May 1, 2020

The No-Mirror Challenge

Titian’s Venus With A Mirror

My first day in my university dorm room it hit me. I finally understood the drastic importance of this pane of reflective glass would have upon myself. When I stumbled into University, during those first booze-infused weeks, it was the first time I had spent meaningful time away from home, and also a complete slap in the face.

I had naively believed that I would quickly slip into a similar group of friends that I had in school, bonding over video games while sipping cans of Heineken, gradually easing ourselves into the trials and tribulations of adulthood. Not so. For better or worse, my neighbours in my dorm were the partying type, which to my squidgy and mouldable plasticine sense of self at the time, meant I had to quickly catchup.

I realised that at least in appearance, I was a bit of a way off. Being an insecure young scallywag, I jumped on the internet, desperate for guidance from men who had come (and probably flopped) before me. The only ones who seemed to be offering any really tangible advice were on bodybuilding and fitness forums. They seemed to speak about their bodies like a farmer might speak of his favourite (or least favourite) cow, although even more worryingly, they also spoke about women much the same way.

I remember looking in the mirror in my dorm toilet and working out that I had to fundamentally change, and the first part of that change had to be my appearance. I tried out various styles of fashion, haircuts, and all manner of protein shake laden body building programs. By my third year I had settled on the fragile yet comfortingly masculine outer appearance of blue jeans, tight white t-shirt, and leather jacket. Doubtless Messers Dean, Brando, Pitt and Gosling had had quite an effect on my outer-facing sense of self. But if it worked for them, I reasoned, it would work for me.

Picasso’s Girl Before A Mirror
Picasso’s Girl Before A Mirror

THE CHALLENGE

Fast forward to the present day, and, as is the case for nearly half the world right now, I’ve had plenty of thinking time.

Fortunately, my self-confidence has come along way since University; so has the way I see myself when I look in a mirror.

But having been trapped in one place, doing the same activities for days on end, without the input of seeing other people, I started noticing patterns in how different things affected my thinking. For example, I quickly worked out that too much time online or social media, especially during a pandemic, can make you very anxious and disturbed (shock horror!). I then worked out that when I meditated and worked out consistently, each and every day, I would feel a lot happier and more contented as a constant. Slowing sugar and caffeine intake did the same thing, but I realised I was still obsessively checking on myself when I got the chance, remembering the flaws I saw in the person reflected back at me from a car window, a steamed up bathroom mirror, or my miniature video call image.

Taking inspiration from Tim Ferriss’s 21 day no complaint challenge, I decided on 30 days for my no-mirror challenge, at least as a rough marker.

The Rules:

  • Throughout your day, no conscious checking of yourself in any surface which reflects your image back at you. No mirrors, windows, polished metallic surfaces, and selfies.
  • Once a day, you’re allowed to quickly check your reflection for any horrendous facial-growth or deformity (in my case a blackhead or two), or naturally, to shave a beard or whatnot. The challenge is less about becoming a caveman/woman over the month, and more as a psychological experiment. Take care of yourself if you need to!
  • If you screw up, start again — I did so early on when I tried on some clothes, so best to put that off until after the experiment.

My results:

It wasn’t always easy. I found that as days went on, when I was in a good mood, and felt worthy of being in my own skin — for example if I felt had done a good days work or had a fun time with family or friends — I had very little temptation to look at my reflection. I inherently knew I was present-tense happy, so no mirror-checking was going to confirm or deny that. Conversely, the most difficult days were those in which I was insecure from having had a poor workout, or from getting out of bed feeling sluggish, or when I had started comparing myself, physically or in my imagination, to somebody else. On those occasions, the temptation was there to placate the interior discontentment with observation of my relatively unchanging physical state. The river of my mind, in constant motion around placid curves and jagged rocks, desired to imagine it was the mountain, which it saw as sturdy and firm, not subject to the chaos below it. It felt like a hostage negotiation, with my disciplined side facing off against the hostage-taker, who, in a craze of self-flagellation, wanted to succumb to vanity or disgust.

Despite this, I did manage to make it through the month. Once I reached the end and checked my notes, the results ended up being quite dramatic:

  • I am a lot more relaxed about my appearance, the changeables and non-changeables. We’ve all been in a well-lit bathroom and suddenly realised that maybe we aren’t the hideous monster we might feel we are when we get up in the morning, before stepping into the next room and having the facade thrown back in our faces. But even with aspects I have control over, like my hair, I have taken a more laissez-faire attitude to its appearance.
  • Before, I fully admit, that in a testosterone-infused competitive streak, I would compare myself, favourably and unfavourably, to other men on the street, at a party, in a bar. Definitely a hangover from my bodybuilding days. That river has dwindled down to a trickle. I feel a lot more comfortable not judging others, and therefore myself, on their clothing, style, and body shape.
  • Measures I had put in place to control my sugar in-take (I have an incredibly strong sweet tooth), alongside my exercise regimen, have continued as before, which I was slightly surprised about. I had thought that without being able to visually measure their effects on my body, I would lose interest. But the motivation shifted from wanting a body somebody else would find attractive, to needing discipline and health for a deeper, more longitudinal reason. It makes me feel good, it has knock on effects on my productivity, and I want to live healthily longer. Win-win.
Marco Palena’s Riflessione
Marco Palena’s Riflessione

As a mere personal experiment, it has some wide ranging implications. If this can have such an effect on my sense of physical selfhood, why not on my deeper personality? Would it be possible to apply this to our self-judgement in other areas, such as in our social lives, relationship insecurity, sexual performance, or career success measurement? If, by removing the measure of judgement and comparison from our perception, or at least pushing it to the periphery, would it dramatically change the way we judge our achievements, and therefore make us more contented?

Everything is tainted by the lens of our perception. We’ve all met people whose lenses are horribly twisted, distorting the images of their experience in inexorably negative ways. Just the same, there are those who can’t help but put a positive spin on even the most dire situations. Are those set states, or are they implemented by habitual thought?

There are two quotes which I think relate to this.

One is from the writer Anaïs Nin, who said,

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”

The other is from neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, who wrote,

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

By remembering that everything we perceive outwardly is a reflection of what is inside, and that it is how we add and subtract these things that we change, we can move forward to deeper understanding, and deeper contentment.

We’re moving towards a more image-obsessed, narcissistic, and mirror-dominated world. Generations of children today are growing up not only with mirrors in their homes and gyms, but in their phones through self-facing cameras. They see their reflection dozens, if not hundreds of times a day.

But we have control in how we respond. Try taking the challenge to find out what this means for you. You could be surprised by the results.

Do comment below or message me if you decide to take the challenge too.

** Note: When it comes to forming a new habit, I find jogging yourself out of the old one with an elastic band snap, measuring it using an app like Way of Life, and replacing it using journaling, are great ways to ensure it sticks.

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