The Courage to Face Ourselves

Thoughts on our capacity for self-reflection

Feb 12, 2024

Self-Awareness Mental Health Psychology Introspection Contemplation
woman sitting in a field holding a mirror and looking at herself smiling

Photo by Caroline Veronez

It was the small mirror that first caught my eye as I approached the table to sit down. It was accompanied by markers and a large, light brown paper for coloring. I didn’t know any of the other 15 or so people who signed up for this Poetry Workshop. But it sounded right up my alley and worth giving up every Saturday morning in February for. The theme of the workshop—self-portrait. It was going to combine poetry and collage; I loved both. With a mix of anxiousness and curiosity rising up inside me, I sat down for the first of four sessions.

Our first exercise involved the paper. We were to write words with which we identified ourselves (alliteration unintended). That was followed by a few other exercises and discussion. Eventually, we were asked to pick up the mirror. “Write about what you see,” was the simple directive. I glanced in the mirror and jotted down a list of physical characteristics. It felt odd, but easy. The next instruction was related but different: “Now write about what you don’t see.” I wasn’t exactly clear on what this meant, but we were told not to overthink it so I wrote down a few things.

Finally, we were asked to look at ourselves in the mirror again and finish this prompt, “Once I was blind, but now I see…” We were given several minutes to write. I spent most of them staring into and away from the mirror, trying to extract something worth writing about. I felt stuck, and silly for looking at myself for so long. I kept reminding myself that the theme was self-portrait and this exercise was necessary to get value out of the workshop. But still no words came to mind.

I have no problem with self-reflection.

I like to think I’m even good at it. Much of my writing is in the realm of this theme. But there is something about the tangible act of staring into a mirror that seems to block self-reflection for me. Seeing yourself and all your physical formation must automatically cue up the part of your brain that goes into judgment mode. And this is no place from which we can thoughtfully reflect.

As uncomfortable as this exercise was—and maybe that was the point—it made me wonder about our capacity for self-reflection. How likely we are to participate in it and how deep we can go. None of us are walking around holding a mirror up to look at ourselves constantly as we go about our day-to-day activities and interact with others. But what if we did?

What if we were forced to stare at ourselves while engaging in all manner of malice and offense, whether intended or not? What if we had to look at our facial expressions when we are yelling at our significant other or kids or a stranger? Or when we are condemning or spiteful? Could we keep looking if we saw ourselves at our worst?

My husband once played a prank on me years ago where he recorded my reaction. I wasn’t pleased, about the prank or the recording, and it showed. Watching it back for the first time was difficult. I was shocked at my poor attitude and my extremely irritated facial expression, not to mention the volume of my response. I still can’t watch it to this day without cringing.

Maybe if we kept the visual of the mirror in front of us in mind when interacting with others, we would not be so quick to scream, or curse, or criticize and demean. Maybe if we saw how distasteful we look when we are inflicting harm, on ourselves or others, consciously or not, we would think twice about our intentions.

Seeing ourselves physically compels us to see ourselves internally, behind the reflection.

We are literally faced with ourselves. And we don’t always like what we are looking at—not what is external, not our features, but “what you don’t see.” The anger, the jealousy, the pride, the resentment, the repressed grief, the heartbreak, the sadness that has rotted into bitter despair. It is too much to look at, so we avert our gaze and avoid anything that encourages introspection.

Sometimes it’s not called for. Sometimes it’s healthier to detach. When the mind is not ready to process our pain, it shatters the glass for protection. And that’s ok. In these times, looking within might actually cause more damage. So we extend ourselves grace. We remain removed in order to keep functioning, to put one foot in front of the other.

But when it is called for, when we know it would lead to constructive change, may we have the courage to pick up the mirror and face ourselves. May we let our desire for healing be stronger than our fear of what we will uncover behind the veil. And when we interact with others, let the image of the mirror remind us to be gentle, patient, and slow to anger. Because what we don’t see in ourselves is most likely what we don’t see in others.

We often project onto others what we are not willing to look at within our own psyche.

It’s easier to blame than to acknowledge. It’s more manageable to put our burdens on the shoulders of others than carry them on our own. But God calls us to “first take the log out of [our] own eye, and then [we] will see clearly to take the speck out of [our] neighbor's eye” (Matthew 7:5).

Our capacity to self-reflect can be strengthened, but we have to be willing participants in that process. No one can force us to pick up the mirror. That choice is ours to make and ours alone. Some days it will feel heavier than others. Some years we will need the support of others to encourage us to even go near it. But each time we do, each time we brave looking, it will become slightly easier. Until one day, it won’t be hard, or silly. There will be no need for protection. The person staring back will be smiling. It will feel like looking at acceptance, personified. There will be nothing distasteful about it.