The founder of chassidut, the Baal Shem Tov, taught that the whole world is a mirror.
It sounds like a very simple concept, but if a person can actually internalize this idea, it’s the key to real inner transformation.
The basic idea is this: Like attracts like.
If I myself am full of jealousy, hatred, anger, hypocrisy, arrogance and self-righteousness – just to list the things I’m currently working on myself – then I’m going to attract lots of that type of stuff into my own life, and it’s going to really annoy me.
Because God knows that we all have a blind spot when it comes to figuring out our own bad behavior and nasty character traits. We might be the most jealous person in the world, and still never realise just how much bad stuff we’re wishing on other people, because we’re secretly coveting what they have, or all their success.
Ditto, for anger and hate. While it’s usually much harder to hide things a really bad temper, and volcanic outbursts of rage, we’ll still make every effort to try to dress these bad character traits up as ‘justified’ in some way, and even ‘holy’.
And the same thing goes for all the other negative character traits that exist in the world. We’ll either ignore that we have them, justify them as being ‘good’, or make a bunch of other excuses for why our bad behavior and yucky traits really aren’t so bad, or so yucky, and why everything that’s happening in the world is really
just everyone else’s fault.
This is human nature.
So what does God do, to help us really figure out what we need to work on and change? He sends a whole bunch of difficult situations and ucky people into our lives, to give us a clue as to what we ourselves need to work on.
Whatever we’re noticing in others, that we can’t help but take ‘personally’ and get very upset about, on some level, we have the same problem.
There are no exceptions to this rule.
But then, people come along and they say: “I had awful, abusive parents. How can you say that the mirror principle applies to me?! I was 100% the victim, I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I was just a child!”
And honestly, there is a lot of truth to this argument. The small souls in our care are extremely easy to damage and hurt and twist out of shape psychologically, that’s part of why every parent has such a big responsibility to be working on acknowledging and then working on overcoming our own bad character traits with every fibre of our being.
But let’s explore what tends to happens to that poor, abused kid when they grow up, and they are no longer totally helpless and powerless.
The first thing to acknowledge is that if we ourselves were emotionally neglected, or flat-out abused in childhood, we have a huge wall to climb, in order to not repeat and pass on the same abusive behaviors to our children.
And this is where the mirror principal really starts to come into play, because people can so easily get stuck in a perception of themselves as the permanent ‘victim’ who is only ever sinned against, and who never does anything bad to anyone themselves.
While this mindset was probably true in childhood, it’s certainly no longer true when the person becomes an adult, and it’s definitely not true when that adult become a parent themselves.
But when a person consistently views themselves through the prism of being a ‘permanent victim’, they will never really acknowledge their own character flaws and problematic behavior.
And that’s why all the abusive people out there tend to believe that they are totally justified in their abuse of other people, including their own innocent children, because they are still seeing themselves as blameless victims.
Again, it’s completely understandable how this mindset comes about. But even so, God still wants us to get a grip on what’s really going on, and fix things, so we don’t pass the problem down to the next generation.
So now, let’s go back to the victimized kid who has now grown up.
Probably, she really doesn’t like herself very much. Probably, she has huge issues with toxic shame, which will kick in and overwhelm her every time she thinks she might have done something wrong. Probably, her fight / flight / freeze / fawn stress response will be permanently on high alert, and very easy to activate.
If someone or something triggers her into ‘fight’ – she’ll come out swinging and raging and hating.
If she gets triggered into ‘flight’ – she’ll run away into work, or doing kindnesses for all the neighbors, spending all her time in Facebook, or she’ll literally go AWOL and file for divorce.
If she gets triggered into ‘freeze’ – then that’s when depression and escapism come into the picture, whatever will close the world down around her, and let her hibernate inside her own head.
And if she gets triggered into ‘fawn’, then that’s when she’ll completely step outside of herself, and totally cut herself off from her true thoughts and feelings and emotions to try to give the other person what she thinks they want, so that they’ll leave her alone.
Let me ask you something:
What do you think it’s like, growing up with a person like this for a mother?
What is the child of this person experiencing?
And here is where we get into the real meat and potatoes of this post.
If that parent doesn’t like herself, then she’s also not going to like whatever she sees in the kid that reminds her of herself. And because so much of this is usually playing out under her emotional radar, she’s going to lash out the hardest at the kid’s characteristics that she herself has most repressed.
And each time she does that, she is being the abuser, not the victim.
Now, what about the toxic shame?
People have toxic shame because as a child, they were ridiculed or punished for making even minor, completely normal mistakes and errors. Instead of seeing that the thing they did, the action they did, was wrong, the parent gave this kid the sense that they themselves are fundamentally flawed, bad and worthless.
When you’re getting that message as a victimized kid, you tend to develop perfectionist tendencies, to try to minimize the times you’ll get carpeted – and then flooded with toxic shame - for making a mistake. Highly controlling behavior goes hand-in-hand with these perfectionistic tendencies, and again we can understand why.
A lack of ‘perfection’ will lead to punishment, and awful feelings of toxic shame. Trying to micro-manage the environment is a way of trying to minimize the likelihood of anything going ‘wrong’.
The problem is – no one is perfect. The problem is also, things can and do go wrong, even with all the meticulous planning in the world. With a lot of effort and focus, it’s maybe possible for the controlling, perfectionist person to keep the world running the way they want to when they’re in the office, or at the gym.
But at home? It’s a completely different story.
So now, what’s going on when that victimized kid grows up, and has their own family?
If they haven’t realized what’s going on internally with their own feelings of toxic shame, unreasonable perfectionism and need to control – they are going to ‘punish’ their own children harshly for making even minor, completely normal mistakes.
And so, the cycle starts again.
But if this parent still feels like they are the victim, they won’t own up to their own abusive tendencies and behavior towards their children. Often, what’s stopping abusers from putting their hands up to their bad behavior is the awful feeling of toxic shame that floods them whenever there is any hint that they might have done something wrong.
But now, they really are doing something wrong – even, lots of things wrong – that they can’t or won’t admit.
And having a person like that for a parent is extremely difficult and challenging for the child.
Once again, the victim has become an abuser.
NOW, WHAT ABOUT AN OUT-OF-CONTROL STRESS RESPONSE?
Ok, that awful, traumatic childhood we had means that we are primed to fight, run away, freeze and fall into depression, and / or turn into a disassociating people pleaser.
For sure, people only get like this because they went through some very challenging, difficult experiences.
But now they’re a grown up, and now they are the parent, the boss, the president, and they are tyrannizing the people around them with their awful rage fits; or ruining their relationships with their inability to really relate; or neglecting their kids, their responsibilities, their spouse because they are ‘frozen’ into a small, depressed bubble where they just can’t see past their own miserable headspace; or stuck in some plastic, unreal, unemotional version of who they think they should be.
What’s it like growing up with a parent like that?
And so, the cycle starts all over again, with the ‘victim’ becoming the abuser.
So now, how can we stop this awful cycle from continuing?
Enter: The Mirror Principle
When you grow up being constantly blamed and shamed for pointless nothings, or constantly ignored, or constantly attacked, or constantly made to feel bad for wanting normal things like love, affection and real conversations, you aren’t going to trust other people when they tell you ‘you’ve got a problem’.
And who can blame you?
You’ve heard that from the day you were born, because the ‘permanent victims’ in your life were trying to make all of their own problems and issues your fault.
But at the same time, you for sure still have a bunch of your own issues, that if you don’t get a handle on, are going to lead to you becoming an abusive ‘permanent victim’ in turn.
So, God arranges things so that you will be constantly surrounded by people who have the same bad character traits that you yourself have. Like it not, these are the people who you’ll be attracting into your space, and into your life.
Because like attracts like.
And now, you have a choice. Either, you can decide that you are still 100% perfect, and that you have absolutely nothing to work on yourself (which is the classic stance of a perfectionistic, permanent victim, and usually leads to a person being diagnosed with some sort of a personality disorder).
You can accept the mirror principle, and start to explore what God is trying to show you via the people in your life who are upsetting you.
THE 1% RULE
There is no such thing as being 100% right.
If you are caught up in some sort of distressing altercation with someone, or if someone’s behavior is upsetting you, then you own at least 1% of the problem.
There is at least 1% of the work to be done here, and you have to go and figure out how you may be treating others the way this yucky person is treating you, or acting in a similar way to the one you are so upset about, or harshly criticizing in others.
Let’s give an example, to try and make it easier to follow what I’m saying.
ANGRY HUSBAND, ANGRY MUM
Let’s say, you married someone with an awful temper. If the toilets aren’t cleaned just so, he’ll storm out in a rage. He’s constantly insulting you, and criticizing you. He can get enraged if the cable TV stops working, or if the car breaks down.
You’re scared of him, so you go into ‘people-pleasing’ mode to try to manage the situation.
Superficially, it looks like this man isn’t your mirror at all! You’re being super nice and accommodating as much as possible, while he’s raging and abusing.
But now, take a look at what’s going on with the kids.
This woman isn’t scared of her kids, and as the adult, she’s in the position of ‘power’ in the relationship. And sure enough, there’s an awful lot of anger being blasted in their direction.
She berates them for not doing their homework properly, blasts them for how they dress, and is constantly criticizing them and blowing up at them.
The mirror principle is playing out.
Is her anger as extreme as what she’s experiencing herself, from her husband? Arguably not. But she still has a lot of her own inner work to do, to overcome her anger and rage.
Now, if the woman in our example believes herself to be a ‘permanent victim’, she won’t understand that she actually has the same problem as her husband. She’ll blame him 100% for all the issues that are going on in the house, and she won’t take any responsibility for her own abusive behavior of her children, which she’ll tell herself is not a big deal, and justify as being ‘normal’.
In the meantime, her own relationship with her kids becomes extremely strained.
Now, the mirror principle is going to kick again, as the kids start to relate to the mother with more and more anger.
Again, God is giving her a chance to see what she herself needs to work on.
At least 1% of this problem is hers. At this point, she can either knuckle down to see how her own behavior and negative character traits are contributing to the problem, or she’ll pretend that she’s 100% perfect, the “permanent victim”, and that all her children’s anger issues are nothing to do with her.
We all have resistance to acknowledging our own faults and flaws.
If we have issues with ‘toxic shame’, then that resistance can so easily turn into an impenetrable mantra that “we can do no wrong”, and that we are always just the permanent victim.
But all of us are down here because we have work to do.
So next time you see something you don’t like, or experience some behavior that you find unusually upsetting or emotionally wrenching, take a moment to try to figure out what God is showing you about yourself, that you need to work on and fix.
Because I guarantee, at least 1% of the problem lies with us, and not the other guy.