Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Power of Reflection for Happiness and Success

The Evil Queen in Snow White asks her mirror, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?’ The mirror replies that the Queen is indeed the fairest of all. The Queen’s mirror always tells the truth. In the original version it is a hand mirror, which has the advantage of portability: the truth is available at every moment.

So, the Evil Queen is the fairest in the land until Snow White grows up and the mirror has to tell her that the blossoming young girl is a ‘thousand times more beautiful than you’. This uncomfortable truth eventually leads to the death of the Evil Queen who tries to become number one again. Such is the price of vanity.

It is difficult to know the extent to which the Grimm brothers meant this story to be a metaphor for life. But fairy stories do make wonderful means for presenting ideas to the unconscious mind in a palatable, non-confronting  way: I used them a great deal in clinical practice. They can work in everyday life as well although you have to pick the moment.

The price of vanity for the Evil Queen is narcissistic anger, which leads her to her demise.  That she would even ask the mirror the question points to her need for affirmation, her lack of self-esteem perhaps, her fragile sense of self.

Of course, when we look in the mirror, we mostly don’t want the truth. Mirrors don’t lie, but we lie to ourselves. The Evil Queen bought the wrong mirror. It should have been one that freely avoids the truth, that would defend her sense of self, as our unconscious mind does.

The unconscious mind is rather underrated. Perhaps it got bad press through Freud and the aparent mystical art of psychoanalysis. But it controls most of our behaviour and emotions that occur completely beyond our consciousness. This unconscious stuff involves complex interactions of chemicals in the brain along with our experience. One good example is the role of dopamine in facilitating addiction and our ability to resist gratification or not, arising from our personality, beliefs, values, self-esteem, and myriad other factors. Another is the extent to which we are anxious depending on our genes, our propensity to secrete adrenaline and other anxiety creating chemicals, and our experience right from when we are born. Some people who are born anxious are able to learn to control their predisposition towards anxiety with which they were born.

Our unconscious mind, apart from doing many other things, also tries to protect us, the conscious, from the unpleasantness of fear or anxiety that comes from being confronted with our faults, failings, and other nasty issues that might threaten our sense of who we think we are. This is a very complex issue but humans spend a lot of time avoiding things that might be unpleasant to confront and do it in all sorts of ways that would be impossible to deal with here.

Some people find it easier to confront their ‘true selves’ than others. People with personality disorders, like narcissism or psychopathy, find it very hard to develop insight into their behaviour because the truth would be really distressing. Bullies often have lack of insight for the same reason and might not even be aware of what they are doing driven by myriad psychological problems.

One example of a simple way in which our unconscious defends and maintains the lie would be the use of rationalisation. This is one of the defence mechanisms that we use to ‘explain’ or excuse a failure to perform. I failed the exam because the teacher was poor or got the sack because the manager didn’t like me from the start. I suspect we have all used this basic mechanism along with denial and projection, two common defences we use to protect ourselves.

There are some clear advantages to knowing more about ourselves that are pretty obvious, particularly for successful relationships and any activity that involves other people. Knowing your addictions, habits, and things that prevent success is also handy.

Reflection, done well, is a mirror that tells the truth. A useful hint to do reflection well is to be aware of your behaviour. What you do, your behaviour, is the mirror to the soul and much more accurate as to who we are than what we say. Behaviour is observable. Mind you, humans have a remarkable ability to rewrite history to make themselves look better but I guess you can’t overcome every frailty that we have. Reflection at least gives us a chance to look at what we are doing and the outcomes of what we do.

I wrote a blog about why coaching is effective some time ago. It is useful when we are finding it hard to identify what we are doing wrong and we need a guide. Friends can help us too, if they are game to be objective.

However, as I found out twice only recently, holding up a mirror to someone can be fraught with danger. It works well in therapy but spontaneously pointing out someone’s negative behaviour can be tricky and not for the faint hearted. Its something that I have found difficult to resist for most of my life.

So, reflection can be a very useful tool for personal improvement and a daily dose is my prescription to learning more effective behaviour in love, relationships, work, and daily life. Give it a try.


  1. Great article Stewart. The only problem is when reflection becomes excessive rumination on the negative and leads to a self-destructive cycle.

  2. Good point-thanks. Although I wouldn't call that reflection, rather the cognitive problem of negative rumination, which is slightly obsessive. People prone to depression and anxiety seem to be good at this.