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Can looking in the mirror make you more compassionate?


Self-compassion doesn’t seem to come naturally to the most part. Being self-compassionate involves being warm and understanding with oneself, treating ourselves the same way we would treat others, particularly in the face of suffering, failure and adversity [1]. When it comes to the way we speak to and treat ourselves, an internal voice of self-criticism may be more present. Self-criticism is associated with unworthiness and failure, engaging in scrutiny and evaluating oneself negatively compared to others. However, this comes attached with consequences for wellbeing.


The impact of criticism and compassion can be observed at a physiological level. Criticism activates and overstimulates the brain’s 'threat' system. However, compassion activates the 'soothing' system and is associated with feelings of being safe, calm and experiences of acceptance, kindness, and support. An overstimulated threat system reduces capacity for self-soothing as we can’t be in the threat and soothe system at the same time. This can end up dysregulating the emotional system. One way to measure the body’s regulatory abilities is by assessing heart-rate variability, defined as the variation in time between each heartbeat. HRV is an indicator of how responsive the body is to different situations by measuring how well the sympathetic (fight or flight/threat system) and parasympathetic (rest and digest/soothe system) nervous system adapt. If your HRV is high, this indicates that your body adapts to change easily, whereas a low HRV usually indicates that the threat system is dominating. In self-critical individuals, low HRV and emotional dysregulation are observed, both of which are risk factors for difficulties such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and affects even the way people cope with pain [2, 3].


Compassion-based approaches counteract self-criticism by focusing on fostering a sense of safety and contentment. Cultivating self-compassion can be achieved in diverse ways, one of which is compassionate self-talk. Compassionate self-talk involves becoming aware of your inner voice and actively working towards being more accepting and non-judgemental of the self. It has been shown to be effective in increasing positive feelings following self-criticism [3]. Whilst this is helpful in promoting self-compassion, evidence suggests that introducing the use of a mirror enhances the effect even further.


Looking in the mirror and praising yourself is sometimes associated with vanity at first thought, but research has shown that mirrors are a powerful tool for changing our perspective of ourselves and increasing self-compassion and resilience. Awareness of the self is largely controlled by the prefrontal lobe in the brain, an area that also plays a central role in emotion regulation [4]. Facing yourself in the mirror increases activity in this brain region and thus it has been suggested that it can be used as a self-awareness enhancing tool [5]. Combining self-awareness with compassionate self-talk improves how you relate to yourself and induces a state of self-focused attention that may not be present if using compassionate self-talk alone. Mirrors also engage facial expressions, an important component of empathetic processes. Facial expressions communicate emotions that only the face provides, thus being faced with yourself in the mirror might improve the ability to empathise with ourselves.


Petrocchi et al. (2017) explored how exposure to a mirror influenced self-compassion and positive affect, specifically feelings such as safeness, contentment, and self-reassurance.


What did the study involve?

A total of 43 men and 47 women participated in the study. Initially people were asked to relax for 5 minutes whilst looking through a magazine so a baseline of their mood could be measured. An audio recording then instructed them to write four compassionate phrases of their own choice.


At this point people should have been feeling relatively relaxed or compassionate towards themselves after writing the statements. For the researchers to be able to assess the extent that compassion counteracts self-criticism, people had to be feeling self-critical, so they were asked to spend 5 minutes writing a detailed account of a time where they harshly criticised themselves.


People were then randomly allocated to one of these groups for the compassion task:

1. Repeat the four compassionate phrases whilst looking in the mirror

2. Repeat the four compassionate phrases without a mirror

3. Look at themselves in a mirror without repeating the phrases


The study measured HRV and positive and negative mood when people were relaxed, after the self-criticism task and following the self-compassion task. Common humanity which is a component of compassion was also measured - this refers to the acceptance and understanding that inadequacies, flaws and failures are universal, as opposed to believing that these are inherent only to oneself (which could be considered as a form of self-criticism…)


What did they find?

There was no difference in baseline measurements between the groups before or after the self-criticism task, placing the participants on an equal footing before starting the self-compassion task. After allocation to one of the three groups and completing the self-compassion task, there were significant differences in how they felt.


The key findings are:

1. Repeating the compassionate phrases whilst looking at the mirror resulted in significantly higher soothing positive mood than the people who only did either one, showing that the combination of the two had an enhanced effect than either alone.

2. The increase in soothing positive mood was in part explained by an increase in common humanity. Recognising that everyone has imperfections helped with being more compassionate towards oneself.

3. HRV was higher in the compassionate phrases and mirror group, indicating that the body adapted better to change as opposed to the threat system being overactive.

4. Men and women benefitted equally; no differences were found based on gender.


Conclusion

Mirrors are an effective tool for improving the effectiveness of compassion exercises. Our ability to be compassionate when we experience failures improves resilience and psychological health overall. Criticising ourselves is never helpful for our wellbeing but we are biased towards focusing on the negative. More often, we hold stricter standards for ourselves and evaluate ourselves negatively compared to others. Looking in the mirror may help with applying similar standards that we use for others, reminding us we have flaws like everyone else and that failures and inadequacies are a part of the human experience. This reduces the degree of blame and self-judgement. Exposure to emotional facial expressions further promotes empathy and helps to look at ourselves from an external neutral point of view as opposed to focusing in on our internal representation and how we feel about ourselves. You start to experience yourself in a way that isn’t solely from the perspective of your inner dialogue. Mirror-facing compassion may feel odd at first if you haven’t tried it before, but it can be an effective compassionate practice in response to your inner critic.


Have you tried compassion exercises before, and have you thought about trying it facing a mirror?


References

[1] Neff, K. D. (2011). Self‐compassion, self‐esteem, and well‐being. Social and personality psychology compass, 5(1), 1-12.


[2] Rudich, Z., Lerman, S. F., Gurevich, B., Weksler, N., & Shahar, G. (2008). Patients’ self-criticism is a stronger predictor of physician’s evaluation of prognosis than pain diagnosis or severity in chronic pain patients. The Journal of Pain, 9(3), 210-216.


[3] Warren, R., Smeets, E., & Neff, K. (2016). Self-criticism and self-compassion: risk and resilience: being compassionate to oneself is associated with emotional resilience and psychological well-being. Current Psychiatry, 15(12), 18-28.


[4] Heatherton, T. F. (2011). Neuroscience of self and self-regulation. Annual review of psychology, 62, 363.


[5] Petrocchi, N., Ottaviani, C., & Couyoumdjian, A. (2017). Compassion at the mirror: Exposure to a mirror increases the efficacy of a self-compassion manipulation in enhancing soothing positive affect and heart rate variability. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12(6), 525-536.


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