Killing Me Softly: The Narcissistic Injury of the Mirror

We have all heard the phrase “I know you better than you know yourself.” Even though the idea that someone knows us better than we do can be irritating, I imagine that it is also true, at least to some degree.  For example, I’ll bet my friends and family know things about me that I don’t know, and perhaps would resist knowing. They likely see parts of me that I am completely blind to, and parts that I would adamantly deny exist (although they do). The idea that others see us better than we see ourselves presents us with a dilemma:  on the one hand, we want to know how others see us; on the other hand, it can be very hard to hear how we come across to others.

I’ve been thinking about the dynamics of how we mirror each other, wondering: how do we learn things about ourselves that we would rather not know? How do we show others whom we care about parts of themselves that they can’t see, but that impact us? How do we do this in the presence of self-protective defensiveness? And how can we use this kind of feedback-mirroring in a way that is helpful and not harmful to ourselves and others and our relationships?

It strikes me again and again that giving someone feedback has to be done with exquisite sensitivity and respect. We need to recognize that it can be hard to bear it when someone reflects us back to ourselves, when they hold up a mirror and ask us to look at ourselves. I see this in my office as well as in my personal life. There may be things that I see or sense about my patients and friends that I would not say to them unless the time was right and unless they were in a position to hear it. Psychologists are trained, for example, to interpret their patients’ behavior in order to give clarity or to shed light on why a person does what they do. While I see immense value in a person coming to know themselves deeply in therapy, I have grown increasingly sensitive to the impact of interpreting someone. As my mentor Nancy McWilliams has said to me, interpretations are narcissistic injuries.  (In other words, it hurts our self-esteem to be told how we are or why we do what we do; someone holding a mirror up to us can hurt.)

The 1973 Roberta Flack hit “Killing Me Softly,” which was remade by the Fugees in 1996, describes this phenomenon well. She describes the pain of hearing yourself (and your story) be reflected in someone else’s words:

I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd                                                        I felt he found my letters, and read each one out loud                                                         I prayed that he would finish…but he just kept right on
Strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words                            Killing me softly with his song, killing me softly with his song                                       Telling my whole life with his words                                                                                    Killing me softly with his song
He sang as if he knew me, in all my dark despair                                                            And then he looked right through me, as if I wasn’t there                                              And he just kept on singing….

The pain described in Roberta’s lyrics reminds us that we need to be careful, gentle, open, and curious when we tell someone their story, or show them how they are being, or let them know how you think their story has shaped them.  Although she doesn’t do this this in her song, it’s my hope that the listener, the one who is being mirrored, can tell us how they feel hearing our words.  And if they say it’s painful for them to hear, then we need to find a new, more sensitive way to communicate.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind as you consider the dynamics of giving/receiving feedback:

On the giving end of the dialogue: As you decide if you want to give someone this kind of feedback, it’s important first to wonder why.  Considering why will help you to clarify your intentions and to imagine in advance how your words may be received.  Why do you want to show this person something about themselves?  Is it because they are hurting you? Is it because they are inadvertently hurting themselves? It is because you want to give someone a “piece of your mind”? Or because you want to show off what you know, and boost your own ego? It’s important to wonder “why” because your motive matters. If you want to show off, for example, then that is probably not a good enough reason to tell someone how you see them.  If, on the other hand, someone’s behaviors are hurting you, then finding a way to communicate that in a way that can be heard is critical.  No matter what, always be respectful of someone’s defenses–they are in place for a reason, and they serve the critical function of protecting the self from emotional harm.

On the receiving end of the dialogue: Even though it can be difficult to receive feedback from others, how others see us can be very useful information. It can help us to learn about ourselves and to grow, and to change behaviors that may be challenging or even harming our interpersonal relationships.  I try to encourage my patients to not be overly-defensive when they are getting feedback from others about themselves.  Keep in mind that being open and willing to hear how we impact others can fortify our relationships and build insight about ourselves.  However, if the message is too hard to bear, is triggering too many defenses, or is not being given in the right tone or at the right time, it’s important to let the other person know.

I think that people can always find ways to manage and shape relationships, to see others clearly and to be seen clearly by others, and to communicate more effectively.  Giving and receiving feedback is part of the art of communicating that we can each create.  If we put a little thought and care into how we share our experiences with each other, no one will be “killed softly.”