That’s right, the new way to reduce stress and anxiety is to stare at your reflection in a mirror. But don’t worry: This isn’t a competition to determine who’s the fairest of them all. It’s a practice designed to develop self-compassion.
We talked to the founder of the practice, Tara Well, PhD, professor of psychology at Barnard College, Columbia University, to get a behind-the-scenes look at why you should make time to self-reflect — literally! Here’s what you need to know for your first mirror meditation session.
Mirror, Mirror On the Wall
Let’s be honest. Most of us have a love-hate relationship with the mirror. You can’t help but stare when you catch a glimpse of your reflection. But look too long and it can be uncomfortable to hold your own gaze. And it’s often easy to fall down the rabbit hole of self-criticism and comparison. A wrinkle (or six) here. Too many freckles there.
That’s how Well used to feel. “As a teenager, I learned to become more critical of my appearance and not wanting to look in the mirror,” she says.
“We use mirrors for social grooming rituals like fixing our hair or make-up,” says Well. And when you do that day-in, day-out, it becomes habitual, which can promote self-criticism. “Then, we tend to look past ourselves, not at how we’re feeling. Or we don’t see ourselves as people but more as objects that need to look a certain way to get approval,” she says.
It wasn’t until Well was conducting a Skype session with a coaching client that she realized the potential transformative power of reflecting on your own image.
When she asked her client to look at herself in the camera and express a difficult realization, she says something clicked for her and her client. Then, Well experimented with mirror meditation on a trip. “When I came home, people noticed how different I was,” she says.
“Because we grow up being taught that we need to look a certain way, somehow we became separated from how we feel inside,” she says. “The mirror gives you a glimpse of what’s happening inside.”
Mirror Meditation: Just Look Into Your Eyes
A mirror meditation practice is as simple as it sounds. Find a quiet spot and sit comfortably with a mirror propped up in front of you. Observe yourself for 10 minutes…and that’s it. (Of course, if 10 minutes seems like forever, start with three to five minutes and go from there.)
Unlike traditional meditation practices, you don’t use a mantra or special breathing technique. Your gaze becomes the focus of your practice. “The mirror creates a focal point and a tool for people to track their attention. It makes it much easier to come back to your center by using this tool,” says Well.
“The goal is to be with yourself without an agenda and be open to whatever comes. There’s no way to get it right or wrong,” says Well. “Just come with the intention to be kind to yourself.”
Mirror meditation lets you actually look into the eye of the person receiving your critical thoughts — in this case, you. But the key is to recognize your negative thoughts, then pause, breathe and return to your gaze.
Through the daily practice, you become more familiar with your own appearance and notice your critical thoughts. “Whatever thoughts in your head that are normally in the background come to the foreground,” says Well. “The mirror hasn’t created these self-judgments but it’s reflecting them back to you.”
Some people find the experience intense. Others discover things that they didn’t know before. Well recommends the practice to anyone interested in personal growth or looking to change up their typical mindfulness rituals. Keep in mind, Well notes, that if you get super down on yourself, then it’s time to step away from the mirror for a while.
Behind the Looking Glass
Well believes that the interest and power of mirror meditation is due to the fact that our culture is so starved for attention that goes beyond surface level. Take the rise of selfies and other narcissistic behavior, for instance. “The reason that’s so prevalent is because people aren’t being seen authentically by each other,” she says. “Mirror meditation is the opposite of that. It allows you to look deeply. And when you are able to give that attention to yourself, you’re able to give kindness and compassion to others.”
In her studies, Well found that those who practiced mirror meditation for 10 minutes a day reported significant decrease in stress, anxiety and depression accompanied by an increase in self-compassion. She found that women in the study started to focus less on appearance and more on how they were feeling. In turn, this lead to self-reliance and a better connection with themselves. “Then, you choose relationships with people based less on how they can affirm you or not affirm you, but who authentically gets you,” says Well.
It can also be a tool to learn to regulate your emotions, which we often hide or ignore in our daily lives. “Doing mirror meditation, you’re more aware of your emotions and take responsibility for your emotions. You go into situations more aware of how you’re feeling,” says Well. “If you ignore when you’re angry or afraid and move forward with those negative emotions, they can leak out in ways that create problems for you and the people around you.”
So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed with emotion or just need a mental break, head to the bathroom, pull out a mirror and just take a few minutes to self-reflect. You might be surprised at what you see.