Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Do you ever take a minute or two to look at yourself in the mirror? I mean really look?
I’m usually in a rush to get somewhere in the morning. But some days, I can’t help but pause and take a longer look at myself in the mirror. And when I do that, I can’t help asking myself a few questions. What am I accomplishing? What difference am I making in the world? Am I taking good care of myself and the people around me? Am I doing my best at meeting the challenges in life? Where am I headed? And, of course, what do I need to “fix” in myself?
I usually have these mirror moments at the end of the summer, when the pace of life picks up again, and at the end of the year, when I am thinking about the year ahead. It‘s human nature to do some self-analysis in the mirror, not only Gary-nature. My clients often talk about similar experiences in front of their own bathroom mirrors. I suspect you do, too.
The benefits of self-evaluation
Self-evaluation can be a good thing. It’s an opportunity to take stock of yourself, to think about where you are in life and figure out what’s working and what’s not. This can help you modify or reconfirm your vision for the future.
If you are living with a chronic condition, then chances are these moments in front of the mirror have special meaning for you. You may have additional factors you consider in your self-evaluation, like physical and emotional self-care, compliance with treatment regimens, any potential effects of your condition…that’s a lot to think about. (And chances are, you’ve got other people in your life, including concerned family members and medical professionals, who also have an eye on you, and they probably aren’t shy about giving you their opinions.)
If you’re like me, moments of self-evaluation leave you with a choice. You can cut yourself some slack and focus on what’s working in your life, as well as the possibilities for the future. In a word, optimism.
Or, your self-evaluation can slip and slide into woulda-shoulda-coulda thinking and regret. In another word, self-criticism. You have a choice.
Keep it optimistic
Here’s what I do to use those moments in the mirror to give me a push in an optimistic direction:
Stop comparing yourself to others. Take a close look at the yardstick you are using to measure yourself. Is it other people? Anybody in particular? If you constantly compare yourself to others, chances are you will end up feeling like you are coming up short. Eyes straight ahead at your own reflection.
While you're at it, watch out for the mind reading. The truth is, we can’t know what’s going on in other people’s minds—what they are thinking about themselves or about us, what they are celebrating, what they are suffering. Appearances can be deceiving. So, assuming that everybody else has it better than you do is a set up for a put down, and it's just not realistic. A storybook life only exists in the movies.
Review your gratitude list. I keep a list of what I’m grateful for in my life, and I encourage you to do the same. A great time to pull it out and review it—as well as add to it—is when you come away from the bathroom mirror feeling like your life isn’t what you want it to be. Focus on gratitude to help pull your attention out of the minus column and into the plus column.
Consider what you can give to people in your life and the world at large. Living with a chronic condition means having to monitor yourself closely—how you are feeling day to day, your medication regimen, your self-care routine—as well as needing to reach out for support from professionals and family members. This might be a time to ask yourself what you can give to others, including a few words of emotional support and inspiration. Support is a two-way street, so maybe it’s time to make some plans to reach out. Somebody out there needs to hear from you.
Think about the most important lesson you’ve learned lately. Life constantly presents us with opportunities for growth. And the lessons we learn along the way aren’t always taught in the most gentle manner. Any of those rough spots over the last year or so leave you with a greater lesson that might make a difference in the future?
Choose one thing you want to change about yourself and commit to it. When you take a close look at yourself, it’s pretty hard to avoid seeing what you aren’t so proud of or something you could be doing better. Choose an aspect of yourself that you would like to change, e.g. being more patient, getting more exercise, communicating more clearly, etc. This isn't a complete makeover but instead a realistic change with the goal of improving your quality of life. Now you have something to work on.
Remind yourself that we are all on our own path. Each human being is a unique individual, with their own past, present, and future. You don’t have to live your life according to a model determined by someone else. You don’t have to live by someone else’s values or standards. You aren’t in competition with anyone else. The meaning of success—and of failure—is yours to define. Embrace your own uniqueness.
Connect with your spiritual side. One of the questions we are often faced with when we take that long look in the mirror is a question about the meaning of life; more specifically, the meaning of our own life. This is often referred to as “that still small voice.” Maybe this is a wake-up call telling you it’s time to connect or reconnect with your spiritual side. So listen up!
Move forward with compassion—toward yourself and toward others. The best way to quiet all that self-analysis is to accept that you are human like everybody else, with gifts, challenges, and quirks. Decide to do the best you can and give yourself credit where credit’s due. Tell that inner critic to be quiet. After all, you’re dealing with a lot. When you ease up on yourself, you can also ease up on others. After all, we are in this together.
The next time you take a look in the mirror, congratulate the person who is looking back at you. Celebrate yourself!