Most of us have probably come across the universal wisdom that the people who irritate us the most are likely expressing qualities that we ourselves share. My colleague, Jack, a psychotherapist, calls this the mirror effect. When we were in college together, Jack would often say to someone who was verbally lashing out at him for whatever reason, “I am your mirror. Look at me and see yourself.” While his cerebral jedi mind tricks fell short of their mark more often than not, it is a phrase that has stayed with me since then.
This “mirror effect” is why family members can be so vexing for many of us — we see ourselves in them and vice versa. This isn’t always true, of course. But when it is, it’s a real opportunity for growth if we can find a way to consciously acknowledge it because it is infinitely easier to change ourselves than it is another person. Trying to change others is rarely a good idea. For example, if we have a co-worker who continually engages in negative behavior, like complaining or trying to control everything, we can look and see if we ourselves carry those same traits.
We may have to look at other situations in our lives to see it, because we behave differently in different environments. Perhaps we don’t complain at work because our co-worker overdoes it, but maybe we do it with our friends. Maybe we aren’t controlling at the office, but we’re used to being in control at home, which might be why we get so irritated not to be in control at work. Even if we look and find that we’re not engaging in the same behavior that we perceive as negative in others, we can still learn from what we are seeing. The truth is, human nature is universal, and we share many of the same tendencies. What we see in others can always help us to understand ourselves more deeply.
Having the ability to see something in another person, and automatically bring this observation back to ourselves, is like having a built-in system of checks and balances that enables us to be continually engaged in self-exploration and behavior change. When we see behavior we don’t like, we can make a concerted effort to weed it out of ourselves, and when we see behavior we do like, we can let it inspire us to engage in imitation. Through this process, we read our environment and let it influence us to bring out the best in ourselves.