The Mirror of Unhappiness

I had an experience the other day which gave me some insight into myself and how we all can be influenced by a ubiquitous object – mirrors. I went to a good friend’s house where my daughter was having soccer practice. My friends and I talked as the children played. We sat on her porch in front of a set of large windows. I have never been the type to look in mirrors much. It isn’t really a conscious choice but something I just don’t do. When I brush my teeth or if I put makeup on I focus on the task rather than my face. Therefore, there are days when I am blissfully unaware of my own appearance. As I sat there next to my friends, both of whom are very beautiful, I noticed myself in the reflection of the windows. I didn’t like what I saw. My hair was a mess and I had thrown clothes on without much care because I had worked out and hadn’t had time to shower. In my rush out the door, I had even put on my son’s Crocs- gibbets and all. Frankly, I looked haggard. As I looked into those windows at my own reflection, my world instantly shrunk inward and I became painfully self-aware. Looking into that mirror changed my orientation to the world – I went from carefree, chatting with my friends – to feeling I was inadequate and wanting to leave.

Honestly, I often do need to take more time for proper grooming and I should take an extra few seconds to find my own shoes. Some women need to focus less on their appearance and women, like me, might need to care a bit more. But I want to elaborate on this concept – a focus on self leads to unhappiness.  

Self-reflection is necessary for change and development,  yet it also tends to make us miserable. Jordan Peterson explains that, scientifically, “self-conscious thoughts load onto neuroticism (negative emotions).”

Woman Before Mirror, Ellen Emmett Rand

Self-conscious thoughts may lead to self-judgment in some women and vanity in others, but unhappiness will be its byproduct.  When we understand that thinking about ourselves makes us unhappy, we can be more discerning of what to do with these thoughts and the need to limit unhelpful self consciousness. 

 “There is no difference between thinking about yourself and being miserable.” Dr. Jordan Peterson 

Turning away from the mirror

Knowing the misery that accompanies self-obsession, it is no wonder that all religious traditions focus on controlling our innate selfishness and focusing our attention outward, toward God and our fellow man.  Those that devote their lives to God- from Catholicism to Buddhism – often take vows of poverty, wear simple clothing, and interestingly they also shun mirrors. You won’t find mirrors in cathedrals and many monasteries and convents do not contain mirrors.

We modern women are unique in our ability to constantly self-reflect, literally. Most of our ancestors did not have mirrors at all. Seeing their reflections in a pond or a well-made window might be their only chance to see themselves. While the rich could afford mirrors – and stories of Marie Antointte and Italian Countess de Castiglione demonstrate the vice of vanity, it was only during the Industrial Revolution that mirrors became common among the average man and woman. Imagine how different women’s thoughts might have been in this self-blind state. Certainly there would have been less opportunities for a woman to be thwarted in her daily work by a realization of her inadequate appearance.

Vanity, Auguste Toulmouche

Our modern culture, on the other hand, is always looking in the mirror. Many of us carry mirrors in our purses so we can check up on our face at any moment.  We take selfies and post them to Instagram, we consider our current “aesthetic”.  Social media, fashion, and materialism all drive us to create our “brand” – our identity and then broadcast it to the world. These mirrors contribute to the cult of Self and to our own misery. When we look into the mirror, we are alone with ourselves, and it is often a lonely experience.  We are precious children of God so we should not look at ourselves with disdain or feel inadequate, but we probably should look at ourselves less.  This is the key to humility, as Rick Warren said, ““Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less,”

The Eye that Ruins Us

Comparisons bring misery because we are never as beautiful, skinny or accomplished as the woman we wish we were. Benjamin Franklin said “It is the eye of other people that ruin us. If I were blind I would want, neither fine clothes, fine houses or fine furniture.”  

I only felt inadequate as I looked in those windows because I sat next to two beautiful women.  And yet, it was not really their eyes that “ruined” that moment, it was my own – my own self-consciousness. In reality, they probably didn’t care how I looked, I believe they love me as I am.  But my distorted self-conscious thoughts reshaped my view of reality. 

Again, this does not mean we do not self-reflect. If we can’t be willing to face those dark and often difficult truths about ourselves, our Shadow as Jung describes it, we cannot progress.  However, we must use these difficult reflections to learn and then move on – not return again and again, constantly ruminating about our inadequacies or relishing in our strengths. 

As Dostoyevsky tells us, “To be overly self-conscious is a disease.  An honest to goodness disease.” 

The Door out of Self

Constantly tuning into our condition, whether our physical appearance or our own mental state, and comparing it to others can cause us to become so self-absorbed that we forget about the condition of others.  When we are self-consumed, we miss the joy of the present moment; we miss tuning into others and discovering how we can help them; we miss the joys of nature and the beauty around us; we miss feelings of gratitude for the good things in our lives; we miss seeing the opportunities in our challenges.   

Perhaps the most inconvenient, yet powerful, doctrine of Christianity is that of self-denial.  Can you think of an idea as antithetical to our modern sensitivities and “enlightenment” as self-denial? And yet, scientific discoveries on the negative impact of self-conscious thoughts testifies that Christ’s words, spoken 2 millennia ago, are true, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” Matthew 16:25

Many view this doctrine of “self-denial” as a puritanical form of self-hatred.  But intuitively we know this truth; we know we need to “get out of our own head”, we need to utilize self-control and focus on others.  Our hedonistic impulses and selfish inclinations are not “us”, we are made for much more than bouncing between impulses. Happiness can be found in self-denial. If we truly want joy, we must spurn the mirror and self-obsession and think of others. As I saw myself in that window, I let the misery stew for a few moments and then tried to distract myself from myself by kicking a ball with a nearby child. 

“The love of our neighbor is the only door out of the dungeon of self.” George MacDonald

 Our necessary interludes for self-honesty and repentance should be quickly followed with the grateful acknowledgment of our blessings and our own infinite worth as a child of God. 

I am grateful for my painful experience with those windows at my friend’s house. I hope we as women can remember the power of mirrors, and consider looking at them, and ourselves, less. 


The Countess of Vanity,

Jordan Peterson Discussing Self-Conciousness

One thought on “The Mirror of Unhappiness

  1. Thank you for this: it is thought provoking.

    It also reminded me of the beautiful song “Lies” by Stan Rogers, which starts with a woman looking in a mirror. I think you will like it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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