Have you ever looked in a mirror and not liked what stares back? This is true beyond seeing our first gray hair or smudged makeup. It happens with family. They act like mirrors. Loved ones reflect our memories and feelings. We perceive their form but import our faces. We envision spouses and our children with our emotions, not our eyes. Therefore, if we don’t like what we see, it is more about us than our human mirrors.

We picture ourselves in others. What we notice is dependent upon our self-opinion more than sunlight. Our personal esteem shines brighter than the sun. Unfortunately, our self-pity can be dark and stormy.

Right before prom, an adolescent looks in the mirror with horror and sees that one humongous pimple on the tip of his or her nose. We look at the same person and miss the blemish because of its minuscularity. Instead, we focus on the odd cowlick just like the one we had as a kid. The chemistry of our childhood embarrassment flashes back like a tsunami.

We picture our children struggling in school, and we see our battles with math. It is like we look into the porthole of a time machine. We imagine our failures and are angry that our kids or spouse are not the star, the scholar or the saint. We are blinded like the glare off a windowed building.

It is not them that distress. Memories reignite feelings. We respond to our emotional recollections, not reality. If we notice a child’s messiness, it is our subconscious recall of the scolding for laziness we received, not the clutter that causes us to boil over. We react to our resurrected hurt, not to the scattered socks in front of us.

This reflectiveness worsens when we have a touch, or worse, a slug of insecurity. If we are uncomfortable with ourselves, the mirror confirms our worst nightmares. It dashes the last hope that we were mistaken. We think we have a big ugly nose and sure enough the silvered glass confirms it. We can always deny our looks or appearances if we can’t look at our appearances.

There is the odd reaction of some who seek out plastic surgeons to make them more beautiful. Thousands of dollars later they are more gorgeous, but they don’t see it. Even standing in front of a mirror, their minds do not believe what others admire. They only see their old selves.

In the movie "Man of La Mancha," what ultimately defeated our noble knight-errant were foes with mirrors. They surrounded him, forcing him to see his heroic madness. When we see ourselves in others, it is often more madness than heroic.

Now instead of soldiers with mirrors, suppose it were our children that reflected our images. They are our extensions genetically and socially. They are our biological and parent-rearing products. We imagine that if they do poorly they reveal our secret failures. We even talk as if they are mirrors when we say their behavior reflects poorly on the family.

Unfortunately, we are upset because we see ourselves more closely. It is like looking at the mirror and seeing every zit, wrinkle or crooked tooth. If we feel poorly about ourselves anyway and our children display just a hint of the same characteristic, our displeasure deepens.

So, if we find ourselves upset at our children or spouses, ask the question of how much are we mad at ourselves. Do our family and friends disapprove because they illustrate our shortcomings, not theirs?

1 comment on this story

Changing the world starts one glimpse at a time. Put down the mirrors and see people for who they are and not what they reflect of your insecurities.

Magically if we first wipe the mud off our cheeks, everyone in the mirror will have a clean face too, except for that nasty pimple on the tip of the nose.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. He can be reached at jgcramermd@yahoo.com.