on your terms. Identify when the pull happens and recognize it, but don’t allow it to pull you back to your old self. The mirror will never stop attempting to reflect its desires. The people in your life that hold up the mirror will continue to try to put it in front of your face. Carry a hammer and don’t be afraid to shatter it.
Some example of this may be:
I know you thought I liked country music, but I don't. I prefer rap.
I get that this may feel confusing to see me in this shirt, but I really like it.
I know I may have said that I liked seafood in the past, but I really don’t. I am actually a vegetarian now.
I understand that this is new for you to hear me talk like this, but I don’t mind curse words. I don’t mean to offend you, and I appreciate you allowing me to be myself.
This process is a lifelong battle. Some people say that when they go home, or back to their family of origin’s home as an adult, they feel the pull to go back into old assigned roles. If this is the case, there could be narcissistic mirroring. The key is to have a plan before going. Having a deep understanding that only you can be in charge of your YES or NO is key. Putting that decision on others is taxing for both you and them.
Like anything, overcoming the mirror takes practice. Once you feel ready, give yourself a small task and then take notes after. Identify how your body felt when you felt the pull. Did your eyes start to sting? Heart start to race? Did you mind go blank? Recognize it. Like exposure therapy, this process can take trial and error. Make sure that you have a strong support system to run things by once the experiment is over.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
It can be hard to tell when we are mirroring. Some things that have been so programmed within us that they come very naturally. That being said, when we are away from the mirror, we can better identify what is authentically us and what is mirroring.
One example of this could be the type of music you like. It was acceptable to listen to one kind of music growing up, but secretly you preferred another type. Whether shamed into submission or just trying to keep the peace, you chose to listen to the preferred type.
Another example is how you dress. Maybe as a child a certain way to dress was “acceptable,” when in reality you strongly preferred another way. You strongly disliked dresses and dressing fancy, but you were forced to. Now, as an adult, you’re slowly finding your style despite the comments from the mirror.
Getting out of the mirror takes time. Be patient with yourself as it doesn’t happen overnight. Allow yourself time to heal, trust yourself and move forward in confidence. Recognize and honor your feelings when you identify that you have been emotionally injured. Process your feelings with safe people and recognize when boundaries need to be set and set them appropriately, without excuses or apologies.
Learn to be bold without being cold. Coldness is a narcissistic weapon. Instead, be warm but clear intentions.
Find your voice and never lose it.