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How to Use Mirror Therapy With Your Clients

4 key strategies to help clients understand themselves and their place in the world

It's so much easier for clients to change when they really come to see the role they've been playing.

Nasrudin picks up a discarded mirror from the side of the road. He peers into it and, upon seeing the ugly image within, he drops it, declaring, “No wonder it was thrown away!”

– paraphrased from The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin, by Idries Shah

This kind of joke might be taken as a commentary on the Sufi figure’s self-esteem. But it needn’t be taken that way.

Perhaps the meaning behind it is that when we see something about ourselves that is at odds with our self-perception, we are liable to ‘throw it away’ and therefore be free of it.

Another interpretation of the joke might be that Nasrudin has been given the opportunity to see himself or an aspect of his behaviour, but throws away that opportunity by deflecting and projecting. He blames the mirror and therefore throws away the opportunity for self-knowledge.

And yet seeing ourselves more objectively can have an amazing impact on our psychology.

Here’s a (Ericksonian) case in point.

The psychiatrist, the patient, and the nurse

When Milton Erickson was a psychiatrist working in a hospital, the nurses would often complain that one of their patients was always tearing down curtains and smashing things.

No matter how often she was reprimanded, the patient continued to act out in this way. In fact, she tore and destroyed everything she saw. She ripped not just curtains but also wallpaper, and even clothes from the nurses.

One day, as Erickson sat with this patient, he suddenly got up and began tearing the wallpaper and ripping the curtains down, shouting and screaming all the while. The patient looked on, appalled.

The esteemed doctor ripped clothes from himself and even tried to rip the clothes from a nurse (who was, thankfully, in on the mirror therapy!). Eventually the young patient pleaded, “Please, Dr Erickson, this is embarrassing!”

After that the girl no longer acted out and never again rampaged in this way.

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting you do such a dramatic intervention! I’m just illustrating a vital principle.

Milton Erickson had held up a mirror to this young woman – “Look, this is you!” – but in a way that handed her the role of the mature, reasonable one.

She looked at Dr Erickson, but she saw herself.

To see ourselves as others see us

The Scottish poet Robbie Burns wrote:

Oh, would some Power give us the gift
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion..

“To see ourselves as others see us!” To gain some objectivity on ourselves – without the distorting effects of chronic hubris, pride, conceit, and narcissism and without disabling low self-esteem or undue sensations of inferiority – allows us to live more fully, more authentically.

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So how can we do this therapeutically, without necessarily ripping down the wallpaper?

Tip one: Rip down the wallpaper

No, not literally! But the principle applies. My father, Ivan Tyrrell, once saw a mother and her adult son as clients together. He noticed the son would really lay into the mother – criticize her, sneer at her, and undermine her at every opportunity.

One day my dad decided to try something new. He discussed this with the mother first and she agreed to the plan.

Just as the son was yet again starting to berate and put down his mother, my father suddenly took over. He turned to the woman and became immensely critical of her, just as the son usually did. The son’s role had been usurped! He looked shocked, then annoyed… and soon he began to defend his mother!

“Oh come on, she’s not that bad. What about all the things she does do for me?!”

This kind of spontaneous drama therapy may not be for you. But it’s well worth understanding the importance of adopting roles and how much easier it becomes for clients to change when they really come to see the role they’ve been playing. But if that’s all too much, you could try the following, subtler approach.

Tip two: Use mirror anecdotes

When we talk about ‘others’ we may really be talking about the person in front of us. But because we seem to be referring to someone else, we can bypass client defensiveness.

For example, if a client has been spoiling a child because she feels guilty about being a single mother, I might say to her:

“You know, I was speaking to a friend the other week who told me that his wife feeds the family dog heaps of treats to ‘make up’ for it being a stray. Now their pet has diabetes!”

I am holding up the pattern of what my client has been doing by relating it to a similar pattern within someone else, a friend or other client.

It can be more powerful to use mirror anecdotes without stating why you’re using them. The client then is left to work it out for themselves: “Why is Mark telling me this?”

The best learning happens when people make connections for themselves.

Mirror anecdotes can be highly metaphorical though. And metaphor is another powerful way to (if you’ll forgive the metaphor!) hold up a mirror for your client.

Tip three: Use mirror metaphors and stories

A very angry man came to see me. He was angry about all kinds of things and, like many angry people, he was also very resistant to new ideas or flexible patterns of thought.

Now, one thing he was really angry about was having been been fired from a job many years before. It hadn’t been a particularly good job, and he’d been young at the time, whereas he was middle-aged and wealthy now. But he wasn’t a man to let things go! So he’d go back to this time after time and get worked up about it all over again.

To make matters worse, he’d had lots of the kind of therapy that encourages endlessly trawling through the past, so he was conditioned to believe that constant emoting was the way to ‘process’ his feelings – when in fact it was akin to scratching an itchy wound that just wanted to heal!

Clearly, he needed to move on from the past. But he was extremely defensive and resistant to any ideas that seemed to contradict his limiting beliefs around this past event. So I decided to see if I could communicate to this angry man metaphorically.

While he was deeply relaxed, I told him this story…

Which monk are you?

Once upon a time, in mediaeval Japan, there were two monks. They belonged to an order that had very strict prohibitions when it came to sexual propriety. They were forbidden from talking about women, talking to women, even thinking about or looking at women. And certainly from touching women!

One day, these two monks were given instructions to travel by foot to another monastery some miles away. The weather was horrible and the road was sodden.

A couple of miles along, the road took a turn. As the monks rounded the bend, they were presented with such an astonishing vision of loveliness that both were stopped in their muddy, rain-soaked tracks.

A beautiful woman wearing a lavish and obviously new orange kimono was standing to the side of the road. She wanted to cross the muddy track, but she certainly didn’t want to dirty her resplendent kimono.

Suddenly, without a word, one of the monks strode up to the woman, picked her up, carried her gently across the road, and put her down again. She thanked the monk and smiled, and the two monks continued their journey. But the other monk was in deep shock.

They strode on through the rain for many miles, and eventually the shocked monk recovered his voice. He turned to the first monk and said, “Have you any idea? Do you even know what you did back there? Not only did you look at a woman… you approached her! You picked her up! You carried her over the road! I can’t believe it!”

The first monk calmly turned to the first monk and replied, “You’re right. I looked at the woman directly. I went up to her. I picked her up and carried her across that muddy track. But then I put her down again. You, my friend, are still carrying her.”

Metaphorical mirrors

Now, my client and I didn’t discuss this story. It wasn’t for his conscious mind, so we didn’t need to unpick the good work it may have done. I wanted it to settle in his unconscious mind, the part that deals in patterns.

I changed the subject, talked about other things. I wanted him to forget that particular metaphorical mirror I’d held up to him so that his pride and arrogance wouldn’t have a chance to smash it. Nevertheless, I noticed the story seemed to have affected him.

From that point on, he never again mentioned that time he had been fired, so many years before. He just didn’t seem interested in it anymore. And when I brought it up a couple of sessions later, he simply said, “Oh I don’t really think about that anymore. I’m no longer carrying it; it’s in the past!”

So therapeutic stories can, as well as providing hope, effectively hold a mirror up to the client. Even if that reflection isn’t consciously processed, a part of the client can take nutrition from the story, absorb it, and alter their experience because of it.

Therapeutic stories can effectively hold a mirror up to a client. Even if that reflection isn't consciously processed, a part of the client can take nutrition from the story, absorb it, and alter their experience because of it. Click to Tweet

Finally, we can use hypnosis to help the client see themselves really clearly.

Tip four: Help them see themselves inside from outside

“Why are you laughing?” I asked her gently.

“Because I look so funny running away from the spider like that!”

I’d just done the Rewind Technique with an arachnophobic volunteer as a demonstration in a workshop. Afterwards when she reviewed formerly traumatic spider-related memories, she found them funny and noticed incidentals she hadn’t noticed before.

Part of the methodology of the technique involves calmly disassociating the client from the memory so it can be reprocessed as non-threatening. This is great for phobias and, of course, post-traumatic stress disorder.

There is another exercise we use for angry people to help hold up a mirror for the purposes of widening context (remember, strong emotions such as anger always narrow focus and decrease perceptual context).

I might ask the angry person to recall a time when they were extremely angry with someone. I might ask them to close their eyes and briefly get a sense of that time – without getting into it too much, I don’t want them too angry in the session!

Then I’ll ask them to open then close their eyes again simply to mark out one state of mind from another. Next, because people tend to feel much calmer when they review past times from a third-person perspective, I’ll ask them to calmly watch that past angry time from the outside, without judgement of who was right or wrong but just using their observing self.

I’ll ask them to notice what they looked like, how they were gesturing, their facial expressions and tonality of voice, how others were reacting to them, and so on.

I’ll ask them to calmly notice things they’d never noticed before about that time. One man said he noticed how he was making stabbing gestures with his finger, how the other person looked afraid as he kept getting closer to them, how he was shouting right into their face… all aspects of the experience he’d never seen before this therapeutic ‘mirror gazing’.

Next, I might get the client to observe that time as it could have been had they remained calm, then build that up as a new way of responding.

So we are first helping the client see clearly how they are when they respond problematically, then helping them alter that response.

Genuine spiritual teachers need to help the aspirant see themselves clearly as an initial step towards becoming what is within their potential to become.

But helping clients see themselves clearly is an integral part of much psychotherapy and there are many ways we can help them gaze calmly into the mirror, not only to see who they are but also to gain glimpses of who they can be.

How to Be Artful With Your Language

As we all learnt as kids, it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it. Another way of saying that is the following Aesop’s fable about the Wind and the Sun.

The North Wind boasted of great strength. The Sun argued that there was great power in gentleness. “We shall have a contest,” said the Sun.

Far below, a man travelled a winding road. He was wearing a warm winter coat.

“As a test of strength,” said the Sun, “Let us see which of us can take the coat off of that man.”

“It will be quite simple for me to force him to remove his coat,” bragged the Wind.

The Wind blew so hard, the birds clung to the trees. The world was filled with dust and leaves. But the harder the Wind blew, the tighter the shivering man clung to his coat.

Then, the Sun came out from behind a cloud. The Sun warmed the air and the frosty ground. The man on the road unbuttoned his coat. The Sun grew slowly brighter and brighter. Soon the man felt so hot, he took off his coat and sat down in a shady spot.

“How did you do that?” said the Wind. “It was easy,” said the Sun, “I lit the day. Through gentleness I got my way.”

If you’d like to expand your abilities with language, consider Mark’s online course Conversational Reframing.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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