About 20 years ago (before selfies were a thing) psychologists did this research on how we perceive ourselves. They showed people a bunch of pictures of themselves and asked them which ones were flattering. What they found was really interesting - when given a choice, people think "mirrored" pictures of themselves are the best ones. In fact, people liked the mirrored pictures best, even when their friends thought they were less flattering photos. The mirrored pictures are not quite accurate. They’re backwards, but we like those pictures better because we're used to seeing ourselves in a mirror.
We prefer to see ourselves in a way that’s consistent with the way we think of ourselves, even if it’s not quite true. Or flattering.
I've been thinking about this a lot in terms of relationships and personal growth. The people in our lives are like mirrors. They reflect things back to us - good things, bad things. They can challenge us, or they can collude with us in keeping us in our comfort zone. They can accept us as we are, or be critical of us. And if the selfie research is right, we have a tendency to collect people who reinforce the way we see ourselves. For better and worse. That's great for being comfortable, but not so great for growth. If you're not careful about who you have around you, you can end up getting stuck with some pretty inaccurate images of yourself. To grow, you don’t need a ton of criticism and shame. But you don’t need to be basking in unlimited flattery, either. You need truth. Let me give you some examples of truth my friends have given me in the past year:
A friend told me that the guy I was dating was very kind, but not at all right for me, and said I should I break up with him.
A supervisor told me “You have a reputation for being a bit of a wild card, and that is exactly why I want to work with you.”
An old friend told me that he always thought I was beautiful when we were in school together, but never had the courage to tell me.
A guy I’d been dating told me that he really liked me, but that I can be aloof and emotionally unavailable and he didn’t know how to handle that.
It takes some bravery, I think, to tell a person the truth. But I am so done running around with cowards. I want brave friends. I want people in my corner who will tell me the truth as they see it, and will stick with me while I sort out whether and how their truth is accurate for me. I don’t care if it’s good or bad. I’m not after bullshit flattery (although I’m not going to lie . . . I do like some overt flattery!). I relish my friends who are truth tellers, and I'm trying to be better about thanking them when they say things that are challenging, even if I don’t immediately love being challenged. And I’m trying to be better about accepting compliments when they come (which is really, really, really, really hard). An accurate mirror is really a gift.
But more importantly, I’m thinking a lot more about the kind of mirror I am to the people in my life. If I care about someone, do they know it? If I see something good in my friend am I saying it out loud? Did I tell my friend he looked handsome in that suit? Did I call out the brilliance I see in my coworker Equally important, am I brave enough to say the hard stuff? Have I told my colleague that I think she deserves better than her thankless job? Did I tell my friend I heard the things she said about me when I wasn’t around? Did I speak up in the meeting and say the thing no one wanted to say? I want to be the kind of friend you know will tell you if you have spinach in your teeth. The kind of person you can trust will send you edits on your paper. I want to be the kind of mirror that helps you be your best you. Who loves and sees you when it’s good or bad, and helps you figure out how to be better. And if you would be that kind of mirror to me, I really would cherish it!!