Beware the Mirror Friend

We came to an ugly realization this morning: our family parakeet, Beignet, has developed an unhealthy attachment to a 2×4-inch mirror mounted in his cage.

We installed the mirror a few weeks ago, thinking it would provide our feathered friend some entertainment beyond his orange, star-shaped swing and adjacent dangling, multi-colored plastic keys.

beignet mirror

Initially, this seemed like a good decision. Our yellow and green little bird occasionally sidled up to the mirror to have a look and chatter a bit.  But in the last two weeks, his fixation on the mirror became obsessive. He soon lost all interest in his keys, his swing, and even in interacting with us. He spent the entire day perched on top of the mirror, chattering and looking at his reflection.

After a little reading, we learned that Beignet’s reaction actually isn’t unusual. Apparently parakeets — innately very social creatures — can easily develop unhealthy attachments to their own reflections. In time, the mirror can make them both more territorial and agitated. The mirror seems like an entertaining toy that would satisfy a bird, but because it’s not a natural relationship, things can quickly become unhealthy.

Realizing the dysfunction of Beignet’s “relationship” with his fake friend, we made the painful decision to remove the mirror from his cage early today. This evening, he spent some time back on his swing. He’s pouting some – understandably – but seems to be on the way to becoming himself again. He even took a little bit of seed from my hand a few minutes ago. We are hopeful tomorrow will be an even better day.

Still, the whole experience was more than a little sad – and it got me thinking about the danger of fake friends – the sort that don’t look back at us from actual mirrors, but from figurative ones.

We have probably all had them – friends – and even family members – who we can get along with as long as we are the “perfect mirror.” These people, who claim to care about us deeply, will embrace and even celebrate us as long as we mirror them.

The fake mirror friends expect us to make the same choices they do and to have the same beliefs – even about trivial things. These are the people who will be our friends as long as we meet their expectations. In all our interactions, we must serve as mirrors, reflecting back their own decisions. They seek validation through our mirroring, and their expectations may require that we:

  • Go to the same church
  • Work the same level of or type of job that they do
  • Live in housing similar to theirs
  • Live near them geographically
  • Make the same decisions about marriage and family
  • Vote as they do
  • Like – and dislike – the same people they do
  • Dress like they do and make other purchases similar to theirs
  • Have the same hobbies they do
  • Have the same diet and exercise regimen they do

In some cases, we not only must mirror them¬† – we must mirror a slightly stunted version of them. We can never outdo them – in our job performance, our finances, our commitment to health. In doing this, we cause them to feel uncomfortable. And if there’s one thing mirror friends don’t want, it’s to endure discomfort.

As long as we meet their expectations, we have peace. We are accepted and even praised for our decisions. But the price we pay for these relationships is steep. Conforming can come at a high price – particularly when it determines decisions about important things like our core beliefs, where we work or worship, where we live, and who we accept.

With maturity, these relationships often deteriorate. We reach a point where we start to ask ourselves: Is this person really a friend? What will happen if I am my true self? Am I able to ask questions? Can I be honest about my spiritual or intellectual doubts? Do I have the freedom to change?

The imploding of a relationship with a “mirror friend” can be painful. Unlike a real mirror reflection, these fake friends can turn on us, berating and criticizing us.

But often, as we mature, we realize that staying in fake friendships causes more damage than it is worth. In ending our bogus relationships with mirror friends, we realize that we are more free to be ourselves. Growth and freedom come.

If we are really lucky and work hard at cultivating our authenticity, in time we will be able to move past our mirror friends, and realize that they have been replaced by true friends – people who do not require our mirroring in order to accept us.

These people see us for who we are – and also are willing to accept us if we change or if we question. They understand that we can vote differently, have different beliefs about religion, or have different friends and still be bonded together.

With these friends, we can ask the scary questions: What would happen if I changed career paths? Moved? Visited a different type of church? Voted differently? Changed my eating habits? Befriended someone that others in my social circle actively dislike? Picked up a new hobby or abandoned an old one?

Unlike our bird, we don’t usually have someone else who can come along and remove the mirror entirely. We have to deal with it ourselves. And while that’s a painful decision, it’s typically worth it.

What are your experiences with “mirror friends?” How did things change between you? How are you doing now?