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The Distorted Mirror


Very early in our lives, we look to the people around us to tell us who we are. We smile at Mom and Dad, and if they smile back we feel good, and if they are distracted or angry or sad we think that means we did something wrong. Because, we believe, if Mommy isn’t smiling at me, I am not loveable. This is normal. This is how humans create their sense of self.


“Dogs too!”

Gradually we start to look at other mirrors nearby. We notice how our siblings and peers and teachers, and even strangers, respond to us. If our siblings are jealous or angry, or indifferent, we believe we’ve done something to cause that reaction. If our teachers tell us that we’re smart or kind, we can, maybe, believe that we are smart and kind, but if they tell us we’re stupid, or selfish, or bad, we might believe that too.

Ideally, our early mirrors will be accurate, and compassionate, giving us the chance to see our strengths and to reassure us that we can work through our weaknesses as we build our self-esteem. Often, though, our mirrors are distorted in one way or another, and we learn to believe things about ourselves that may not be true.


“Ask me, Mommy. I’ll tell you the truth.”

As we get older, we are expected to have the inner strength to choose the right mirrors for ourselves and to decide what to believe and what to discard. But, in reality, we’re still not sure who is an accurate mirror and who is a distorted one. Even when we start to understand that all humans are distorted mirrors of one kind or another, because everyone has their own stuff going, we still can’t be sure what’s about us and what isn’t. And, really, where are those tools going to come from if they weren’t given to us in childhood?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in my role as a synagogue school teacher, even though I only see the kids for two hours a week, because I know how validating even one compliment or smile from a teacher can be for a child. I do my best to reflect the children back to themselves accurately, and with kindness. They won’t believe me if I say they are well-behaved when they are not, or work hard when they don’t, but if I can recognize their behavior as it is, and still find something in it worth praising, that they can believe.


Cricket knows she’s loved just the way she is.

The problem is, I still tend to see myself as if I’m looking through a kaleidoscope, with all of these broken pieces of glass reflecting me back to myself in a million different, usually negative, ways.

When I’m teaching the kids, I’m excited and happy, and overwhelmed, and cataloguing all of the moments and interactions for later. And then I go home and the distorted mirrors of my childhood start yelling at me. They tell me that I made this mistake, and that one, and that I’m seconds away from being fired, or I should be, because I’m a terrible teacher, and I missed this hint or that nudge and failed utterly to teach anything useful. The process of unraveling the facts from the distorted reflections in my head is exhausting and painful, but the only other option would be to accept the mountain of guilt as true, and I can’t do that. Often it takes more than twenty-four or forty-eight hours to get to level ground and accept that, while there are some things I’d like to do differently next time, overall I did okay. This process involves a lot of reality checking, and replaying the tapes in my mind to make sure I heard what people actually said to me instead of what I imagined they must have been thinking.

One of the problems, for me, is that I’m still searching for accurate mirrors, wherever I go. And sometimes I look to my students to tell me who I am. If they are bored, I must be boring. If they are frustrated, I must be failing to teach them. And if every child is reflecting something different back at me, then oy vey, I must be all kinds of terrible at once.

There are times when I think Cricket would prefer it if I didn’t reflect her mood or behavior back to her quite so accurately. She’d like me to pretend that she’s a happy go lucky dog, and never bites the hand that feeds her, and never gets lost in the barking of her own mind. But then there are times when she’s relieved that I can read her so well, and be with her in her misery, and not try to cajole her into a better mood, but just accept her as she is in that moment and let her know it’s okay. And that’s what I want to do for my students, if I can. I don’t just want to teach them a little bit of Hebrew, I want to help them breathe more deeply, and see themselves, as they are, with more compassion, and maybe see others with more compassion too.

Jacquelyn Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books are favorites of mine for a lot of reasons, but one of the things I love most is the way Maisie (a psychologist/investigator) mimics people’s body language so that she can feel how they are feeling. When I read about that the first time, I realized that that’s what I do, too, unintentionally. I find myself twisting my body into different shapes in response to the person across from me, feeling their confidence, or fear, or shame, or anger. After a few hours with the kids I feel something like a pretzel, with a lot of emotion to wring out of my body. My goal is to learn how to identify what’s theirs, what’s mine, and what can help me reach them more effectively, without pretzeling myself into complete knots. I expect this to take a while.



“We’ll wait with you.”



If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?





About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

82 responses »

  1. I get this completely, Rachel. One of the few joys of getting ‘old’ is that none of it matters to me now.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  2. lindapurcell724gmailcom

    What a great post. I was truly moved by the extent of your raw honesty. I am a retired teacher so I do understand how much your students are caught on every word or comment that you say to them. Since you are so aware of it, I am sure you are doing a terrific job.

  3. ramblingsofaperforatedmind

    I can be your mirror. I know by what you post that you are loving and kind. You seek ways to help others even when you are hurting and need a hug for yourself.
    You are beautiful and appreciated. The dogs think you are the best, and I trust their opinion.

  4. You sound like an empath, which is hard to grapple with for most people. Hang in there!

  5. “While we teach, we learn.” Seneca
    Your students are lucky to have you.

  6. It is about perception, I think. What we think about ourselves is how we perceive others are looking at us maybe?

  7. A daily struggle that I also struggle with to, but it makes our faith strong

  8. The hardest thing, I think, is being able to see ourselves clearly so we don’t have to depend on others’ feedback…I believe it’s a lifelong struggle but that we get better and better…

    …and I agree about the Maisie Dobbs series!

  9. This is an excellent way of thinking about how we see ourselves and how others affect that… I’m going to be pondering this a lot tonight!

  10. Getting fired from a volunteer position is hard to do.

  11. Yet again, your ‘wise old soul’ with so much wisdom shines through! This blog post gave me some idea of how I am still a member of the “distorted mirror club”, though I’d never really given it much thought, and enlightened an area in my own self-growth which needs some attention. Thank you for your inspiration!

  12. You have so much insight on the human condition. I wish you’d be easier on yourself.

  13. So interesting. We really can be our harshest critic and mirror can’t we. And it can take years before we change that view we have of ourselves. Your students are very lucky!

  14. Very well put! And I like the analogy of the mirror. I heard or read somewhere that individuals can NEVER see themselves ‘accurately’. Mirrors distort, photographs are unreliable (add features and weight that we may not have), there is no accurate way to view ourselves as others see us. I have struggled with this idea of ‘self’ too. Until my mid-50s, I saw nobody at all if I tried to ‘see’ myself. Therapy has helped. Thanks for your words! They educate me any way! 🙂

  15. But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.
    2 Corinthians 3:18

  16. “the barking of her own mind”. Well that says it all to me. The chatter, the “barking” that goes on in my head is often my “mirror”. I think your Synagoge students are fortunate to have you even if it is only for a couple of hours a week. Those hours may be all that is needed to make a difference to a kid. Nice post!

  17. Thought provoking as always Rachel. I still haven’t worked out what I did, or didn’t do, that made my sister’s feelings toward me the way they are. I guess I’ll never know but she is just one and I have so many more people in my life who care, which more than compensates.

  18. One of the genuinely most liberating things that has come to me with age is a lack of caring what others think of me. I guess that makes me the Anti-Empath. But, meh, I don’t care.

  19. The work with the kids while challenging is such brave work. Kids always bring up all the feelings we had as kids. Just your presence and willingness to be with them speaks volumes.

  20. another wonderful post – those kids are lucky to have you!

  21. Shalom, your dogs remind me of mine, who just recently died of dyspnea.

  22. I imagine with time, you will be able to realize and take comfort knowing that what you are doing with and for those children is very important and helpful. When in doubt, a smile and a kind word are always good.

  23. Exceptionally written Rachel. Your students are so blessed to have you as a teacher! You got me thinking a lot about the mirrors I look to in my life. Truth be told the only mirror that gives me a clear reflection of myself is Jesus. He shows me the beauty I so often overlook. Even when I look and don’t like what I see in myself, He is always there to remind me that He is there to restore and redeem my brokenness. Give your sweet pups some extra love today from Adi and I.

  24. Those of us who have struggled with “distorted mirrors” in our younger years (thanks to family, peers, etc.) have a lifelong battle to view ourselves with self-love, self-compassion, and acceptance. It’s hard, but possible with conscious effort.

  25. Dearest Rachel, what a joy to read your post! Your heart of love is so very evident and I commend you for sharing it here. Your voice is incredibly important, as so many people are struggling to find their own identity in this crazy, and far too often, entirely phony, world.

    I relate to you very much. My own childhood was marked by terrible dysfunction, as yours was. The voices and faces who should’ve communicated love, encouragement and acceptance were anything but. It does affect the mirror we look into for ourselves. As you say, it takes a lot of awareness and effort to change from fear to reality.

    I hope that I’m not completely off-base by saying this, but you sound as though you might be a burden bearer like me. Some call it an empath, easily picking up on the personalities, conflicts and feelings of others as if it were in your own mind and body. Their thoughts become yours, their tension becomes yours, etc. Consider researching into the spirit of rejection. This type of abandonment early on, as well as lack of nurturing greatly impacts the developing mind and heart of a child. I’m gradually becoming more and more free from rejection and the roots of fear, insecurity, anxiety, depression, trauma, etc that it has left in my life. Picking up the pieces from abuse is never easy but it is thank God, very doable!

    I pray that you begin to know your worth more and more each day. You are so very loved, valued and needed. I pray you look in the mirror with love for yourself, knowing that even when you make mistakes, all is well. You aren’t a mistake. I pray wholeness, healing and total peace in every area of your life. You deserve it! In Yeshua’s name, Amen! 🙏🏼 Sending you all my very best love & hugs! ♥

  26. Fascinating thoughts, Rachel. Your post made me think of a New Testament verse that involves the image of a person looking at a mirror and seeing Jesus in the reflection — and then her reality slowly but steadily changing to match what she sees. When I was younger, I didn’t like the idea of my true self disappearing. Now, I figure Jesus is better “looking” than I am. It’s better than a makeover! 🙂

  27. This is an exquisitely beautiful post, Rachel. I feel the bending and shaping in it, the self-awareness that so few possess. I feel you reaching out and exerting yourself. Vulnerable and defining.

  28. Heliophile's diary

    It’s a beautiful post Rachel 😍

  29. Oh, you’ve given me a wonderful analogy to use with my son. I love the mirrors bit. And it’s a good reminder to me as an adult to check my self-perceptions when unduly influenced by others’ opinions. Sounds like you have a lot of self-awareness in that regard.

  30. A book I’m reading has a lot of helpful things about being self aware and understanding the effects our childhoods had on us. “The Way Back to You” by Cron and Stabile. It’s good. Answers some questions your post brings up.

  31. The ways in which adults validate children have lasting consequences. As a retired teacher writing about my own childhood I know from both sides how small kindnesses can impact a child’s sense of self. I am sure that you are make big a difference!

  32. “They won’t believe me if I say they are well-behaved when they are not, or work hard when they don’t, but if I can recognize their behavior as it is, and still find something in it worth praising, that they can believe.” SO TRUE. The nice thing about students that age, though, is they are pretty honest, calling it like they see it, and that they will tell you things that they won’t want to talk about when they’re older.

    I’ve heard that you don’t really start to get into a groove until your 3rd year of teaching. I don’t know if that helps, but you have to accept that teaching is one of the hardest jobs, really, and that there are all kinds of students. Trying to make everyone happy will never happen, but you sound like you’re trying to be there for each and every one of them, and that sounds like the best thing you can be. I’ve always been more interested in teaching them the stuff, but if you’re there for their social-emotional needs, that is an under-appreciated aspect to care for.

  33. We were in the hospital recently for trauma, and the current research shies away from building “self-esteem” because it is conditional in relation to others. Current research favors developing “self-compassion,” which is not conditional on extrinsic factors. There’s a great YouTube video on the difference. You can look for anything by Kristin Neff if you’re interested. We remember a concise 17-minute video.

    We are new at emotions, and we rely on others to show us what they see we are feeling. We are developing a vocabulary for feelings and sensations and trying to experience them safely.

    Many people aren’t curious about who they are or what they stand for or what they feel. Or they are curious and are too scared/intimidated to investigate. You sound brave and resilient, and so we think you can do this!

    Intending to make a safe, healthy space for kids is probably the most important undertaking we can conceive. Thank you for sharing your intention!!!! 💕

  34. I love your honesty Rachel-a great post

  35. This is such a raw and honest post. In our faith, we believe that a believer is a mirror for another I.e a good person will see goodness in others. I think us women tend to overthink things a lot and usually, people are not over analysing our every word and once we realise that we’ll be able to breathe a little better. I love the way you use your writing as therapy- everyone needs yo hand an outlet like that and I’m so glad it works for you. You seem like a kind, genuine person. Thanks for your reflections. Sidra

  36. Pingback: The Distorted Mirror | rachelmankowitz –

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