It’s all about perception, and too often we see ourselves in funhouse mirrors.
Everyone who loves another is susceptible to some form of emotional or verbal abuse, by virtue of the Mirror of Love. Attachment relationships—those held together by strong emotional bonds—serve as mirrors of the inner self. We learn how lovable we are, and how valuable our love is to others, only by interacting with loved ones.
Young children never question the impressions of themselves they receive from their parents. They do not understand that critical, stressed-out mothers or raging fathers may be having a bad time or trying to recover from their own difficult childhoods. Instead, when young children perceive themselves negatively because of their parents, they often attribute it to their own inadequacy and unworthiness.
Suppose you internalized your body image based on reflections from a fun house mirror, which made your hips look a mile wide. You would think you were in deep trouble, which no diet could help. Once that negative image is internalized, you could distrust even accurate mirrors; we know that people gaunt from eating disorders perceive themselves as fat when they look in a mirror that reflects little more than skin and bones. Even those who do not have eating disorders—but who were told repeatedly as children that they were too thin—are likely to see themselves as thin adults, despite mirror reflections portraying a few extra pounds.
When it comes to physical appearance, at least we have lots of other mirrors to compare to the distorted funhouse reflection; this gives us a good chance to overcome an internalized negative body image. But there are no reflections of love other than those we get from the people we love. If you judge how lovable you are based on reflections from someone who cannot love without hurt, you will have a distorted and inaccurate view of yourself as a loving and lovable person.
As we age, our instinct to believe the information about ourselves reflected by loved ones weakens somewhat, but it remains active throughout life. You would probably laugh at a stranger who implied that you had green hair; if your husband or wife said it, you might run to a mirror. We are more likely to believe the criticisms shared with us by our loved ones. The default assumption is that if your partner is displeased, there must be something wrong with you—and you need anger or resentment for protection.
Part of us accepts the “blemishes” reflected in the mirror of love, even if we intellectually know that our loved one is distorting who we are. We might not agree with the particular flaw pointed out, but on some deep level, we will perceive a defect that must be defended. This hidden pressure from the mirror of love is why successful and powerful people are just as vulnerable as anyone else to verbal abuse and to walking on eggshells in their love relationships.
But the mirror of love reflects good news, as well: If, as a child, compassionate caretakers taught you how lovable you are and how valuable your love is, you will naturally have a more realistic view of yourself in love relationships. You’ll be disappointed and saddened sometimes, but you will rarely feel inadequate, unworthy, or unlovable. Even when you feel sad or disappointed, you will know that you can do something to improve your emotional state, if not your situation. Your sadness will be short-lived; after a while, you will regroup and do something to help you feel valuable again. The mirror of love generates energy when it reflects value, just as it depletes energy when it doesn’t.
In verbally abusive relationships, the mirror of love reflects mostly flaws and defects, in the form of criticism, sarcasm, resentment, and anger. Everyone in the family begins to confuse “function” with value and “task-performance” with love. The pain is never about the facts or specific behavior—no matter how your partner puts it, you hear: “If you don’t do what I want, I can’t value you. If I can’t value you; you are not worth loving.” This is the message the verbally abusive partner reflects back at you, no matter how much he or she claims to be talking about “facts,” “logic,” “fairness,” or “tasks.”
Why We Hurt the Ones We Love: Blaming the Mirror
A distressed or misbehaving child can make parents feel like they are inadequate and failing. A raging or rejecting parent can make a child feel powerless, inadequate, and unlovable. A distracted, demanding, or hostile lover can make us feel disregarded, devalued, and rejected.
After working for many thousands of hours with people trying to overcome painful relationship problems, I’m convinced that we use resentment and anger to punish loved ones, not so much for their behavior as for our own painful reflections in the mirror of love. We want to attack the mirror because we don’t like the reflection.
To improve this cycle, stop viewing emotional pain as a punishment inflicted by someone else. Instead, learn to act on it as an internal motivation to heal, correct, and improve. This leads to deeper self-compassion and puts you more in touch with your deepest values, which will inspire more compassion for one another. You can love without hurt, but only if you use pain as a signal to heal and improve, rather than punish.