Mirrors are so commonly found in every bedroom, living room, and bathroom that it’s easy for their usage to slip by unnoticed by the conscious mind. Unfortunately, the behaviors that we don’t examine can often become compulsive habits — actions that don’t stem from conscious desire.
If your goal is to act completely freely and spontaneously in each moment, without the cloud of self-consciousness hanging over your movements, reducing the compulsive habit of taking a peek at the looking glass might be worth trying.
Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to go a few days without checking my reflection (say, while camping or at a weekend festival), I’ve found myself feeling intensely free in each moment, not having that video stream running in my head of how I appear moment-to-moment. During these times, I wondered what was at play here (besides spending a considerable amount of time outside and away from screens). After some experimenting, I found that during these breaks from mirrors, my memory of the image in the reflection began to fade a bit, allowing my focus to turn to what’s actually happening in the external world in that moment.
The theory here is that every time you look in the mirror, you’re giving your mind a new frame of reference of what you look like, reinforcing the image of how it thinks you appear when you’re acting. This self-perception, or self-consciousness, is often played in your mind as a third person point-of-view video of what you’re doing in the present. Armed with this updated image of self, that video becomes vivid and difficult to escape, preventing freedom in our actions.
The habit can be intensified when it’s combined with self-talk, regardless of whether that’s negative or positive. Positive self-talk can reinforce the act of tying self-worth to external appearance. An individual’s worth isn’t tied to the arrangement of flesh on a body, and finding confidence through vanity can be covering up deeper rooted self-esteem issues.
On the flip side, negative self-talk — criticizing features of your body or face — can obviously be extremely destructive to self-confidence. It’s both tying self-worth to external appearance, and then attacking that self-worth based off of this false precept.
It’s only natural. We’re obviously bombarded with advertised images of people with flawless external appearances. Tons of money goes into the research behind using these advertisements to psychologically drive us to feel a certain way, and desire that look. Once that desire is in us, we check to see if we’re fulfilling that desire every so often by updating the mental image of what we look like.
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This study found that staring in the mirror for prolonged periods can even increase signs of anxiety and distress in healthy people that were satisfied with their appearance to begin with.
It’s not often that we actually need to look in the mirror. Do it before you leave the house in the morning. Maybe once during the day. Most of the time, we appear just fine. In those rare instances we don’t, trust that people around you will be comfortable enough with you to say something. If you don’t trust that, ask someone around you to tell you.
I challenge you to try this exercise: go 5 days without compulsively checking yourself in the mirror. If you have a full body mirror in your room, cover it up with an adhesive drawer liner. See how your attention turns to the world around you during this time. I promise— the external world is much more interesting.
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