How to Boost Your Self-Compassion With Mirror Meditation
This intense form of meditation can improve your emotional intelligence and increase your capacity for compassion
For most of my adult life, the mirror was my enemy.
It must have been around the age of 13 when I got a specific idea of how my body was supposed to look like: flat stomach, muscular legs, flawless complexion, and a carefree smile on my face. The mirror became a tool for checking whether all those things were in place.
If they weren’t — this was a sign I needed to do something about it. Soon enough, it wasn’t just about the looks. I also started expecting specific behaviors and outcomes in my life.
If they didn’t occur, that was a cue to beat myself up.
My relationship with the mirror started changing a few years ago, as I gradually explored my spirituality. I got a hunch that it was possible to relate to myself differently: with compassion and kindness, instead of self-criticism. I started occasionally using the mirror to give myself pep talks — or to just watch my own tears when the emotional pain seemed impossible to bear.
But it was only recently that I started using mirror meditation as a deliberate practice of self-compassion. I came across the work of Tara Well, PhD who teaches mirror meditation as a way to establish kinder relationships with ourselves. Combined with my previous experiments with the mirror, her work became the backbone for changing my relationship with the inner critic.
I figured to use my full potential, self-compassion is a must. And mirror meditation is one of the best tools I’ve found to develop it. In this article, I’ll give you a full introduction to the practice, based on my interview with Tara Well. I will also sprinkle it with my personal experience of mirror meditation.
Finally, here’s a practical way of achieving the mystical “self-love” everyone talks about. Are you ready to hear all about it?
Why So Many People Struggle With Self-Compassion
When the Dalai Lama was first asked how to deal with self-hatred, he couldn’t comprehend the question. He went back and forth with his translator, making sure he understood correctly. “Self-hatred? What is that?” he finally asked Sharon Salzberg, from whom the initial question came.
As he familiarized himself with the Western culture, Dalai Lama started appreciating the gravity of this problem. Harsh self-criticism (or even self-hatred) seems to be a growing issue of the modern world.
This may be due to many different reasons. Here, I’ll introduce three of the most commonly cited ones.
1. Our brain’s evolutionary negativity bias
The biological reason for being harsh on ourselves is the negativity bias our brains evolved to have. In premodern times, this was a valid survival mechanism. By focusing on the negative more than the positive, people were more likely to spot danger and respond to it in time.
When I asked Tara Well about the origin of the inner critic, here’s what she said:
“We evolved to look for problems and things to fix because that helped our survival. Some meditation teachers say that we evolved from the nervous and neurotic apes because they were the ones paying attention to danger — which helped them stay alive. That’s why when we look at ourselves in the mirror, we tend to see problems and flaws and things that we need to fix.”
Nowadays, it’s rare that our physical survival is directly threatened. However, our reptilian brain (the oldest part, where primal instincts reside) doesn’t comprehend that.
That’s why the inner critic can be so detrimental to your well-being. The way your body responds to mental criticism can be similar to when you’re in real danger. As a result, you experience anxiety and stress in overwhelming doses.
2. The cultural influence
Some psychologists highlight the impact our culture has on the way we relate to ourselves. In some aspects, it seems to amplify the negativity bias. Here’s how the psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach explained it:
“Because so many of us grew up without a cohesive and nourishing sense of family, neighborhood, community or ‘tribe,’ it is not surprising that we feel like outsiders, on our own and disconnected. We learn early in life that any affiliation — with family and friends, at school or in the workplace — requires proving that we are worthy. We are under pressure to compete with each other, to get ahead, to stand out as intelligent, attractive, capable, powerful, wealthy. Someone is always keeping score.”
The problem becomes even bigger when you become your harshest scorekeeper. You may be using even the slightest failure as a pretext to beat yourself up.
You become harder on yourself when you believe there are specific benchmarks you need to reach. Our culture often encourages us to construct our self-worth in relation to external achievements. This often strengthens the inner critic.
3. The relationship with devices
Tara Well says we need face-to-face contact to learn how to modulate, express, and experience emotions. It’s through how other people reflect us that we learn who we are. This basic self-awareness is needed to then develop emotional intelligence and self-compassion.
These days, however, we spend a big chunk of our days glued to screens. Most people don’t get quite as much face-to-face time as they need for emotional balance. This may also result in a lack of self-compassion because the awareness of how we really feel is lost.
Tara Well points to the link between lack of compassion and time spent in front of the screen:
“We may lack compassion on social media because we can’t really see other people’s reaction to what we’re saying. And we need that face-to-face interaction to modulate emotions. This is how we understand what emotions we cause in other people and have empathy for them.”
It seems like without face-to-face interaction, it’s hard to have compassion for ourselves and others. Luckily, there’s a simple way to make sure you experience some of this contact in a mindful way daily: looking at yourself in the mirror.
Mirror Meditation As a Compassionate Response To Your Inner Critic
When I asked Tara Well about her relationship with the mirror and how she came up with the idea for the practice she teaches, she first recounted her childhood. She told me that even at a few years old, she already found solace in looking at her reflection.
Later on, the mirror became her place to judge herself and look for imperfections — just like it happened to me. At some point, she had a profound moment of accidentally seeing her own reflection:
“One day, I spontaneously saw my reflection in the mirror — and I was shocked by how distressed and sad I looked. I hadn’t realized that I felt that way — I was walking around thinking that I felt fine. In reality, I was ruminating on this and that in the background, and I didn’t realize my real emotional state. So first, I began using the mirror to simply check in with how I was feeling. Later on, I started combining this with my mindfulness practice and developed what I now call mirror meditation.”
Tara started deliberately spending time in front of the mirror to see herself in a new way. First, it was about checking in with her emotions. With time, she also discovered that the mirror was a great way to work with the inner critic.
The mirror meditation she now teaches is essentially mindfulness meditation done in front of a mirror. It’s worth noting this is just one practice among many. There are countless other ways to work with the mirror that I’ll only mention briefly in this article.
This form of mirror meditation is rooted in three principles of mindfulness. They’re the ground for the practice. It’s important to follow them, or else, your practice may turn into something other than meditation.
Here are the principles as Tara describes them on her website:
1. Attention in the present moment
2. Open awareness
3. Kind intention toward yourself
These qualities of mindfulness are vital. Without them, gazing at your reflection in the mirror can bring results that are very different from what you hope for.
As Tara points out:
“Mirror meditation increases self-focus, and that can potentially cause us to become even more critical. You can see that in the cases of body dysmorphic disorder, when people think they have some kind of a flaw and are obsessed with it. Self-focus can increase anxiety, so the key is to look at yourself mindfully. That’s why I call it mirror meditation, rather than just staring at yourself in the mirror.”
When you do it mindfully, you give self-compassion the best chance to arise. Thanks to observing both your inner world of emotions and their outer reflection, you become aware of new aspects of your experience.
Here are the three benefits that commonly occur in mirror meditation, also from Tara:
• You notice your inner critic and its effect on you
• You tune in to your emotions and learn how to regulate them
• You become more aware of how you see yourself and others
As it turns out, these three shifts can significantly impact the level of compassion you feel for yourself and for others. In the next section, I’ll explain in more detail how it happens.
Then, we’ll jump into the practical tutorial for establishing your personal mirror-meditation practice.
The 3 Main Benefits of Mirror Meditation
“Spend more quality time with yourself.”
How many times have you heard this golden rule of self-care? That’s obviously a good piece of advice — but also quite a vague one.
I often thought I was “spending time with myself” while, in fact, I ended up scrolling Instagram or watching Netflix — or doing anything else by myself without really paying attention to myself.
Mirror meditation provides a clear framework for how to be with yourself in a nurturing, beneficial way.
It seems this practice has similar effects regardless of how proficient you are with it. I’m an avid self-experimenter, and I learned mirror meditation by myself. Yet, I could sign under the words of Tara Well, an experienced psychologist who’s been practising it for over eight years:
“Instead of searching outside myself for people, places, and things that would distract me from negative emotions or self-criticism, I used the mirror to face myself and ground myself by simply looking into my own eyes with compassion. I found the mirror was a great way to work out my emotions, too. When I was struggling with negative feelings and there was no one who could lend a compassionate ear — or I just didn’t want to upset anyone or say something I’d regret — the mirror became a powerful reflector of my own pain and suffering.
Looking in the mirror, I was often flooded with a feeling of compassion and appreciation for how much I do and how hard I try — instead of relying on affirmations from others or validation from whatever I was currently defining as ‘success,’ I simply acknowledged myself unapologetically with love and compassion.”
When I looked for other people’s accounts of mirror meditation, I also found a YouTuber named Mr Wavy. He recorded this video after trying mirror gazing for the very first time in his life.
His account is raw and quite emotional — but in essence, he conveys the same experience Tara and I had. If you have a few minutes, you can listen to what he has to say. I think it’s beautiful.
When I asked Tara Well whether she noticed any recurring benefits of mirror meditation in her clients, she confirmed she had. Here are the three most common things that can happen — and how they benefit your relationship with yourself and others.
1. You’ll become aware of self-criticism and the effects it has on you
The problem many people have is they’ve internalized their critical voice so much they don’t notice it anymore.
“The inner critic usually runs in the background, and we don’t take the time to look at it. When we look in the mirror, it externalizes that critic. It gets it out of our own head so we can actually see the effects of it as we look it the mirror.”
— Tara Well
When you mindfully look at your reflection, the way you perceive yourself changes. You don’t just experience yourself from the point of view of your inner dialogue, as usual. You also see an external person who’s the subject of your critique — rather than its author, or object.
As you see your own facial expressions and posture, it’s easier to grasp you’re causing most of your own suffering by the way you talk to yourself. Tara explains:
“When we’re with ourselves, walking around and ruminating about our problems, failures and things we wished that we didn’t do, we don’t actually recognize that we create our own suffering. And that’s what’s key about the mirror because it lets you see how you’re doing just that. As you look at the reflection, you can see how distressed and sad you end up looking when you criticize yourself.”
When you become aware of your inner critic in a mindful, detached way, self-compassion arises spontaneously. Because you see how hard you can be on yourself, it’s natural to feel compassion for the target of your own critique: you.
2. You’ll become more aware of your emotions and regulate them better
Many people walk around hiding their true emotions not just from others — but also from themselves. In daily life, you may be so busy trying to show people how successful, happy, and competent you are that you forget to look within.
But you can use the mirror to check in with your true emotional state. That’s easy to do because your face and body language broadcast your feelings in real time.
According to Daniel Goleman, the first two components of emotional intelligence are self-awareness and the self-regulation of your feelings. Mirror meditation can help you with both by (1) enabling you to recognize your emotions and then (2) giving you the tools to self-regulate.
- First, you get a chance to look at the visual expressions of your emotions. It can be easier to grasp your feelings this way because the human brain is wired to connect and socialize. This includes being skilled at reading the facial expression of others. In this case, the “other” is you in the mirror.
- Once you become more emotionally-aware, the mirror teaches you to model and regulate your feelings. Science shows we need direct, in-person contact to understand how emotions work. As David Good pointed out, face-to-face interaction “is the basic model from which all other forms of human communication ultimately derive.”
Then, you also start associating your reflection in the mirror with feelings of comfort and safety. Tara Well explains it this way:
“Sitting in front of the mirror can help you become more aware of how you’re feeling. Then, there’s the breathing element to it. If you simply watch your breath and your body move with it in the mirror, you start associating the mirror with this practice. Then, when you go about your day and see yourself in the mirror, you’re much more likely to relax rather than self-loath. That’s because you’ve associated your own image with relaxing and comfort.”
3. You become aware of how you see yourself and others
This is the aspect of mirror meditation that extends to your relationships with other people. Through the deliberate practice of looking at your reflection, you start realizing how you habitually look at yourself — but also, at others.
You become more aware of the filters and conditioning through which you approach your daily interactions. Your “playground” for it is the interaction with the mirror. Often, you discover the attitude toward yourself translates into the one you hold toward others.
Tara was surprised to see this particular effect of mirror meditation on her clients. Then, she acknowledged what was happening:
“Whatever people learn about their emotions and treating themselves better, they can bring to their relationships. The self-compassion then generalizes to having more compassion for everyone. We become much more aware of how we may have the habit of seeing other people through harsh and critical eyes. We realize that just by softening our gaze or seeing something good about someone — even if we don’t say it — we can profoundly shift our interactions.”
Another aspect of how your relationships may change as a result of mirror meditation is you develop self-reliance. Without a chance to “meet yourself,” you may have had a habit of spilling your emotional difficulties on other people. With a practice like the mirror meditation, you don’t need to do that anymore because you know how to be your own best friend.
On top of that, as you get accustomed to your facial expressions, you become better at understanding the nonverbal communication of others. This allows you to read their intentions better. As a result, you become better at telling who you can trust and with what.
With all these amazing benefits of mirror meditation — let’s now talk about how you can reap them for yourself.
How to Practice Mirror Meditation to Increase Self-Compassion
To experience the full benefits of mirror meditation, let’s make a distinction first. There are many different ways to work with a mirror, and not all of them are covered in this tutorial.
Although mirror practices come in many forms, here are three general things you can do with a mirror:
- Mirror-staring: This refers to mindlessly gazing into your reflection with no particular intention. This is not the encouraged approach. As mentioned earlier, increased self-focus without the deliberate qualities of mindfulness may lead to increased rumination, self-obsessing, or anxiety, instead of compassion.
- Mirror meditation: This is the practice Tara Well teaches. Because it’s called meditation, the point is to simply observe what is, without trying to alter your state. You need to approach it with a kind intention toward yourself, which facilitates self-compassion.
- Mirror affirmations: This one is a practice where you don’t just sit with yourself and your feelings. You also try to alter your state through self-soothing self-talk or other actions. While it still requires you to be mindful, mirror affirmation isn’t the same as meditation. The difference here is you’re actively working to induce the desired feelings.
In the tutorial below, you’ll first find the instructions for how to set up your mirror meditation. These are based on Tara Well’s approach, which I’ve been using to guide my personal practice.
In the second part, you’ll get some bonus tips on how to do mirror affirmations. This study suggests affirming in front of the mirror can strengthen the impact of the affirmations on your self-compassion.
If you’re ready, let’s get started.
The Mirror-Meditation Practice
Tara Well recommends 10 minutes of mirror meditation every day if you want to experience the results mentioned in this article. I found this is about the time I naturally spend mirror-gazing each evening. However, unlike during my formal mindfulness meditation, I don’t keep the time.
Why? Because to me, mirror meditation is primarily a self-compassion practice. I like the idea of keeping it open-ended and adjustable. Sometimes when I’m tired, I only do two minutes and go to bed. A lot depends on how I feel and what I need the most at the moment.
However, if you’re the kind of person who requires a defined commitment or it won’t happen — by all means, set a timer for yourself. Just remember this isn’t about achieving anything or ticking yet another box.
First and foremost, treat mirror meditation as a chance to simply be with yourself without distractions. Here are some guidelines to help you do that.
1. Set an intention
The intention is key in all meditation practices. By verbalizing (in speech or in writing) what experience you intend to have during the meditation, you invite the right attitude for the practice. If you want to find compassion for yourself during the mirror meditation, frame it as your intention.
Many teachers recommend formulating your intention in the present tense. To give you an example, I often use a variation of the following:
“I love and honor myself and allow feelings to flow through me.”
Keep in mind there’s a difference between an intention and a goal. Setting a goal might mean you cling to a specific outcome that should occur in your meditation. That’s putting unnecessary pressure on yourself.
Setting an intention is different. It means you create space for any possible outcome to occur. You’re not manipulating your experience — you’re deciding on your attitude toward whatever you may experience.
2. Set up space
Mirror meditation is the time when you want to be with yourself and no one else. I strongly recommend you practice it alone in the room. If that’s hard, maybe you can use a mirror in the bathroom.
To set up your space, make sure you’re warm and physically comfortable. Then, adjust the mirror. Ideally, you should see your face without needing to lean forward or change your position. Ensure the room is well lit so you can see your face — especially the eyes.
If it’s possible to choose a mirror that captures your entire body, I strongly recommend that. I tried to practice with different mirrors, but the large ones that allow me to see my posture seem to be more powerful.
Even though you’ll be mostly looking in your eyes, you’ll also catch glimpses of the rest of your body. Seeing your shape and posture can give you additional insights about how you’re feeling.
3. Tune into your breathing
Before you start looking at yourself in the mirror, close your eyes and take a moment to reconnect with your breath. This is the first, “present moment” principle of mindfulness that Tara Well uses to guide mirror meditations. After all, you want to observe what happens with your mind and body in the present — not some imaginary past or future.
Breath is a great anchor to the present moment because it can only happen in the now. As long as you’re aware of your breathing, you can be sure your attention is in the present.
Whenever your mind wanders throughout the meditation, you can remember your breath and come back to the here and now.
4. Begin gazing into your eyes
This is the moment when you establish a connection with yourself. While still aware of your breath, begin to look yourself in the eyes.
It may be a bit uncomfortable at first — but bear with your feelings. You’re looking at the most important person in your life. So take as much time as you need to find the connection.
You can remind yourself that eye contact is necessary for emotional balance and good social bonds. If you’re not getting enough of it in daily life, this is your chance to make up for it.
In my experience and in that of others who practice this meditation, it feels as if looking into your own eyes has benefits similar to looking into the eyes of another person: increased empathy and a sense of compassion.
5. Notice your inner critic
After you sit with yourself for a while, you may start noticing some critical thoughts coming to the surface. It may be about how you look, what you did wrong, or how you behave in general. Whatever it is, the encounter with your inner critic in the mirror is an opportunity to respond with self-compassion.
This is where the second, open-awareness principle of mindfulness comes into play. As soon as I notice the critical voice, I have the power to open up and see myself from a new perspective.
Experiment with your perception of yourself. How does it feel to be yourself without a mirror? What changes now that you can see your reflection? Are you able to let go of looking at yourself as an object of criticism — and see yourself as a subject of it instead?
In other words: Do you realize the impact those critical thoughts have on the person in the mirror? Take a few moments to experiment with looking at yourself in this new way.
6. Check where your attention is
Like in any other meditation practice, your attention probably won’t stay focused on your reflection all the time. Your mind may wander off — that’s natural.
Whenever it does, become aware of where your attention is before you bring it back to your reflection and breath.
Noticing what thoughts are triggered by looking into the mirror may give you precious information on where your mind habitually likes to go. It’ll make it easier to notice the thoughts occurring in your daily life.
7. Take note of your feelings
Remember the intention you set before you started the practice? Hopefully, it included the third mindfulness principle Tara Well mentions: kindness toward yourself. It’s the crucial ingredient if you want to invite self-compassion to your experience.
Noticing your feelings come and go is a great chance to integrate that principle into your life. Try to open yourself to any emotions, without labeling them as good or bad.
Be kind and forgiving to yourself — you have the right to feel the way you feel.
With this said, you don’t need to make a particular effort to pinpoint your feelings. If you’ve never meditated before, it may be hard to name your emotions during your first sessions. This is OK, too. You don’t have to label your experience for it to be valid.
8. Thank yourself
When your timer goes off or you feel like you’ve had enough for the day, finish the practice. Before you walk away from the mirror, take a moment to appreciate yourself for what you just did.
It’s not at all obvious in our culture to give yourself the gift of your own, undivided attention. Not a lot of people do it — but you just did. Taking note of this self-compassionate act will motivate you to practice mirror meditation in the future.
When you feel grateful for something, your mind starts associating the positive feelings with the activity. Priming yourself to feel gratitude for mirror meditation makes it easier to establish it as a regular practice.
Bonus: The Mirror-Affirmations Practice
An experiment by Nicola Petrocchi and colleagues showed that when you say affirmations out loud in front of a mirror, they can impact you more than if you just repeat them in your head.
I’ve experienced this to be true in my own mirror practice. On top of the meditation, I sometimes add an element of affirming self-compassion through self-soothing speech, gestures, or touch.
Here are my three techniques for self-soothing and generating compassion in front of the mirror:
1. Self-soothing by speech
Do you find it easier to say encouraging, nice things to a friend than to yourself? Many people tend to elicit compassion for others more naturally than for themselves.
If you’re like that too, you can take advantage of it in front of a mirror. First, think about the kind of phrases you’d like to hear someone say to you.
My examples include:
“I’m so proud of you.”
“You’ve been doing great recently — overcoming all those struggles and moving forward no matter what.”
“I love you, girl, and I’m always here for you.”
Once you have the phrases, tell them to yourself as you look yourself in the eyes. If it feels weird to say them out loud, you can start by repeating them in your mind.
I’ve found being vocal about them tends to work better for me. But you can get there with time. Start by affirming silently if that’s what feels best for you.
2. Self-soothing by breathing and smiling
When we’re with other people, we tend to pick up on their body language and the overall energy they send. But while you can’t control how others behave, you can deliberately create a positive body language in the mirror.
For me, two factors tend to work particularly well: deep, calm breathing and a gentle smile. When I look at myself displaying these two things in the mirror, I pick up on the signals as if they were coming from another person.
If you want to comfort yourself, simply look at the way you smile and breathe. You’ll send and receive a powerful message saying: “You’re OK right now. There’s nothing to worry about. You’re safe.”
3. Self-soothing by touch
I learned touching myself in an affectionate, warm way also sends a powerful signal to my mind and body. Touch is a powerful way through which your loved ones can comfort you. But you can also use it to comfort yourself.
Studies show that affectionate, low-intensity touch, stimulates the release of oxytocin into our brains and blood system. Oxytocin is linked to many benefits, including lower stress and higher subjective well-being. You can take advantage of that by giving yourself a warm touch or stroke — for example, around the heart area.
Doing this in front of the mirror adds the visual quality to the self-soothing process. Seeing yourself as you comfort yourself pictures you as a self-compassionate person.
With the mirror, you foster the power of self-signaling: creating your identity based on your own observable behaviors.
Mirror Meditation Allows You to Become Your Own Best Friend
Would you like to have a friend or therapist available for you 24/7? Imagine someone who always has time and energy to hold space for you. A person who doesn’t expect anything in return and has limitless compassion to offer.
Most people don’t have a person like this in their lives. Even your best friend also has their own needs and problems. They can only be available for you some of the time.
But what if you could nurture the relationship with yourself to the point of becoming your own best, self-compassionate friend?
Mirror meditation allows you to do that. It gives you a way to accept yourself as who you are in any given moment. It creates a safe space for not only experiencing your thoughts, feelings, and inner criticism, but it also encourages you to respond to them in a compassionate way.
When you see yourself in the mirror, you enter a peculiar interaction. On the one hand, it’s just you with all your daily problems and struggles. But on the other, there seems to be another person in the mirror — someone you can work with to process your thoughts and emotions from a place of compassion.
The fact that this “other person” is you doesn’t make the practice any less powerful. On the contrary, it opens new possibilities. You’re suddenly given a chance to be with yourself and interact at the same time.
I can’t be sure what this practice will do for you. But for me, mirror meditation finally provided a practical way to accomplish what I wanted to do for years.
It allowed me to become my own best friend, showing myself compassion — no matter what.