I had strange dreams about mirrors and reflections last night and woke early in the darkness. I lay there for a while, semi-conscious, daydreaming about the brightness of the moon and how it reflects the light of the sun. I prayed silently, instinctively, ‘Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, may my life reflect the light of God’. Then I woke up.
I do think there’s something profound about mirrors and reflection as psychological, cultural and spiritual phenomena. The recent fantasy film, Snow White and the Huntsman created a vivid portrayal of a tormented queen returning repeatedly to seek reassurance in the mirror of legend: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’
The queen’s sense of self, security and value were based on the response from the mirror. It’s as if she didn’t really know who she was, how she was, without reference to its external perspective. According to psychodynamic and social psychological theories, our sense of self is affected by the responses we evoke and encounter in others.
Take, for instance, a young child who gazes into its mother’s face. If it sees consistent expressions of warmth, attentiveness, affection and happiness, it may well develop the sense that ‘I am loved’ and, thereby, ‘I am loveable.’ If on the other hand the child consistently sees looks of disapproval, it may develop a negative sense of self.
Psychodynamic theorists (e.g. Winnicott) call this process ‘mirroring’.Just as a person knows what they look like by glancing in a mirror, a child sees something of itself, learns something about itself, its relationships and its place in the world, by observing what is mirrored in the face of others. It’s a process that continues throughout our lives.
This phenomenon has deep existential implications. Corinne Taylor in her paper, You are the fairest of them all, comments on what may happen if a mother lacks connection with the child and fails to offer mirroring: ‘Perhaps a mother with a rigid face gives the baby the sense of never having being at all.’* Its very existence may feel negated.
Richard Rohr in his book, The Naked Now draws spiritual parallels, inviting us to consider what we see in God’s face, his gaze, as we gaze at him in prayer. It’s as if God is the ultimate, absolute parent figure in whose face we are able to gain a true sense of who we actually are. A distorted image of God will create a distorted image of self.
Projection is a related psychological process whereby we project aspects of ourselves (often aspects we feel uncomfortable with) onto other people or even onto God. I may be aware of and focus on characteristics of others that I’m not aware of or deny in myself, even though others may recognise them as typical of me.
If I grow in awareness of my projections, I can grow in awareness of myself by noticing what I notice in others. It’s another form of mirroring. As a leader and coach, I can draw important lessons too: what do others see in my face; do my responses help others develop a truer and more-loved sense of self; do I reflect the light of God?
At some level, the Haiti earthquake of 2010 shook all of us. Measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, the quake caused 250,000 homes and 30,000 commercial buildings to collapse or suffer damage. 316,000 people died, 300,000 were injured and another 1,000,000 were left homeless. It was an urban natural disaster of epic proportions. Traumatic media images showed people struggling to escape and rescue others from the ruins. Relief agencies reported severe logistical problems with providing aid because transport and communications infrastructure had been destroyed.
As hours and days progressed, people started to ask questions. Why had the earthquake been so devastating? Would it have had the same effect in richer countries where buildings are designed and constructed to withstand such impacts? What were the underlying causes? It transpired that Haiti had no government-regulated building codes. Houses were built wherever they could fit, often on steep mountain slopes with insufficient foundations. Limited access to clean water and proper sanitation exacerbated risk of disease in the aftermath of the quake.
This catastrophe illustrated all too painfully a simple predictive equation used by relief agencies throughout the world: hazard + vulnerability = disaster risk. A powerful earthquake (hazard) hits a densely populated urban area with poor housing (vulnerability) and disaster results. A disaster reveals underlying vulnerability to potential and actual hazards. The global financial crisis during the same period as the Haiti earthquake revealed serious flaws in the global banking system, exposing economic vulnerability at local, national and international levels.
Against this backdrop, talk of building resilience, an ability to cope or even thrive in the face of considerable stresses and demands, has understandably become more urgent and commonplace in governmental, non-governmental and commercial institutions. Models of proactive resilience building strategies used in the relief and development sector include disaster risk reduction (identifying and addressing underlying causes) and disaster management (mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery). They have operational parallels in other sectors too.
A friend put it this way. A man lives under a cliff and a rock is about to fall on him. If you can, address whatever is causing the rock to become unstable. If you can’t, do what you can to remove or shore up the rock to prevent it falling. If you can’t, encourage and enable the man to move away from the cliff face. If you can’t, provide him with a helmet and body armour to protect him when the rock falls. If you can’t, have a medical emergency team on hand to increase his chances of survival when it does happen. Once you have done all that, prepare the man for rehabilitation.
Organisations have responded to the resilience challenge in a whole host of ways including continuous environmental scanning, diversifying fundraising or investment portfolios, ensuring clearer brand differentiation, exploring new global markets, forging strategic alliances, investing in innovation, improving customer experience and retention, introducing flexible employment policies and practices, investing in talent management and engagement, ensuring transparent ethical practice. All these tactics aim to reduce and mitigate external and internal risks.
This parallels similar developments in counselling and coaching arenas where the agenda has shifted from reactive or remedial stress or crisis management to a more proactive and developmental focus. People professionals from disciplines ranging from therapy to human resources recognise that people and people systems (e.g. families, teams, communities, organisations) are facing unprecedented challenges and need to learn and develop fresh insights, skills, relationships and resources to face them effectively and prevail.
In the UK, cognitive behavioural psychology-based approaches have become increasingly popular, helping people to think differently in order to reduce anxiety and stress and to see opportunities in the midst of all kinds of potentially bewildering challenges and changes. The principle works something like this. If I can learn to perceive a situation differently, to see it through fresh eyes, I will feel differently about it and respond or behave differently towards it. This approach can achieve dramatic and quick results and achieve a greater sense of wellbeing.
Other approaches based on psychotherapy, person-centred or human givens psychology expose and heal internal trauma or emotional struggle. If I can heal the historical pain that experiences may trigger or tap into, I can face new experiences afresh and with greater personal resilience. Psychological coaching has grown in popularity alongside traditional business or performance coaching, reflecting a recognition that how well a person deals with a situation depends as much on the person’s awareness and resilience as on the demands of the situation itself.
Recent psychological innovations include acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) which is concerned less with challenging and changing thoughts about situations than its cognitive behavioural counterpart and more with learning mindfulness. The principle involves growing in awareness, noticing and observing one’s experience rather than struggling with or trying to change it, and learning to rest in a deeper sense of transcendent self. It reframes and embraces pain and difficulty as part of the ebb and flow of life rather than as a dysfunctional problem to be challenged, resisted or resolved.
There are parallels in Buddhism and in Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought. The latter view human experience in the context of a theology of God. The Bible portrays God as actively involved in the world and invokes trust in him as a way of approaching and dealing with experience, e.g. ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and don’t rely on your own understanding…’ (Proverbs 3:5); ‘I [God] will never leave you nor forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5). The Qur‘an, similarly: ‘Nothing can befall us except that which God has ordained…the faithful should put their trust in him.’ (Sura 9:51).
Judeo-Christian theology points far beyond simple rational assent and commitment to an alternative metaphysical social construct and lifestyle. It invites an openness to a spiritual dimension, a willingness to enter into a Supernatural relationship, an ability to draw on a transcendent experience that can result in inner strength, peace and growth in the face of adversity. It also advocates attitudes and behavioural qualities that build resilience at interpersonal and macro-systemic levels, e.g. love, integrity, equality, faithfulness, forgiveness, peace, celebration and hope.
These and similar qualities were found to be highly significant in enabling people and communities to survive during and recover following some of humanity’s worst recent disasters including the Nazi Holocaust, the Asia Tsunami, the Haiti earthquake. In light of this, Western psychosocial approaches and interventions aimed at providing post-traumatic support, based largely on secular assumptions and methodologies, are beginning to revisit the spirituality question. There may in fact be more to faith, spiritual reality and experience than a traditional secular functional outlook has presupposed.
This kind of phenomenology enables us to confront crisis and disaster at deep human-existential levels. A crisis challenges our assumptions, reveals our vulnerabilities, evokes our defences, shifts our perspectives, tests our resilience. In Western societies, our culture, wealth and technology have enabled us to insulate ourselves from some of life’s more difficult trials. Since resilience is built through facing challenge with support, some psychologists now believe this external protection is, paradoxically, reducing our inner psychological resilience. Is it time to think again?
It’s funny how these things come out of nowhere. One week ago, we received an unexpected bill that threw us into regressive stages of conflict with a major telecommunications company. The cold, belligerent manner we experienced left us dazed, upset and angry.
We felt unheard, misrepresented and unfairly treated. It triggered subconscious memories of similar experiences in the past, from bullies in the school playground to poor customer service elsewhere. It’s what psychotherapists call transference and human givens therapists, pattern matching.
The thing that left us most confused was that the people we spoke with were more concerned with bureaucracy and rules than with customer relationship or retention. In taking this stance, they were inadvertently working against their own company’s as well as our interests.
We will cancel the contract and the company will lose more in on-going revenue than it would have gained from pressing a debatable charge. We tried to explain this but they would not, could not hear. They were entrenched in their views, their predetermined systems and procedures.
After countless phone calls, we spoke with one person, an African man who treated us warmly, listened hard to our story, communicated empathy, took personal responsibility to work for a solution on our behalf. He mediated a resolution, the company dropped the charge and the dispute was ended.
It was a tiring and frustrating experience and I’m trying hard now to listen for the voice of God. What was really going on here? At a human level, it was an encounter with an organisation, an institution, that has lost sight of the customer, that appears more interested in processes than people.
But there are spiritual parallels too. I have this flash back to Jesus’ encounters with the religious authorities. They had become so locked in rules, in regulations intended to safeguard God’s interests as they saw it, that they had inadvertently lost contact with God and with people.
There’s this same risk in any organisation, in any situation, that we construct a fixed gestalt, a fixed expectation of what is and should be that blinds us to alternative perspectives and realities. In the Jesus case, paradoxically, it prevented the religious recognising ‘God with us’.
By contrast, this African man moved towards us, stepped into our shoes, took up our case on our behalf and mediated a positive result. In effect, he mirrored Jesus by his actions, working to restore relationship where it had been damaged. This is the heart of the Christian gospel.
And so as I look back over the week, I feel irritated by the bureaucracy, sad that I sometimes lost sight of the ‘opposition’ as people, relieved that fairness finally prevailed, grateful for friends who helped us laugh in the midst and thankful for the mediator who inspired us to be more like Jesus.
It feels like the climax of an western movie. High noon, haunting music by Ennio Morricone, two figures facing each other in the dusty, deserted street. The tension mounts. The camera zooms in to the eyes, who’s going to blink first?
I’m staring blankly at my annual tax return form. It stares back at me, coldly, unforgivingly, without flinching. I can feel that same tension. I’ve been here before but it doesn’t diminish the feeling of drama, of challenge, of threat.
I feel helpless, alone. Desperately, I call out for help. I dial the ‘help-line’, Iisten to IR information I don’t want and am directed to push number after number on the keypad, only to be cut off. Feelings of painful isolation intensify.
What makes this experience so bad? Why does it evoke such desolation, panic, stress? How is it I can cope with normal demands of life and yet, suddenly, something so small like this can feel overwhelming? What's this all about?
The first challenge is known in psychotherapy as transference. The tax form is like a trigger, evoking memories from my earliest childhood of struggling with maths. That familiar, 'I’m never going to be able to do this’ feeling.
I’m transferring those feelings into this current situation. Every time I’ve faced a maths challenge, every time I’ve felt unable to do it, every time I’ve felt this pain and frustration. It’s all being transferred into the here and now.
At a subconscious level I’m not just dealing with this tax form. I’m dealing with every tax form, every budget at work, every till receipt, every bank statement, every maths test where I’ve struggled. It all gets added together, multiplied.
This creates the next challenge, known in human givens therapy as emotional arousal. When emotions are amplified to a high degree, it switches the brain from ordinary rational thinking to emergency fight, flight or freeze mode.
When I feel this stressed, I quite literally can’t think straight. My heart pounds, my pulse races, I just want to scream, tear up the papers, swear at the IR or run away. I feel cornered, trapped with no escape. The feelings escalate.
This creates the next challenge, known in cognitive behavioural therapy as cognitive distortion. I’m unable to think straight, to keep things in perspective. I speak wild unfounded assumptions to myself and that reinforce the feelings.
‘I’m never going to be able to do this.’ ‘I’m never going to understand the form.’ ‘I’m never going to be able to find all the information I need.’ ‘I’m hopeless at maths.’ ‘The IR deliberately makes these forms difficult!’
At this point, I’m not open to reasoning, to rational persuasion. I need to reduce the emotional arousal first in order to allow the brain to flick back into normal rational thinking mode. I need to allow the emotional dust to settle.
So I breathe deeply, go outside into the open space and fresh air, go for a walk, a run, do something physical that distracts me from the tax form. As I do so, I can feel my stress levels lowering, can feel my head gradually clearing.
Now I’m in a better place to challenge my cognitive distortions. ‘I did manage to complete last year's form.’ ‘I can find the information I need because it’s around here somewhere.’ ‘I can do maths when I take it slowly, one step at a time.’
I can also step back, notice what triggered the emotional panic in the first place, the way I’m transferring feelings from the past. It’s a kind of self-help therapy. And now back to the tax form - with a smile. (ok, the last bit's exaggerated!)
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in developing critical reflective practice.