Shortly after high school, I moved from Long Island, where I had grown up, to a New Jersey suburb. Without realizing it, I adopted the accent and mannerisms prevalent in my new area. When I went back to my home town for a visit, however, I noticed that I almost immediately reverted to “Long Island English” and “talking with my hands.” Why did that happen, and why is it important?
Much later, when I was developing my skills as a coach, I learned the term “mirroring.” Mirroring is the behavior in which one person subconsciously imitates the gestures, speech pattern, or attitude of another. (Thank you, Wikipedia.) We begin to mirror as infants. Psychologists believe it is through mirroring that children develop empathy and, in being mirrored by their parents, a sense of validation and belonging which helps them establish a sense of self.
As adults, we continue to subconsciously mirror others, particularly in social settings where we desire to fit in. It is a signal to the others that you are like them and agree with what they are saying or doing. It can be very subtle, such briefly mimicking a gesture, or as bold as repeating a phrase louder and with more gusto. Others then mirror you and you think, “Yes! These are my people!”
As a coach, I learned to use mirroring to build rapport and trust with clients. Successful salespeople, negotiators and politicians are masters at mirroring. They will have you thinking they totally get you, so whatever they are selling must be what you need.
Avoiding manipulative salespeople is only one reason I think it is important to understand mirroring. The value of that understanding grows as we become more mentally and emotionally mature. It is then we begin to develop an expanded or different sense of self that is less dependent on being part of a group.
Remember, though, that mirroring is deeply engrained in your subconscious, as is the desire to belong. What happens when, with your new sense of self, you walk into your high school reunion and the peers who used to mirror you are saying the same things and behaving the same way they always did? Or at a family dinner when those who were instrumental in creating your original sense of self are no longer mimicking your gestures and, instead of repeating your words back to you, are disagreeing with them?
As much as we would like to believe we can stand on our own, most of us aren’t comfortable being outsiders. The security of belonging is a basic energy of the Root Chakra. When we don’t get those validating signals, it shakes the foundation on which our individual sense of self is built.
How can we each maintain and continue to develop our individual sense of self and still have a sense of belonging and validation? Find a circle.
The power of circle
It is, of course, easiest to find some people who think and act like you do to spend time with, because they will mirror you. But I think the real opportunity in an artfully facilitated circle is to be able to practice sharing your truth, to be heard and held, and have it not matter if anyone agrees with you. Circle can set up a sense of belonging and validation without mirroring.
Circle also gives us practice in listening deeply without taking on other people’s stuff, or even judging it. Especially for an introvert, like me, being able to just sit and listen without the social pressures of needing to interact in the “right” way (i.e. mirroring), or even to respond beyond “I hear you,” creates a sphere of safety. That is powerful validation of both parties’ self-worth, as well as a useful skill for your next family get-together.
I hope that your new awareness of mirroring will shed light on those times when you feel your sense of self is challenged. Perhaps you will be inspired to seek out ways to build a strong sense of self and belonging without needing subconscious validation from mirroring. I hope you will find your circle.
What do you think? Have you noticed yourself mirroring others, or looking for others who will mirror you? How do you feel when they don’t? I’d love it if you would share your insights, so we can all grow together.