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The enabling mirror

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

Welcome to one of the most beautiful and powerful tools I know for making things better in any relationship, and for helping another person to become their best self. You’ll see...

Are you married to a toaster? I’m guessing not, but your partner might feel you treat them that way. How so?

Well, how do we treat our toasters? We ignore them when they work well. And we get upset with them when they don’t work well. If toasters were employees, they’d have lousy morale.

But is it really all that different with your partner? When they do everything they’re supposed to, the way they’re supposed to, we’re like, fine, good, business as usual. But when they...well, burn the toast, so to speak, we get upset. And “upset” usually means talking about what a careless dope our partner is.

The point is that the feedback we get from our partner is mostly negative, like the reviews we give our toasters. Not saying much when things go well, saying a lot when they don’t.

Now think about a mirror for a moment. Your mirror is neutral. Maybe the lighting around the mirror is or isn’t flattering, but the mirror itself just tells the truth. But imagine if you had a mirror that made you look blah when you looked good and made you look horrible when you looked less than good. How would that make you feel about yourself? How would it make you feel about the mirror?

Not good!

This is where the idea of the enabling mirror comes in. It doesn’t show the truth of what is. It shows the truth of what might be.

Let’s say you want your husband to be more reliable about doing things he’s agreed to do around the house. Instead of ignoring him when he functions well, you could act like an enabling mirror by brightly shining back to him what he does when he’s doing well. He took out the garbage without your having to remind him? Great! You could say, “I really appreciate your being thoughtful and remembering to do that. It was so kind of you.” Yes!: it’s just like saying to the toaster, “Oh, what a nice piece of toast you just made. What a good toaster you are!”

But by doing this with your partner—doing it with your toaster is optional—you accomplish two things.

First, you become a more welcome person in his life, and, hey, that’s good, right?

Second, you hold up an image of your husband for him to live up, that he’ll want to live up to. And guess what? It works. People really don’t like to disappoint other people. If you say, “You never remember to do what I ask,” then what incentive does he have to do what you ask? He’s a never-remember guy anyway! But if you talk about him being thoughtful and responsible, he won’t want to fall down from that pedestal.

Okay, no, this doesn’t work with turn-on-a-dime magic. But it does work if you persist with it. And there are lots of ways to do it. If it’s tax time and he hasn’t started in on the taxes, you could say, “You’re usually so good about getting a head start on the taxes, I’m wondering if you think it’s time to start now.”

If your words and your face reflect back to your partner a bright shiny image of a person your partner will want to live up to, your ending up disappointed will be way less likely.

Some people, reading this, wouldn’t get what a powerful, revolutionary thing the enabling mirror is. But you’re one of my readers. You get it. You can see how it gets at the heart of why our complaining and getting upset don’t work, and offers an effective and healing alternative. And you’re someone who can see that.

The art here is

  • Norman Rockwell's Girl at the Mirror, 1954. The face in the fan mag on the girls lap is sexpot Jane Russell.

  • Mary Cassatt's rich and luminous Woman with a Sunflower, 1905. Two mirrors.

  • Picasso's Girls Before a Mirror, 1932, enabling in the sense that in her reflection she finds herself even more Picasso-ized.

  • Parmigianino's Self-Portrait, 1524. Here we are inside the artist seeing himself.

  • The cover picture is Velazquez's Rokeby Venus, 1650. We see beauty. Perhaps we imagine transgression. But we see her seeing herself in contemplation.


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