“The problem with reflections is that most tell the truth”. The phrase, scripted on the series Versailles by King Louis XIV’s character, encapsulates a huge truth: facing ourselves in the mirror might not be the most pleasant thing in the world and truth can reveal to be agonizing. But we look, we accept what we see, we grow and we evolve – inside and out. Or so we should.
I can’t exactly recall the first time I saw myself in a mirror, but I can assure you it was not that long ago and, surely, I know the reasons that led me to that moment. And to the mirror. To assume such a thing, at 39-years-old, leads me to believe I have spent a great deal of time in my life running – from mirrors, from myself, from both maybe. It’s important to pay attention to the phrasing above: I was referring to the first time “I saw myself in a mirror.” And that subtle choice of verb – to look versus to see – makes all the difference, excuse the redundancy, in this context. Even if I can’t recall the specific day, I remember the day of the event very clearly because, from that moment on, that ritual in front of the mirror became a part of my routine. It’s one of those instants all of us, as human beings have experienced in our existence – the so-called “moment of despair”. My eyes were flooded with tears, to the point of changing colors, alternating between a shade of honey and walnut, and one of transparent green (not everything sucks, since my eyes get prettier when they weep), a color that hinted at the sea of emotions hovering my soul at that point. My face was swollen from so many tears. My empty body would fall apart wherever I went. Any shred of strength was gone, leaving me only with vulnerability, a nakedness of spirit. It was one of those episodes where the pain of nothing but existing hit my gut and desperation came for every ounce of dignity I had left – one of those chapters where the light at the end of the tunnel seems like nothing more than a train coming at you and that, on top of it all, travels at the speed of light, to run us over with no mercy. To leave us broken into pieces, like shattered glass. That was when, out of an instinct of survival, I decided to drag myself to the bathroom. It was there that, now standing, I stood in front of the mirror. The idea was to save me from myself, to not let myself go with the spins of the carousel of despair – the same one that, so many times, blinds us and deprives our sight of any possible clarity. In front of that mirror, face to face, eye to eye, I started a conversation with myself. And what at first seemed simple – after all, ever since we’re born, we’re used to looking in the mirror – turned out to be quite the challenge.
The mirror, as an object, is part of our daily life. We look at ourselves in there, usually, every single day, sometimes more than once. We wash our face and brush our teeth, put on face creams and makeup, brush our hair, admire ourselves (or maybe not, because it’s not a “good day”), put on clothes and take them off, come to realize that dress has a killer cut, and that other one doesn’t, we even know which side of our profile is our good one. On the contrary, we’re complete strangers to the notion of seeing ourselves in the mirror. There’s no other way to start a dialogue with ourselves besides resorting to it. If we stop to think, besides the mirror, all we have are photographs and videos (and even then, we’re, in a way, posing, not being our truest “self”), to look at ourselves – and no one else can see us in the flesh, as others do. One will never be able to see oneself as others can – in loco, in the eye. But looking in the mirror (looking, not seeing) might be a good place to start. When I decided to look at myself in the mirror, which is the same as saying, confront myself, I realized how arduous that task might reveal to be. Until I got my eyes to stop moving around, trying to escape themselves, one side to the other, it was a whole ordeal. But, as hiccups grew, I was forced to face me… “Stop!”. And the words continued: “That’s enough. Stop it now…”. And from that moment on, calmer now after the command from the “rational me” towards the “emotionally desperate me”, to which an imperative look followed, I began a speech that resembled greatly one you would have with a best friend. The type of conversation where looking in each other’s eyes, you call them to reason, where, looking in each other’s eyes, you make them see “it’s not that bad”, that “the problem isn’t that serious”, that “life isn’t that hard” and that, in the end, “everything will be alright”. The kind of talk that is so easy to have with someone else, but so hard to have with yourself. And why? Because deceiving the world is easy, but fooling ourselves, not so much. And pure honesty comes through, especially in the eyes – it’s not by chance that some people can’t look each other in the eyes when telling a lie. For some other reason, we divert our sight when facing something that is not the most profitable thing to do. Augusto Cury, the Brazilian psychiatrist, and author once wrote: “Wise is the human being that is brave in front of the mirror of his soul in recognizing his mistakes and failures and using them to plant the most beautiful seeds in the field of their intelligence”. In this quote, the mirror is referred to as a mirror to the soul. It so happens that, when in front of it we can truthfully and profoundly see into our own eyes, we’re then able to look into our soul – hence the potential for it to be so painful. Hence why we avoid it so much. In fact, according to some cultures, mirrors reflected the “interior nature” of people or someone’s soul. This old belief would be at the inception of a legend according to which vampires and other demons had no reflection in mirrors – what would be a consequence of the fact that living-dead beings have no soul.
“We see the resort to the mirror in legends, in poems, in fairytales. There are some adaptions of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, where Alice enters the fantasy world where everything is questioned and possible, by crossing to the other side of a mirror. In some societies, photography, which is a mirror in itself, is felt as threatening due to the risk of ‘stealing a soul’. Not having a reflection in the mirror due to the lack of presence of a soul is the definition of emptiness. It’s to be transparent. It’s to not be seen”, Luísa Menezes, a clinical psychologist at the Oficina da Psicologia, explains. And she continues: “What we see in the mirror is, ‘supposedly’, just the exterior. But is possible that, in reality, we’re only looking at one of our dimensions? The physical dimension? When we stand in front of a mirror, we have the opportunity to see ourselves from the outside. As other people do. We’re looking at ourselves the same way we look at others. We’re one body in a certain aspect, but we’re also, an accumulate of experiences, knowledge, genetics, emotions… And, what the mirror throws back at us is precisely that. And what could perhaps be hard to face is all this. What we are and what we would like to be. The expectations we have/had for ourselves. We’re the reflection of our lived history and can project our future. Looking in from the outside is looking at all that makes our story what it is. Both pretty and ugly aspects”, the specialist clarifies, also mentioning a poem by Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963), titled Mirror, where the American writer, at a given time, wrote the following: “I am not cruel, only truthful”. The truth is we’re the meaning of what we build with someone else. We’re what others throw back at us. And it is like that since birth. And then… then it’s for life, the construction of one’s self, one after the other, until we no longer know who we are, what we are. And so, life pushes us to want to know who we are and what we are. Because that moment might take a long time, but it always comes.
Anyone who goes to therapy is already familiar with the pains of self-confrontation. In therapy, in psychanalysis particularly, the professional takes (or intends to take) their patient to places they’ve never sailed through before – to the subconscious, but also the center of their soul. In therapy one is led towards a “self” that so many times before, or so we believe, one has avoided to know. Because looking in hurts, it eats you up. Therapy is a haven (while we’re protected by our therapist) until it stops being so, which is pretty much like saying, until it starts hurting. Because when it does, the natural thing to do is storm out and swear never to return. In that case, it’s possible to decide if you want to continue or not – we can run and we can, obviously, hide. Who knows, we might hide an entire side of our existence behind an apparently “ok” life, free of any kind of therapy. The same goes for mirrors. It remains there, waiting for anyone who might want to use it for something beyond vain purposes. And, certainly, we might also run from this one, but we’re bound to, at a given moment, whether of desperation or compromise, to have to face it. In that case, there is no possible hiding. To what extent does a conversation with a mirror compare to a therapy session? Luísa Menezes assures that it’s not only a good thing, but something she recommends: “We could even adopt this exercise as we do others that we feel are useful when it comes to personal development. In fact, this one-on-one conversation happens frequently even without mirrors and there we find answers that were, indeed, already inside of us. The difficulty often lies in facing those same answers. Whenever we do, usually decisions have to be made. Choices must be made. And that might come with loss, disappointment (ours and other’s), judgement. In that moment, the simplest task such as ‘looking in the mirror’ might turn into something very difficult. Painful. The mirror might be, and it serves, in some contexts, as a therapeutical element. Amongst other functionalities, it aims to assess what holds the most relevance to someone when they look at their reflection. It is a tool to help that person overcome that first sight (the most immediate one) and see beyond it. So that they identify what they like and dislike about themselves. So that they can change, if that’s the case, what they want to change.”
What do we see then, in the end, when we look in the mirror? Certainly, answers can be found in the same proportion as the number of souls walking this earth. Luísa Menezes confirms this theory: “Each and every one of us will see reflected on the mirror the most important, most significative aspects, and that varies tremendously. It’s evident that we’ll see a story that, were it narrated, could explain the wrinkles, foggy eyes, shrugged shoulders and arched backs or, on the other end of the spectrum, curious eyes that smile and the sure posture of someone who likes what they’re seeing. We can see who we are as a whole!” Exactly, as a whole. And in a world obsessed with body image, where we resort to filters to cover and mask everything and then some (literally), a world of selfies and illusions, where we only show what we choose to, even if an image corresponds to less-than-a-thousand truthful words, it would be good that we started using mirrors in a constructive sense too. From self-discovery to personal improvement, to the recognition of one’s soul. It would be beneficial is the obsessions crossed over to a more spiritual field – why not focus in having a pretty, sorted, peaceful soul? The “self” would appreciate it and then, everything else would fall into place: the idealized body, the perfect reflection, the even more perfect Instagram picture, and so on. And if not, it’s ok too: by that time, it’s expected that that has already stopped being the sole purpose of our existence. Like the Portuguese band Da Weasel once sang, in the far away year of 2001, Podes Fugir Mas Não Te Podes Esconder, meaning, we can even manage to escape from ourselves, but only death can put a halt to the being that inhabits us – and that “self”, no matter how much we want to, we might even be able to escape it here and there, but we surely won’t be able to hide from it – at least not ad aeternum.
Translated from the original on Vogue Portugal's The Mirror issue, published january 2021.