Mirrors: What Do You Bring to Your Relationships?

What do you bring to your relationships?

This topic came up in a conversation I had recently. We were talking about the challenge of “being oneself” in a close relationship after my conversation partner was criticized by a friend for being “self-focused” (read: selfish) on what she wanted from the relationship. Without sharing the whole conversation, I wanted to share where this took my mind in terms of brain activity.


Often, eastern and western cultures are talked about as focusing on the individual or the collective.


Western cultures are often described as individualistic — that we focus on the individual as a person separate from others. We may interact with others, but our worldview sees each person as a distinct and separate entity unto itself.


Eastern cultures, on the other hand, are described as collectivist — that each person always feels themselves part of a web of relationships, not really ever a separate entity, but an element in a web of relationships for which they share responsibility.


As happens so often, because of our brain's efficiency in creating categories for clarity, we tend to see these alternative worldviews as Either ~ Or. But what might happen if we try to also create a Both~ And perspective on these?


To do this, there are a couple of elements we need to review first:

First, what are relationships — close relationships— really about? Barbara Fredrickson has been researching for years what connects us and in her book, Love 2.0, she defines “love” as composed of micro-moments of connection that include: shared positive emotions, synchrony of our movements which is also reflected in our bodies’ responses to each other, and mutual caring.


These three co-occur in these micro-moments of love to build an embodied rapport between two people (or the group), strengthen social bonds, and increase commitment to the Other that emerges from the caring in the moment.


(Contrary to our usual understanding, Fredrickson’s love can exist even between strangers if we experience these micro-moments and in order to sustain a long-term loving relationship, we need to practice creating these micro-moments — but maybe that’s another blog post.)


Now, let’s focus a bit more on the synchrony of movements and bodies that leads to that embodied rapport. You may have heard or read about the existence of brain cells that actually mirror the actions of others. These “mirror neurons”, as they’re called, seem to serve a purpose in the brain of helping us understand the intentions and actions of other people. When I watch you reach for your coffee cup to take a sip, my brain is also creating the same pattern — as if I myself were reaching for a coffee cup.


Do we mirror every action of people around us? Apparently not — the key is the meaningfulness of the action — that it has an intention behind it which our brain is decoding by imitating what it sees. And, while there is some controversy around this in research circles, we probably also mirror other people’s emotions — which makes sense as a method to understand how they’re feeling, their motivations, and their intentions from an emotional perspective.


Not only do we mirror other people to better understand them, but it works the other way around as well — the more we mirror each other in shared movement, the more we mutually feel vitality and aliveness. It makes me think of an amplification of each person through the shared mirroring — the synchrony — that produces an amplification of the pleasure of the movement and the sense of being “alive”.


When we talk about this mirroring, this synchrony, it includes mirroring the form and style of the movement as well as the rhythm and specific actions of the movements. I dance tango and other partnered dances and I often hear women talking about the deep pleasure of dancing (e.g., the "tango moment"), which they don’t often find occurs as intensely anywhere else in their lives. Sometimes they attribute this to a favourite partner, but I suspect it is a reflection of this sharing of rhythmic movement to the music — anyone with whom we are moving in synchrony and in rhythm with music would probably elicit this strong connection. Perhaps you can think of other situations in which shared movement may underlie strong connections (e.g., military marching, mother and infant imitation, etc.).


Synchrony doesn’t only create feelings of aliveness and vitality, though. Research studies suggest it also results in increased compassion, co-operation, affiliation, satisfaction with emotional support, and even better pain tolerance. (e.g, Vacharkulksemsuk & Fredrickson, 2012). It's a good thing.

Does the synchrony need to be physical though? Apparently not. As I suggested might occur with mirror neurons, synchrony can also emerge from self-disclosure (“You feel that way? Oh my gosh — me too!”), which results in a sense that the other person “gets” us and results in this sense of embodied rapport as well.


So what does love as micro-movements of connection and mirror neurons have to do with an individual vs collective focus?


Well, let’s think about that from both perspectives:


Living in a Collective perspective, we feel part of a larger network all the time. We pay attention to those connections and paying attention means we enhance them. Thus, we connect to and reflect others around us. They get amplified and we are aware of how they are part of us — that we are not alone.


Living in an Individual perspective, we can also be aware of being connected to others all the time, but our attention is more on ourselves. That means we are more aware of how they are reflecting us (”they are like me”)— we see ourselves in our connections (vs the reverse of the collectivist perspective, where we pay more attention to seeing how we are reflected in them — “I am like them”). So from this Individual perspective, we are what feels amplified.


They are not alone — we are contributing our selves to them.


So now to come back to the relationship-building question: What do we bring to our relationships?


If we are wholly focused on the Other and not bringing our unique selves to the relationship, we are only mirroring what they bring.


While this might be nice for awhile or for some people, it limits the connection. Do you see why?


If there is only a mirror, then the person can only ever see themselves — and who can truly connect with an image in the mirror? Not only does it prevent the Other from seeing us, it reduces the range of experiences available to use in making a connection — how can we discover shared interests and feelings if there is only one side to the exploration?


In fact, one might say it actually prevents a true connection between two people. The Other gets amplified — which might be useful or not, depending on what gets amplified. (Think of addictive “co-dependency”, where the needs of the non-addict are lost to the needs of the addict, which actually helps sustain the addiction and the dysfunction.)


If we are wholly focused on ourselves, we have the reverse problem. In this scenario, we are alert for and paying to ways in which they reflect us - whether they seem to “get” us. But if we are focused on whether they are reflecting us, then we still have only one person and a mirror — only in this situation, we are the one person and they are the mirror. Again, there is a lack of connection with the Other - this time, we aren’t seeing them — and so we can’t truly connect with them as they are. We are amplified — which might feel good (again, depending on what’s being amplified), but this prevents us from discovering them.


In both these scenarios, the possibility of those micro-moments of love is reduced, if not eliminated. Or they become a kind of pseudo-connection, in which we feel a synchrony of some kind, but it’s not an authentic moving synchrony between two different people discovering the pleasure of points of resonance. Instead, it’s an artificial synchrony where one mirrors the other exclusively - no real connection is building.


We can bring the most to our relationships when we discover our existing connections to the Other(s) by:

  1. the shared resonances of common interests, feelings, and movements AND
  2. by bringing something new, different, and valuable to the mix, which helps our partner to stretch to understand and incorporate something new, contributing to their opportunities for growth.  

If they do the same, both parts of the relationship will evolve and grow.


What about you?

I’ve tried to point out the two ends of the spectrum: mirroring the other to the exclusion (the “erasing”) of ourselves or being aware of being mirrored to the degree that we don’t truly see the Other. But most relationships aren’t at one extreme or the other and most relationships are in constant motion — being more of reflecting the Other sometimes, more aware that we are being reflected at others.


Does this make sense to you?


Where do you see yourself in your closest relationships?

Does this help you understand any problem relationships you’ve had in the past? Right now?


I’d really like to hear what you think about this, so please hit that Comment button and share your thoughts on these questions.