Relationships Are Mirrors

Feb 25, 2019 About a 6 minute read

I wouldn’t mind forgetting most of high school. What I couldn’t from that time is the eclectic basement of my parents house. My friends and I practically lived down there and were lucky to always have a place to be. Aside from our homemade CAT-5 networking cables running all over the place to connect computers1, surrounding us was my Dad’s famous collection of antique and thought-provoking paraphernalia.

Come to think of it, the thought they most provoked was “Why does this exist?”

Some of the highlights included a coin-operated punching bag machine, a spinning barber shop pole, and my favorite, a real metal street sign of the road we lived on — spelled incorrectly. The Native American (Lenape) derived “Mahantongo” was hard to get right even for the city.

One other item in the assortment was a very tall and bendy circus mirror that would twist and warp your reflection into something way out of character. It was our analog version before the Mac Photo Booth.app2 came along.

Imagine such a mirror was the only one you owned. You’d never see yourself for who you really were.

During a period of my life which seemed like it would never end, my self-image was terribly distorted just like when I stood there in the basement. I was lost inside a fun-house3 of negative reflection.

During a period of my life which seemed like it would never end, my self-image was terribly distorted just like when I stood there in the basement. I was lost inside a fun-house of negative reflection.

What I did see can only be described with words that start with “un” — unlovable, unattractive, unworthy, unable to just live a normal life.

The difference with my Dad’s mirror is that I knew it was untrue.


Skip ahead to the past year when I took an unlikely journey to put myself back together –– there was an essential premise I came to believe in. Without this realization I would have never trusted in leaving.

I’m convinced relationships are mirrors for how we see ourselves. The way people act in response to who you are, that’s the reflection. The closer the relationship, the more ‘full-length’ its mirror.

Relationships are mirrors for how we see ourselves.

In the darkest times I truly believed I wasn’t good enough. I took the images I saw and felt to heart predominantly because they were cast from my closest mirror, a serious relationship I committed everything to. Sharing a home made them unescapable.

Amplifying the situation was how few other mirrors I had in my life at the time. Consistent with not being comfortable in my own skin and a brain trapped in a mental health vise grip I stayed home on my farm almost exclusively. I really did not possess many friends with two legs, especially if we cannot count “the peeps.”4

My peeps

Those I did have, I discounted. The forty animals I spent all of my time with and took care of — combined with family — I chalked up to being biased. Wouldn’t they love and adore me no matter what I did or who I was? And while I’m blessed to have earned so much respect from coworkers I likewise ascribed their admiration to hiding myself well working remotely, especially the depression and frequent visits to therapy and doctors.

This is what I believed, and what I was, for over five long years.


In April of 2017, as empty I ever ran on confidence and self-trust, I was tasked with traveling down to Maryland for an annual gathering of the company I work for, Element 84. I secretly panicked in anticipation for months prior like I did every year.

What I did not realize at the time, in preparation for this trip I made one little gesture that forever changed the course of my life: I typed my name into a Google Spreadsheet.

A tradition at Element 84’s event is a special Saturday session where anyone is free to give a talk about anything at all –– a stand-up comedy performance, a lesson in meditation, or how to fly an airplane. Considering I couldn’t even go to the grocery store without a panic attack, it must have been divine intervention that led me to boldly nominate myself for the 11am time slot.

Considering I couldn’t even go to the grocery store without a panic attack, it must have been divine intervention that led me to bravely nominate myself for the 11am time slot.

Come 10:45am on Saturday in Maryland, I was shaking. (Okay, that time made for a good scene setter but I really was all morning long). Perhaps preparing slides or a note or two would have chased away a few of these butterflies, but that’d have been even more out of character.

I was intimidated talking to my coworkers because many of them I didn’t yet know, and moreover it’s a group of the most brilliant and accomplished people. Amongst all the PhDs and NASA engineers I knew myself as just a guy who taught himself to code and spends more time raising farm animals than on a computer.

My farm, Love Today, happened to be the topic I chose. At the last minute (when I do all of my best work) I came up with an idea to load the farm’s Instagram feed so something was on the projection. Then in a blur I stood behind a podium with a microphone, next to a picture of Zooey,5 and told story after story of what it’s been like rescuing and raising farm animals. Day-old sheep from bottles, birds who many aren’t aware have true personalities and affection, and horses so graceful and powerful yet sensitive and in no way deserving of the heavy hand their size seems to induce.

Me giving this very talk (Thanks Duncan!)

Despite seeing the world in black and white during these melancholy years, love and passion for my animals was the one time I experienced vivid color. In a talk that wasn’t intended to be about myself in any way, I ended up learning so much about the person I was thanks to the people listening. Stepping away from the podium was when I first started believing in the mirror theory.

Despite seeing the world in black and white during these melancholy years, love and passion for my animals was the one time I experienced vivid color.

In a talk that wasn’t intended to be about myself in any way, I ended up learning so much about the person I was thanks to the people listening.

To this day I remember our designer Nelson and his wife being the first to greet me, shaking my hand enthusiastically and calling me “their hero.” To which I immediately mused “if he only knew I was actually a hot mess.” It blew my mind because I inversely always wished I could be more like Nelson on our video conference calls, always joking and bursting with personality.

To my surprise sentiments like this were shared by every one of my coworkers the remainder of the day. Many of those who approached and expressed how much they loved hearing about my story with animals I was afraid to talk to and assumed they didn’t even notice me.

One last interaction came after I arrived home. It was an email from one of my idols at the company, Duncan McGreggor, quoting many humbling things but most notably to “just keep being you.”

Not a single person had any clue whatsoever I was struggling, or to the degree. It’s frightening — and one of the reasons I’m writing here — how well those of us consumed by a mental health fight (or even just low confidence) can keep it a secret. Not even Duncan, whose words fortuitously hit right to the facet holding me back the most — not realizing I could be myself.

It’s frightening — and one of the reasons I’m writing here — how well those of us consumed by a mental health fight (or even just low confidence) can keep it a secret.

My coworkers probably knew their words to be compliments, not what they turned out to be: a saving grace.

This event, and moreover the people I work with at Element 84, represented a turning point. Despite how easy it may sound, being yourself just isn’t. I needed others to believe in me when I did not myself.

Despite how easy it may sound, being yourself just isn’t.
I needed others to believe in me when I did not myself.

During my subsequent travel throughout the USA and Canada, one person and one conversation at a time I began to see myself as something much more special because of how everyone reacted to who I was.

A perfect mirror will simply show back the truth. I didn’t need an Instagram filter or Snapchat lens — I simply needed to see what I was all along.

A perfect mirror will simply show back the truth. I didn’t need an Instagram filter or Snapchat lens — I simply needed to see what I was all along.

If you’re down on yourself like I was, I hope you can find the mirrors (relationships) who will show back the mere reality of how amazing and unique a person you are.

~ Murph

Postscript

I’ll close this piece by admitting I was hesitant to share the theory. I’m someone who believes in taking responsibility for life (perhaps more than I should at times). My furthest motive was to blame anyone or anything external for why I suffered so much on the inside.

I own my struggle, and instead just have come to realize we cannot do it alone –– our surroundings and reflections are sometimes too close and overpowering to simply “will” through.

I own my struggle, and instead just have come to realize we cannot do it alone –– our surroundings and reflections are sometimes too close and overpowering to simply “will” through.

Reflections may not be intentional, but perhaps there are some mirrors we just don’t look like ourselves in front of — like my Dad’s fun house variety.


A Song & Book

Music and reading inspire everything in my life. Here's two recommendations for you related to this entry…

She Used To Be Mine by Sara Bareilles

"Sometimes life just slips in through a back door
And carves out a person and makes you believe it's all true"

Sounds Like Me by Sara Bareilles

I love memoirs especially from accomplished people. Vulnerability reminds me that things are not what they seem.

I remember listening to Sara’s perfect first album, Little Voice, and I thought gosh I wish I was an artist like her who had their life together and didn’t struggle, cry, and fail so much. It wasn’t until I read her book, and about all the times she cried and battled during the creation of an album who’s lyrics made her sound so confident and together. It made me feel less alone and more like her than I thought I was.

Footnotes

  1. I suppose it’s past the statute of limitations, so I can admit we somehow stole an entire reel of raw cable from school. I had this little crimp tool to splice the eight wires down in the right order. Making my own wires surprisingly didn’t take the high-school dating scene by storm.

    I still remember the pattern: white/orange → orange → white/green → blue → white/blue → green → white/brown → brown 

  2. Rumor has it the preinstalled Mac Photo Booth app was one of Steve Jobs’ personal pet projects.

    Here are some fond images from then-time designer Mike Matas of Jobs testing the filters. 

  3. Do you remember those? House of Mirrors 

  4. I always call my chickens “Peeps” since the former sounds like food to me. 

  5. My girl Zooey Zooey