The Mirroring Exercise

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1 THE MANY REWARDS OF THE MIRRORING EXERCISE Is this process tedious? Clearly. When you mirror each other, the conversation slows to a snail's pace. Is practicing the exercise worth the effort? Absolutely. One of the reasons the exercise is so helpful is that it prevents many of the common intimacyblocking behaviors I mentioned earlier, including domination of the conversation, interrupting, being overly critical, being too closemouthed, and failing to pay close attention. It also puts an end to the "shoot and reload" school of communication, in which one partner "fires" the first shot of words and "reloads" the mental gun while the other person is talking. You can't shoot and reload during the mirroring exercise because you have to listen too carefully to your partner. The fact that you can't fire verbal bullets at each other during the exercise creates an allimportant demilitarized zone. As long as you stick to the rules, you won't be able to wound each other psychologically by ignoring, discounting, shaming, interrupting, or contradicting each other. All you can do is paraphrase each other. Once you learn that you can rely on your partner's neutral response, you 1

2 are likely to become more willing to talk about sensitive subjects, opening up whole avenues of discussion. Subjects that once touched off bitter arguments can now be discussed in safety. Another benefit of the exercise is that it gives you the luxury of having your partner's undivided attention. It can be moving to know that your partner is paying attention to you and trying to understand what you're saying. Too often we listen to our partners with half an ear. Like the men in the discussion group, we "uh- huh" and nod at all the right places while we daydream about something else. When your partner paraphrases you accurately, you have proof that your message has gotten across. Many times in my therapy sessions I have seen people moved to tears by the simple fact that they have been heard and understood. But the benefits of the mirroring exercise go beyond even this. If you faithfully practice it over a period of weeks, you will begin to experience a fundamental shift in your perception of both your partner and yourself. Most of the transformation takes place on an unconscious level. When you are in the role of the receiver, you are confronted with the inescapable fact that your partner is different from you. On some level you've always known this, but like most people, you may have 2

3 gone to great lengths to keep from absorbing this unpleasant truth. In my office I see partners try to coerce each other into adopting similar points of view by using an endless variety of maneuvers, including bullying, manipulating, shaming, and lecturing each other. This mental coercion is not unique to love relationships. Many families are built on the premise that "we are all the same," the parents dictating to the children how to think, feel, and behave. Friendships, too, are often formed around shared opinions and values. Many of your closest friends are likely to have similar politics, values, and lifestyle. One of the primary reasons we surround ourselves with like-minded people is that we didn t want to experience our separateness. If someone else agrees with everything we say, we can fool ourselves into thinking we are not separate from them. And the reason we want to feel psychically joined with others is that when we're aware of our separateness, we are confronted with the fear of death. This may not make sense on a conscious level, but the unconscious mind has its own logic. On an unconscious level we are under the mistaken impression that we cannot survive on our own. 3

4 Actually, this is true for about the first decade of our lives because human beings require caretaking for a longer period of time than any other species. To ensure that we get this care, we are programmed to bond closely with our caretakers. This is why a two-year-old girl clings to her mother when she is left with a strange baby-sitter or a three-year-old boy breaks into tears when he loses sight of his mother in the shopping mall. "Without you, I will die," believes the unconscious mind, and for many years this is regarded as the absolute truth. Regrettably this survival mechanism doesn't disappear when we are old enough to fend for ourselves. The primitive part of the brain that governs reflexes and primal emotions still operates on the belief that "If I am not intimately connected with someone else, I will die." This is why relationship issues can oft times feel so lifethreatening. On an unconscious level, to be abandoned by a lover is to come face-to-face with the fear of death. There was a time when my own separation anxiety was so great that I became angry whenever my husband even complimented another woman. Unconsciously I was using my anger to cover up my fear that my partner found the other woman more interesting, more 4

5 attractive, or more clever than me and that he was going to leave me for her. If he left me, a hidden part of me was convinced I was going to die. Is this bizarre? Yes. Is this common? Yes. One of the profound consequences of the mirroring exercise is that the simple act of listening attentively to your partner compels you to confront your separateness. You cannot use anger or any other defensive maneuver to deny that you and your partner separate beings. The exercise forces you to be a mirror, validating whatever your partner has to say - no matter how much those words accentuate your differences. But the genius of the exercise is that it doesn't force you to confront this existential truth all at once. You absorb it in small increments. Each time you paraphrase your partner, you are acknowledging another small aspect of your partner's individuality. This gives the primitive part of your brain time to adjust to the reality of your separateness. You will not be aware of this process as you practice the exercise. You are more likely to be thinking of what you don't like about the exercise: "This is tedious." "We're not getting anywhere." "Do we have to do this again?" "I hate not being able to answer you right away." 5

6 "This feels contrived and awkward." But underneath your surface complaints your unconscious mind will be slowly registering the many differences between you and your partner, along with the comforting fact that you are still alive. Gradually your unconscious mind will be able to construct a more adult world view: "Yes, I am indeed separate from my partner. But I have yet to die. Perhaps I am mature enough to survive as an independent being after all." When you are in the role of the sender, your unconscious mind makes an equally significant discovery. When you make a statement and hear it paraphrased accurately by your partner, you are acutely aware of your partner's presence. Mirroring is primary proof that someone else is out there, listening to you, understanding you, validating you. Maybe there is intelligent life in the universe after all! Furthermore, because your partner is willing to go through this tedious, timeconsuming, frustrating exercise with you, you have tangible proof that your partner cares about you. On a deep, fundamental level you begin to sense that, yes, you are indeed separate from your partner, but you are not alone. 6

7 Thus the mirroring exercise gives you the confidence that you can survive as a separate entity at the same time that it reassured you that your partner cares about you. These seemingly contradictory insights result in a highly evolved state of mind called differentiation: the sense that I am separate from you but still able to connect. Differentiation is the final stage in the adult developmental process. A person who is differentiated fears neither abandonment nor engulfment. I know I can be me and still be in a relationship with you. You can't swallow me up, control me, or manipulate me because I have learned that I can survive without you. I have come to terms with my own separateness. You can leave me, and I won't die. Paradoxically, this feeling of independence allows me to bond with you all the more deeply. Because I'm no longer terrified of being left alone or being engulfed, I don't have to put up so many defenses. I can safely and freely explore what it means to be intimate. It's not fear or need that binds me to you but conscious choice. I am a separate and distinct individual who chooses to be in a relationship with you. There is no question in my mind that differentiation is the key to a deep and lasting love relationship, and the fastest way I know to 7

8 become more differentiated is to practice the mirroring exercise. By Patricia Love Patricia Love 8

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