bacteria under a microscope

Circus Mirrors

Did you know that you have never seen your own face? Did you know that you’ve only seen it in a mirror, pictures, or in a video? In order for us to see ourselves physically, we need the help of an external resource, such as a mirror, a pool of still water, a photograph, or a video.” –The Accountability Code by Marci Barker.

Do you remember the first time you looked through the lens of a microscope?

The intricate details that come to life when you put a specimen on the slide and look through the lens?

The image can be beautiful and ugly with a million versions of each somewhere between the two.

Scientists use these devices to study and observe specimens and objects too small to see with the naked eye.

The images can be magnified with various degrees of power to see the intricate details of cells, micro-organisms, and atoms. The scientific discoveries and observations have led to amazing advancements we see in our daily lives.

Over the last several years, I have looked at my life through the metaphoric lens of a microscope reflecting on the good, bad and the ugly with all the variations in between.

Spending countless hours reflecting on events, people and things that have impacted my life and shaping the person that I see in the mirror every day.

The microscopic lens started coming into focus with regular appointments at my therapist’s office.

Confiding in a neutral party with no emotional ties to the trauma I was experiencing provided perspective and clarity that at the time I was unable to provide for myself.

The opportunity for me to purge the emotions and feelings that were bottled up was like taking the kink out of the hose or shaking up a can of soda and then popping the top, all the contents come spewing out with no meaning, purpose, or direction.

For months, it felt like I was living out the movie Groundhog Day.

Going through the motions, but the merry-go-round just kept running with no sign of a way to get off the ride.

I couldn’t measure up to the expectations of everyone around me.

Circus Mirrors

My husband and I had been separated for over a year with no signs of reconciliation in sight, and my children and grand-children were caught in the middle of my failed efforts to be normal and inability to cope with the flood waters of turmoil raining down on me.

I had no idea how to be what each of them needed me to be and the reflection I saw in the mirror of myself reflected the chaos that was erupting.

One of the first lessons taught to me in that therapists’ office was about circus mirrors.

Over the last several years, an enormous amount of time has been spent reflecting on this conversation which resulted in my changing the specimen on the microscope slide.

I zoomed in with the lens and looked hard to find the parallels between the circus mirrors and who I am.

I remember when I was a kid the local amusement park (Lagoon) had a fun house. My friends and I would laugh hysterically at the distorted images the circus mirrors captured of each of us.

Tall and skinny, short and fat, big head with a skinny body or skinny head and a fat body, basically a distorted body of one kind or another.

It was always fun and games to see how these mirrors captured the version of me. Reflecting on the parallels between circus mirrors and my life took a little more time to embrace.

Imagine your life as a series of encounters with circus mirrors. These mirrors shape and distort the reflection we see of ourselves.

From the moment we were put on the earth we became curious spectators absorbing images that made us who we are. Parents, teachers, and friends act as mirrors, molding the reflections that instill in us or values, goals or the problems in our lives.

Circus Mirrors

These metaphorical mirrors introduce us to emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual impressions and eventually beliefs that influence the choices we make.

The people that are closest to us parents, siblings and extended family aren’t just passing reflections; they are the mirrors that create the highs and lows of our emotional journey.

Encouragement magnifies joy, confidence, motivation, gratitude, empowerment, and happiness, while criticism magnifies sadness, anxiety, anger, insecurity, guilt, and shame.

I grew up in a home where mental, emotional, and physical abuse were common occurrences.

As children we learn our basic Emotional development before the age of 6 years old.

Learning to self-regulate or manage my thoughts, emotions and behaviors hasn’t been a cake walk.

It wasn’t uncommon as kids to tiptoe through life uncertain of what might be coming our way.

Discipline lacked consistency, so did my understanding of what behaviors would constitute a lecture at the kitchen table and what would result in a harsher punishment.

There was no rhyme or reason for the consequences for our actions, often our punishment was determined by the mood Dad was in that day, and everyday was different.

Knowing the difference between acceptability and disapproval, flip a coin.

Mom relinquished all disciplinarian control, I don’t have a single childhood memory of her correcting any of my actions, nor do I have a memory of her coming to my defense when the punishment for the day was a 2×4 picked up from behind the fence and connecting to my backside multiple times.

I would never dispute that wrecking Dad’s truck when I was 15 years old deserved punishment. But leaving me unable to put clothes on because of the welts and bruises might have been a little excessive by ordinary standards.

My siblings were much older than me, so comparing my childhood to theirs is an unrealistic comparison.

I do know that at times the punishment was different but equally harsh.

Being raised with the inconsistency and rather harsh circumstances instilled a massive amount of fear, sadness, anxiety, insecurity, and shame.

Communication was more miss than hit in our household, so learning to communicate just plain didn’t happen.

The conversations I do remember were more preemptive attempts to not strike the match than opportunities for learning and growth.

Circus Mirrors

It’s far easier to remember the moment filled with criticism, finger pointing and blame than the ones that instilled confidence, empowerment, and joy.

From a very young age, I was told our family problems were because of me, if I just hadn’t been born…..

You can fill in the blanks with all the scenarios of a highly dysfunctional family and the shame that was planted in my young heart leaving a lifetime of questions about my worth, identity and purpose on this earth.

Those words have followed me, like a needle trying to cross a scratch on an old vinyl record.

I quickly realized it was far easier to err on the side of caution and bypass any possibility of confrontation because those moments were not pleasant, with the consequences even more unpleasant.

Looking back on those formative years of my childhood made me quickly realize that I grew up developing several people pleaser traits and very few communication skills.

Ignoring conflict was pretty much the definition of the word, conflict management was doing what you were told, when and how you were told to do it and by doing so I wouldn’t have to try and explain myself, my choices, or actions to anyone.

I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. When I did get close to someone, I created different versions of myself to keep them in my life for as long as possible.

It became a vicious cycle changing to be accepted.

I didn’t bring many of the “friends” home because my home just wasn’t conducive to healthy relationships of any kind.

As I got older it was much easier to spend time in their homes and I created as many opportunities as possible to be away from home.

I felt a twinge of envy as I learned to recognize the differences in the family dynamics and my imagination would run wild.

As much as I wanted to run away, these are the cards that I was dealt, and making the most of it was my only option.

What I didn’t realize is that it was also teaching me to not recognize the little girl in the mirror.

What I felt on the inside started replicating the way I saw myself on the outside. I had developed a habit of being the person others wanted me to be instead of discovering my own identity.

Written by guest blogger Mary Jean Winn. You can contact her at

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