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Smokey Mirrors: Seeing the True Reflection Through a Fog of Emotions

by Kevin B. Burk, author of The Relationship Handbook: How to Understand and Improve Every Relationship in Your Life.

When stage magicians perform an illusion, it’s often accomplished with the use of mirrors. The mirrors (and often the accompanying smoke) fool us by making us think that we’re seeing something other than what we’re actually seeing. We get caught up in the moment, we buy into the illusion, and we don’t notice that what we’re really looking at is our reflection.

Of course, the same thing happens to us on a daily basis. We get caught up in the illusions of our relationships and we forget that everything that we see in other people is simply our own reflection. This is the Universal Law of Relationships: Our partners in relationship are our mirrors; they reflect our own issues back to us. It’s often hard to accept this truth, because when we relate to other people, our reflection is often hidden through a smoke screen of our emotions.

It’s not that difficult to see our reflection through the fog of our emotions, but we rarely choose to do so. When we see our reflection clearly, we’re often confronted with painful beliefs that we hold about ourselves. Unless we’re prepared to address these beliefs and upgrade them, it’s much safer to sit back and enjoy the illusion.

You are invited to take a journey with me, and explore the true reflections behind some very common emotions: pity, empathy, sympathy, and compassion. Please know that when we do encounter the false, negative beliefs and self-judgments, that we will follow a simple and powerful strategy to heal these beliefs. As always, we will employ AWARENESS, OWNERSHIP and CHOICE.

For me, this journey began shortly after the Tsunami disaster. In response to this tragedy, the world seemed to experience a tremendous surge of compassion for those whose lives were uprooted by the floods. I began to wonder why it was so easy for so many people to feel compassion for thousands of strangers on the other side of the globe, and so difficult to feel compassion for individuals closer to home.

I started to question and explore the nature of compassion, and how it relates to other emotions. I considered how Mother Theresa could walk through the streets of Calcutta and feel nothing but compassion and acceptance for every soul she encountered, and yet I know that for myself, compassion is not what I would be feeling. To be completely honest, what I would be feeling would be pity, not compassion.

This is not a pleasant thought. I like to consider myself an extremely compassionate individual, and I know that much of the time, I do express and embody compassion. I also became aware that I have a judgment about pity. I find it an unpleasant emotion, because I can sense the belief about myself that lurks behind the smoke screen.

As I explored these ideas, I began to get a sense of how these emotions are related. Pity and compassion are almost identical. The only difference is how we see ourselves. When we experience pity, we are being made aware of our belief that there is something wrong with us. When we experience compassion, we experience unconditional love and acceptance of ourselves (and others). Mother Theresa embodied compassion because she experienced the truth that each and every person she encountered is an individualized aspect of All That Is, and therefore whole, complete, and perfect exactly as they are.

What pity, empathy, sympathy and compassion have in common is that they each represent the desire to reach out and connect with another person and provide support. What differentiates them is how well we see ourselves reflected in the other person, and how much we are able to accept that reflection.

When we pity someone, we feel sorry for that person. But pity carries some rather unsavory undertones. Pity often masks contempt. We pity people whom we believe are beneath our standards, who disgust or offend us. When we pity someone, we hold that person in judgment, and we affirm that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. Although pity does, in theory, reach out and form a connection, it also emphasizes separation. We reach out to those whom we pity out of fear or guilt. We hope that they will go away grateful for our help, but mainly we hope that they will just go away.

Since the Universal Law of Relationships reminds us that it is never about the other person, let’s consider what pity is telling us about ourselves. ¯First and foremost, pity makes us aware that we hold the belief that there is something wrong with us. The fact that we can look at another person and judge that they have not lived up to an acceptable standard means that we, ourselves, believe that we have fallen short of some standard. When we hold another person in contempt, we are holding ourselves in contempt. We are buying into the illusion that we are separate, alone, and unworthy. We find it far too painful to confront this belief directly, so we project it on others.

We can also experience sympathy when we feel sorry for another person. For the most part, we consider sympathy a positive, healing response. Certainly, when we feel sympathy for someone we are far more accepting of them (and of ourselves) than when we feel pity for them. Of course, sympathy still masks the belief that there is something wrong with the object of our sympathy—and therefore, the belief that there is something wrong with us. When we experience sympathy, however, we begin to acknowledge that there is no difference between us and the other person. When we feel sympathy for someone, we recognize on some level that we could be in their shoes. It’s often a case of “There but for the grace of God go I.” We want to provide support, but we also want to distance ourselves, because we don’t want to notice how the pain that we see so clearly in others is a reflection of our own pain.

Empathy, on the other hand, occurs when we not only see ourselves reflected in another, but we identify with what that person is experiencing emotionally. We understand their pain because we recognize that pain in ourselves. When we experience empathy, we share the pain and the burden. We suffer along with our partner. Empathy is a powerful connection, and the experience of being reminded that we are not alone is tremendously healing. But empathy only addresses the symptoms, not the cause. Empathy is simply the awareness that we believe that there is something wrong with us, and that this belief causes us tremendous pain. Our awareness of this belief, however, can be the first step towards healing it and releasing the pain once and for all.

Finally, we have compassion. With compassion, we experience the deep, accepting, and healing connection with another individual. But what makes compassion different from empathy is that when we experience compassion, we know the truth about our partner—that there is nothing at all wrong with them, that they are whole, complete, and perfect exactly as they are.

True compassion occurs when we open our hearts to another individual and experience unconditional love. When we experience compassion, we know and accept the truth that we are all connected, there is no separation, and that everything is unfolding in divine order. True compassion is entirely free from all judgment. Compassion is the absolute, complete and unconditional acceptance of another individual.

Of course, the degree that we are able to express compassion is entirely dependant on the degree that we are able to love and accept ourselves unconditionally. If we judge ourselves in any way, we will see that judgment reflected back to us, and while we may still be able to experience love and support, that love and support will not be completely unconditional. What we tell ourselves is compassion may in fact be something else entirely: empathy, sympathy, or even pity.

So, why is it so much easier for us to experience compassion on a global scale and so difficult to do so on an individual basis? I think it has to do with the size of the mirror. When we relate to other individuals, we instinctively understand that we’re seeing our own reflection. The larger the mirror, the more abstract the circumstances, the more distorted our reflection becomes. It’s very difficult to see ourselves reflected in hundreds of thousands of faces on the other side of the world, and yet, since we do accept that we are all connected, we are able to open our hearts without experiencing our self-judgment.

A good magician never reveals his secrets; he’s invested in maintaining the illusion. We, on the other hand, are interested in dispelling the illusion and experiencing the truth of who we are. Therefore, I can reveal an essential secret about mirrors: they work both ways.

It’s not always easy for us to address the limiting and negative beliefs we hold about ourselves directly. Many of our self-judgments are deeply seated and well protected by our egos. Just as the mirrors of our relationships can make us aware of these beliefs, we can also use these mirrors to heal these beliefs about ourselves. When we choose to love and accept others, when we choose to release the judgments we carry about others, we are also loving, accepting and releasing judgments we carry about ourselves. By holding the truth that our partners in relationship are whole, complete and perfect exactly as they are, we begin to claim this truth for ourselves. By expressing unconditional love, we learn how to accept it as well.

We don’t have to address our negative beliefs directly. We can use the smoke and mirrors of our relationships to heal these beliefs without ever triggering our egos. By practicing compassion for others, we can finally feel compassion for ourselves.

Kevin B. Burk is the author of The Relationship Handbook: How to Understand and Improve Every Relationship in Your Life. Visit for a FREE report on creating AMAZING Relationships.

Kevin B. Burk is the author of The Relationship Handbook: How to Understand and Improve Every Relationship in Your Life. Visit for a FREE Report on creating Amazing Relationships.

©2006 Kevin B. Burk, all rights reserved. If you would like to reprint this article in your publication, web page, or eZine (which you may do for free!), click here for details.


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