I think that is one of the most beautiful words in the English language: “reflection.” I’d like to reflect on it for a moment.

One meaning of the word is to do what I am doing now: reflection as a time of quiet thought and consideration. A person may reflect at different times throughout the day or at special times in one’s life. “Quietude.” “Tranquility.” These words come to my mind when I think of reflection: A time to think, to ponder and question, to wonder and to dream.

This sense of “reflection” characterizes to a large degree what takes place in psychotherapy. The client and therapist reflect together, usually on issues central to the client’s life. The client and I think together. We ask questions, we wonder, together. Of course, there is much good to be achieved through self-reflection: the act of solitary thought and contemplation. But when done in another’s presence, done together, reflection is a powerful experience that can lead to significant insights and discoveries.

Then there is the sense of the word as in what a mirror does: reflects. Other human beings throughout our lives become mirrors. From an early age, we learn about ourselves through refection. The first reflection, how we are seen in the eyes of our early caregivers, shows us that we are distinct entities in the world. A mother’s or father’s smiling face reflects back to us that we are loved and beheld as wonderous and special. Throughout life, reflection continues to be an important source for understanding ourselves and our impact on others. While no one likes negative criticism, constructive criticism can illuminate what we are blind to in ourselves and help us grow in important ways.

This sense of reflection is also integral to the practice of psychotherapy. Not uncommonly, when clients come into therapy because of nagging issues, perhaps low self-confidence, low self-esteem, depression, we find that somehow in their early years there was an insufficient amount of positive reflection or perhaps an abundance of negative reflection. Psychotherapy becomes a process for not only being able to understand this history, but also providing the client with necessary reflection. A client will hopefully feel the therapist’s genuine feelings of care. The client may come to see him or herself in the eyes of the therapist, and this may restart a process of development that got significantly derailed earlier in the past. From that process, a person can internalize that positive sense of him or herself and develop a better sense of confidence, self-esteem and vitality for life.

Then there are scientific definitions for “reflection.” The dictionary says that reflection is the change in direction of a wavefront at an interface between two different media so that the wavefront returns into the medium from which it originated. Although I perhaps don’t understand fully the scientific properties of how this works, I like that definition very much. It seems to me to refer to the process that I described above: how the reflection of the infant comes back through the early caregiver’s eyes. There is a change of direction and an “interface.” Those images also suggest to me the process of psychotherapy. Often the “change of direction” is the change a client has come to therapy to achieve: perhaps more confidence and better self-esteem, more vitality in life, a more positive way she views herself and her world. And the “interface” is that place of meeting between therapist and client, which includes how the client is reflected in the therapist’s eyes.

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