Funhouse Mirrors and Distorted Self-Images

mirror madness from Flickr via Wylio

There’s a shoe store near our house that has a couple of funhouse mirrors. Last time we went to that store, we spent a whole hour inside without buying any shoes because my four kids had too much fun just laughing themselves silly posing in front of those mirrors. They remember what they really should look like in a normal mirror, and that made those distorted images in the funhouse mirrors so amusing to them. With those mirrors, my children tried on “enlarged foreheads,” “enlarged bellies”, and “enlarged feet.” Time flies when you’re having such enlarged fun.

I realized these funhouse mirrors are a metaphor for identity and self-image. For those of us who have grown out of youthfulness, we have experienced the brokenness of life, not only because of our broken world, but also because of our sinful nature and our propensity to turn the good things in life into idols. So we have forgotten what a healthy self-image looks like. We are constantly holding on to distorted funhouse mirrors thinking that what we see inside are normal.

Virtually no one is immune to this distortion and self-deception.

For some of us, we turn “achievements” into an idol, and we like looking in our own mirror to look for areas in our lives where we have succeeded in our work and in our parenting (and in other areas of life), and then parade those accomplishments in front of others. We might even push our kids to succeed and “use” our kids’ achievements to bolster our own image. This leads to irrational fears of failure, constant comparison with others, and using other people to maintain your self-image — the image that you think you’re seeing from your distorted funhouse mirror.

For others, the part of the distorted self-image that’s enlarged in our distorted mirror could be “approval” (which we elicit by obsessively posting in social media and waiting for Likes) or “money” (which makes us constantly evaluate how much money is something worth before we make choices or before we spend time on something or with someone) or “control” or “morality,” etc. We might even try to put excessive demands on “family” or “friendships” or “career” in order to satisfy our false sense of identity.

This is especially poignant for me recently, because as I’m pondering the “what’s next” of my life, I have felt the temptations to build my identity on my next career move.

In the past few years I’ve read books covering a wide range of topics such as work, marriage, parenting, church, ministry, theology, philosophy, psychology, etc. and a common thread is that many of our problems can be traced to our distorted identity, and that even when we (after some difficulties) realize how our self-image got distorted, we still struggled to let go of those distortions.

These self-image distortions ping-pong us between the foolish extremes of indulgence and misery. They also incorrectly color our view of the world, and they damage our relationships with others. Worse, we are unaware how much we project our distorted images onto God, turning Him into an agent who’s tasked to feed our distorted egos and identities, and blaming Him for withholding from us anything that could appease our idolatrous pursuits.

We are made in the image of God, yet our brokenness has made it hard to find that perfect image again. This is why we should be thankful that Jesus came to be the perfect God-man to show us what the image of God should be like. As Corrie ten Boom said:

If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. If you look at God, you’ll be at rest.

Other writers have written about this. Paul Tripp used the metaphor of carnival mirrors in the book “Dangerous Calling” to show how pastors might idolize ministry knowledge, experience, success, and persona. And Tripp urged us to look toward the perfect mirror of God’s Word.

Brennan Manning wrote in “Abba’s Child” regarding the idea of the imposter, which he himself struggled with. As a child, his mother was cold and harsh toward him, so he painted an “imposter” or “false self” as a perfectly obedient kid to attempt to gain love and approval from his mother. But this only began a lifelong struggle that led to depression which fostered his alcoholism. When he finally discovered the imposter deep in his heart, he wrote:

Define yourself radically as beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is an illusion.

This is why we need to look to Jesus, who is the perfect imprint of God, and who showed us what someone assured of a healthy self-identity is able to do:

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:3-5, ESV)