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?

 

 

What a Toxic Encounter Taught Me

 

toxic

One of the things middle age is teaching me is to have really strong boundaries. It’s important to be kind and loving, but it’s also important to remember that this starts by being kind and loving to myself.

But I let my guard down yesterday and found myself interacting with a pair of people who have proven themselves to be dangerous to my sense of self in the past.

In the course of just an hour, these people, who know me well, managed to attack:

  • The value of the work I do each day
  • How I parent my children
  • My core beliefs about accepting others
  • The quality of my education/my intelligence
  • The economic lifestyle my family lives
  • My ability to teach others
  • Whether I have earned the good things that have come my way

Honestly, the only thing they didn’t seem to attack about me and my life is my appearance. I have to assume they just forgot to hit this point, but I will be working very hard not to give them the opportunity to pile on this criticism in the future!

Yesterday, I was proud of myself. I handled the situation with more calm and gracefulness than I would have in my twenties or thirties, when I would have met their behavior with a string of crying hysterics and screaming, followed by hours of arguing with myself about my self-worth.

But this morning, I woke up feeling pounded. I honestly felt like a death had occurred, and I knew I needed to take some steps to work through the pain I had experienced. If I ignored it, it would surface later in more negative ways.

I talked to a couple of trusted people about what had happened, trying to keep my story succinct and not to dwell too much on the awfulness of specific attacks. I took a walk with my dog when the sun unexpectedly broke through outside. I ate some cheese and some Cocoa Krispies (don’t worry, not at the same time, and not to excess).

Then, as I began to feel better, I shifted to asking myself: What do I do with this? What can I learn and how can this negative experience, which has the potential to absolutely throttle me, help me to be and do better? How do I take the bad and turn it into good?

Here, for your viewing pleasure, is what I came up with:

  1. Remember the power of words and honor that power. The people who attacked me are not healthy people. They choose to use their words to tear down and hurt. How I choose to use my words matters and there are consequences that come with my decisions. I have so many opportunities each day to use my words for good – in the work that I do, in the young people that cross my path through my children, and also through my writing. I will be intentional and use my words to uplift others. This will be a legacy for me – the positive seeds that I plant in other people will outlive me.
  2. Be especially mindful of the words that I say to my family. In the teen years, it is tempting to think that children sometimes need blunter, harsher words in order to help them see a point. This, of course, is not true. Teenagers need kind words. They need to be uplifted, as they continue the hard work of developing their own sense of self. I will speak those words to my family, and especially my teenagers.
  3. Resist the urge to choose isolation over connection. Now that I am in my forties, I am starting to see people around me choose isolation at times when they would benefit from choosing to connect with others. In this age, it is tempting to feel frustrated with the failings of others. We wonder if we should, instead, protect ourselves by pulling back from friends, family and society as a whole. An isolated life can seem safer. After all, if we don’t trust in others, we will never be disappointed in them. The people who spewed their anger at me yesterday are isolated, lonely people. This is the life they have chosen for themselves. And it is a jaw-dropping cautionary tale. I will choose connection, even when isolation might initially feel tempting to an introvert like me.
  4. Choose acceptance. The people who railed against me yesterday did so because they want me to conform to their views and their attitudes. Oddly, they would likely be kinder to me if I mirrored their misery. My life doesn’t look like theirs – it’s more abundant in opportunity, in connection and in the work that I do. I do not operate from fear as they do. I don’t say this in arrogance, but simply to recognize the mindset they were likely in when they spoke their hurtful words. I don’t like what they said, obviously. I will make decisions going forward to try to prevent these people from being in situations where they can speak such words to me again. But I also accept them, where they are. They will not change – in fact, odds are excellent that their behavior will escalate even more than it already has. I accept that for what it is. I do not get to be surprised that they are the people they have repeatedly shown me they are. I accept them, just as they are.

This morning, I felt completely exhausted because of the verbal assault I experienced yesterday. But now, I am beginning to feel renewed – like I can take the negative and learn from it, using it as fuel to do better and be better. If every day was an easy one, we would likely never learn.

What have you learned from toxic people?