The introspective potential of mirrors “relates to the Augustinian or Socratic traditions of self-knowledge, wisdom and prudence” (Anderson, 2008, p. 110). Socrates urged his followers to study their external reflections so that they would act honorably proclaiming that “in that mirror you will see and know yourselves and your own good” (Plato, n.d., location 50671). Ancient Chinese philosophers also believed that mirrors were a metaphysical reflection and the path of true wisdom. Chuang Tzu, a Taoist philosopher in 350 B.C. was quoted as saying “when the mind of the sage is tranquil, it becomes the mirror of the universe and reflection of all things” (Chan, 1963, p. 208). In Western philosophies, the psyche is seen as a mirror of reality, while in Buddhism, it is the world that mirrors back who we are in all aspects of our lives (Bolen, 1982/2004; Nhat Hanh, 2006).
Melchior-Bonnet (1994/2001) believed that “the mirror, ‘matrix of the symbolic,’ accompanies the human quest for identity” (p. 4). For Bar-On (2007) the process of self-reflection was an exploration into ones thoughts, feelings, and/or behavior which when evaluated “can lead to a cycle of self-regulation or to the ability to use feedback and monitor progress” (p. 225). This reflective action may result in the development of skills in learning in and from practice (Johns & Freshwater, 1998/2005; Perry, 2000), and encourages critical and innovative thinking (Pierson, 1998).
The Mirror Project
The Mirror Project is an ongoing expressive art therapy group that meets at a community-based, after-school program that teaches leadership, healthy life choices, and substance abuse prevention in Northern New Jersey. The Project engages middle school and high school students in the question of identity and includes a) an expressive arts group decorating mirrors around the question of identity, and b) an exhibition of the decorated mirrors.
Expressive arts group. At the beginning of the group, an open-discussion was facilitated around the topic of identity; how culture and life experiences may impact identity, and 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. Identity was considered an intrinsic quality that defines who you are, how you related to others, and how you view your role in your community (Damon, Menon, & Bronk, 2003; McKnight & Kashdan, 2009). Identity can be formed around many aspects of self including physical appearance, spiritual belief, roles, and values in life. Reflecting on identity requires the participant to look beyond the surface image in the mirror and to articulate what is most important to them as a reflection of self.
A selection of mirrors of different shapes and sizes was used in the group (e.g., antique mirrors, modern mirrors, large and small mirrors, concave, convex, and hand mirrors). Participants were directed to choose a mirror and decorate it with words, images, and/or symbols while reflecting on the question, “Who am I?” Art supplies including acrylic paints, permanent marker pens, and glitter glue was provided. These materials were chosen because they are easy to use, readily available, and gave participants a sense of control over the materials. While the choice of art material is often revealing or is chosen for its therapeutic qualities, this workshop was limited to practicalities and ease of assembly. The self-reflection focused on the choice of mirror, colors used to decorate the mirror as well as the meaning behind the words, images, and/or symbols chosen to express identity.
After participants finished their mirror they were asked to complete a post session qualitative survey regarding their experiences during the creative process. Participants were also offered the option of sharing their mirror with the group and/or withdrawing their mirror from display. The survey included demographic information; gender, age, and race/ethnicity. Survey questions included:
- Was this creative process helpful to you?
- What is the meaning behind the decorations on the mirror?
- Did you find it difficult to reflect on self identity?
- Did you discover (or re-discover) something new about yourself during the creative process?
Mirror exhibition. The mirrors from the expressive arts group were then exhibited to the community to encourage additional discussion on identity and self-reflection. Often what the artist creates is not necessarily what others see. Those viewing the exhibition were invited to fill out a short, qualitative survey on their responses to the mirrors on display and completion of the survey indicated their permission to participate in collecting exhibition responses. The survey included demographic information; gender, age, and race/ethnicity. The survey questions included:
- Was this exhibition helpful to you?
- As you look at the mirrors in the exhibition, which one resonates with YOU, and why?
- What do you value most in life?
- What do you see when you look in the mirror?
The Mirror Project is one of the most popular activities in our after-school program. The data collected from the expressive arts group has been invaluable in deepening my understanding of the students I teach and at times, have helped to identify students who may need additional help and support. Even though the mirrors are displayed with no names attached there is a sense of pride from participants; of being recognized and visible in the community. Students often pointed out their mirrors to family and friends and/or upload a photograph of the mirror to social media. And at the end of the school year, they were able to take their mirror home with them, if they chose to do so.
Those viewing the mirrors in the exhibition have expressed an appreciation for the opportunity to reflect on their identity and to connect with others. Data from a pilot study of a mirror exhibition to freshman students at the local high school indicated that connections were made between students on sensitive issues and concerns. Students have made some powerful comments on their survey, for example, one student from an Orthodox Jewish family decorated a mirror that said “Fashion Failure.” She was comforted to learn that of the 169 female students who participated in the freshman survey, 73% also identified with feeling a fashion failure (Ridley, 2013).
The Mirror Project has been successfully expanded in to an intergenerational program involving students and older adults living in a residential care facility. The intergenerational aspect of the Project provided an opportunity for shared life experiences and helped to bridge the generation gap by increasing understanding between two groups of people who are often misunderstood. Mirrors can be used in a variety of health care and educational settings but I would suggest caution should be used when working with those suffering from depression, dementia, body dysmorphic disorder, or eating disorders as the use of mirrors may be contraindicated.
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