Found poems: fragments & theories from
Madeleine Burns


In common with the humanistic psychologies, Mirror Theory examines the hypothetical 'true self'. Everything can be seen in terms of the search for this.

I know, I know.
Life is a pool of mirrors
through which you wade for miles
to find your true reflection

and at last, at last
you recognise yourself:
the mean, the cruel,
the spiteful little body.

Yes, yes. You saw her
in my eyes at first,
these little lakes,
these flooded halls

of truth, and truth to tell
I mirror you most faithfully.
like an expected mother.
But I am not your mother.


There are three aspects of the true self. 1. The invisible self. 2. The reflected self. 3. The self as wished-to-be.

Look in the glass.
I'll hold it. You'll
see loveliness
framed in your face

like the jewel
of a mind embraced
by insight. Dual
deception, fool.


All mirror images involve distortion. This may be a fault in the glass or a matter of flawed vision in the viewer: the latter problem may be addressed - but not necessarily corrected - by recognitive therapy.

I like what I see in your mirror.
I am abashed to find myself so
kind, gentle, assured, loving.

May I come closer?
Ah yes. I like myself.
Loving, assured, gentle, kind.

And closer still.

There is a problem with the design.
I believe the glass is flawed. It errs.
I have never been loving, gentle or assured.
I hate myself. I am the kind
who smashes mirrors.


There is no authentic self. Only wish-to-be images which, in some cases, are destroyed by their opposite: the feared-to-be.

There is only one true self.
It is in a thousand million fragments
broken and glittering.
I stuck one of them in my heart;
several in yours.
You can cry all you like.


Solipsistic reflection, also sometimes termed 'the Narcissus Syndrome', ignores outside reflection and turns only on itself. Sometimes the narcissus image can be challenged (or substantiated) by an acceptable wish-to-be reflection. This occurrence may be interpreted as 'love'. It is generally transitory.

I will be your looking-glass
if you will be mine.
In you I see a thousand of myselves:
smaller, smaller. Endless.
I like my bright reflection.
I like that you like it.
Can we stay together always? Quick.


There are many types of distortion. Some are almost certainly biochemical in origin. A more surreal reading of the situation might infer that the image sometimes chooses the person - we term this the 'unwished' self. In some belief systems, it is named Destiny.

The day I saw the mirror lies
the day I saw
the day -

it was terrible.
I saw ugliness - mine.
Blood in her eyes.


It is impossible to offer no reflection. It is equally impossible not to offer some degree of distortion. To argue otherwise is delusive, if attractive.

I love you because your house has no mirrors
so I have stopped looking for myself
but I am hungry.
Why do you say it's time to go?


Where, when and how the feared-to-be image is acquired is open to debate. It is not always, as has been suggested, implanted in infancy, though readiness to blame the parent is almost certainly achieved in the early years.

The new-born has no problem with decisions
but there are issues. Food is an issue
and there is curiosity which will not go away.
The baby is impervious to mirrors
for a little while. Then one day
it sees a person in its mother's eyes
who may decide everything.


The 3 Rs: 1. Reflection 2. Reaction 3. Either Refusal (Rejection) or Rationalisation (Reciprocation)

There's no need to
- give up smoking
- get bigger breasts

Show him a reflection
of the man he really wants.

Mostly it's easy. He wishes to be
- tall and resourceful
- desirable and potent

Lift up the heavy glass. See?
He falls in love with himself
and you can have him, little Echo,
so long as you can bear the weight.

But put down the mirror, even for a moment,
and someone else may pass
with another glass.


The partner may offer an accepted wish-to-be reflection; this situation, however, is not necessarily reciprocal.
I have always been very bad  
I am very bad  
and I am very bad because
I like to be bad  
I want to feel good
punish me  
because I am bad 
and because 
you love me 
because I am bad 
and because I need you 
not to  
very bad



The choice of reflection reflects a key aspect of the true self - which can never be - but has moving existence in the many wish-to-be reflections. We work on the basis that therapy may validate an acceptable wish-to-be and weaken the power of the feared-to-be.

The world is full of mirrors. Every day more. Lovely
deceptions, flawed with light and darkness.

In them we see ourselves wise.
We see ourselves see.
But even this is theory, only theory.


I give you yourself.
or surprise.
Accept or reject.

If it is not too late,
love is better than hate.


Nothing destroys 'free' choice so quickly as recognising a self-image. Such an image is no more the 'true self' than any of the others. Emotionally, however, it will feel true. Recognitive therapy works against instinctive impulses and recognitions. Our 'natural' instincts usually lead to neither happiness nor truth, and they are never natural.

in isolation
no rejection

does not reflect

Dr Madeleine Burns, a twentieth century clinical psychologist, wrote copious notes and letters to colleagues on what she termed 'Mirror Theory'. These were discovered after her death. Some have since been published as 'poems'.

Helena Nelson

If you've any comments or questions about these poems, Helena Nelson would be pleased to hear from you.

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