Mirrors as a Tool for Self-reflection: An Intergenerational Study (Dr. Susan Ridley)

Globalization and advances in technology have resulted in a loss of cultural, community, and individual identity. Having a strong sense of self can be a protective factor in resisting peer pressure and involvement in negative behaviors, and a determining factor in the formation of one’s coping skills, and resiliency to life’s challenges. This was especially important for adolescents who are negotiating the developmental growth from childhood to adulthood, and older adults who are transitioning from the independence of adulthood to the dependence of old age. This was a qualitative intergenerational study on the process of self-reflection on identity. Mirrors have a rich cultural heritage but there have been no studies on their use as a therapeutic tool for self-reflection.

Site and Sample Selection
The Mirror Project was initiated to investigate the question of identity with senior residents of a nursing home and teens living in a community in Northern New Jersey. Participants were recruited through open-enrollment that included personal invitation by the researcher, self referrals, email blasts, and print and internet advertisements. Participation in this study was voluntary and  and participants could withdraw at any time, for any reason and without question. This study was comprised of two stages and included (a) post session interviews with the expressive arts therapy group, and (b) surveys from an art exhibition to the general public. In addition, a comparison was also made to existing data collected in a pilot study to compare and contrast responses of those viewing the self-reflections on identity.

Expressive Arts Therapy Group
An intergenerational expressive arts therapy group was organized around the question of identity. At the beginning of the group, an open-discussion was facilitated around the topic of identity, and how culture and life experiences may impact identity. How the lens of the media (e.g., television, movies, fashion, advertising, and internet) may positively or negatively influence how individuals, groups, and/or communities perceive themselves was also discussed. A selection of mirrors of different shapes and sizes were used in the group (e.g., antique mirrors, modern mirrors, large and small mirrors, concave, convex, and hand mirrors). Participants were then directed to choose a mirror and decorate it with words, images, and/or symbols while reflecting on the question, “Who am I?” After finishing their mirror, participants were asked to complete a post session interview regarding their experiences during the creative process.

Intergenerational Exhibition

Products from the expressive arts experience were then put on display at an intergenerational event celebrating Grandparent’s Day at a senior community center. The researcher was interested in comparing and contrasting perceptions between the two groups; those in the expressive arts therapy group and those who viewed the exhibition. A guest book was made available for those viewing the exhibition to write down their thoughts and feelings about the mirrors on display. An arts-based interactive poster in the shape of a mirror which asked “What do you see when you look into the mirror?” was provided to give those attending the exhibition an opportunity to engage in the process of self-reflection. Colored markers were available for participants to respond to the question with words, images, and/or symbols. In addition, a four-question survey was also made available to those viewing the exhibition. The survey consisted of three qualitative questions and one quantitative question which utilized a 2-point Likert scale yes or no. The data was then coded and analyzed using Atlas.ti software.

Comparison Survey
A comparison of data from a pilot study was made to compare and contrast responses of those viewing the self-reflections on identity. In the pilot study, members of the general public filled out a survey after viewing an exhibit of mirrors decorated by pre-adolescent and adolescent students, and parents in an expressive arts therapy group.  The surveys included demographic information on age, gender, race, and/or ethnicity. The survey consisted of four questions; two qualitative questions and two quantitative questions. The quantitative questions utilized a 4-point Likert scale with 1 indicating poor and 4 indicating excellent, and a 2-point Likert scale yes or no.

For this study, participants were asked to relate their subjective experiences of decorating a mirror around the question, “Who am I?” after an open-ended discussion of what is identity. Identity can be formed around many aspects of self including physical appearance, spiritual belief, roles, and values in life. Reflecting on identity required the participant to look beyond the surface image in the mirror, and to articulate what was most important to them as a reflection of self.

All the participants in the expressive arts therapy group said that decorating the mirrors and reflecting on identity was an enjoyable experience. In the creative process, three students said the painting was most enjoyable; one student highlighted the reflective process as being insightful; and the four older adult participants enjoyed the discussion on identity and connection to others in the group. Six participants indicated that the choice of mirror was important in expressing who they were. Three core themes emerged from participant’s self-reflection on identity which included (a) introspection and self concern (e.g., physical appearance, talents), (b) connection and attachment to something or someone other than self (e.g., nature, people), and (c) taking action to help others (e.g., volunteering, championing a worthy cause).

For those viewing the self-reflections on identity in the art exhibit, the majority said that it aided them in their own reflections on identity. The majority of respondents also identified relationships as the most important thing in their lives. This desire to connect with others was also supported by the choice of mirrors that resonated with respondents. The art exhibition also provided an opportunity for those viewing the mirrors to connect with those who decorated the mirrors. These connections and reflections helped respondents to (re)discover their sense of identity.

The three core themes that emerged from the expressive arts therapy group was also supported by responses from those viewing the art exhibition and those participating in the comparison survey. The results indicated that the three core themes may be seen as fluid, transitional phases in the process of self-reflection on identity.

Journal Article
Ridley, Susan (2014). Intergenerational study: Mirrors as a tool for self-reflection. Working with Older People, 18(1). Retrieve from http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?articleid=17105557