HEALING THE DARK MIRROR: Challenging Negative Core Beliefs 

Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen, begins when a mirror of negativity shatters, causing those infected to view the world from a distorted perspective. Early family dynamics likewise distort self-perceptions. These can become so familiar that we are unaware of living in current misperceptions. Psychodrama offers an effective means of examining early situations in the present, and altering long-standing scripts. Psychodrama empower our clients to repair these flaws and reclaim their creativity and strengths. 


The Snow Queen: Once upon a time, there lived a horrible, wicked hobgoblin. A day dawned to find him scampering with delight because he had created an evil looking-glass. This mirror distorted anything that was beautiful until it dwindled down to nothing, and what was ugly or evil stood out clearly and looked far worse. If you viewed a beautiful part of the countryside, the reflection would look like boiled spinach. The most attractive people looked hideous and repulsive; their faces so distorted that they couldn’t be recognized. If anyone had a beauty mark or a few freckles, these would appear as huge blotches covering their entire face. The hobgoblin took wicked glee at how it made the prettiest person the most ugly. He decided to transport it to heaven, and see how hideous the angels would appear in the looking glass. As he flew higher and higher with the mirror, it became heavier and heavier. Finally, it slipped form his hands. Falling to the earth, it shattered into a million pieces, fine as dust. Destroyed, this became an even worse calamity for humanity. Several of the pieces were no larger than a grain of sand and they scattered on the winds. If anyone got a bit in their eye, it stayed there. It distorted everything they saw, or they could only see the negative side of a situation. For each fragment of the mirror possessed the same evil power as the whole. Some unfortunates got a splinter lodged in their hearts. And this caused their hearts to become like a lump of ice......

In the story that follows, Kay is stung by two fragments of the mirror; one in his eye and one in his heart.  The first indication is Kay finding flaws in the roses that he had enjoyed moments before.  That winter, he leaves his town on the Snow Queen’s sleigh.  The story continues and tells Gerta’s journey to find and save him. 

Negative core beliefs operate like these minute fragments of the Dark Mirror.  For this workshop, we are not referring to common cognitive distortions that twist everyday perceptions.  All-or-nothing thinking, mind-reading, perfectionism – these indeed create difficulties in our lives. Yet they also distract from our negative core belief.  In The Snow Queen, the distortion is within Kay’s eye and heart.  Yet, his initial reaction is to pluck off rosebuds claiming “This rose is crooked” “This flower has some petals gnawed by a beetle.” He externalizes, oblivious to the internalized source of damage.  In our own lives, we attempt to correct our more moderate cognitive distortions yet can remain unaware how these beliefs keeps darker thoughts at bay – false beliefs that we are intrinsically damaged or worthless. 

This workshop examines ways to help clients identify their core beliefs, recognize the origins and begin the process of leaving these beliefs behind.  This structure developed as part of a psycho-educational group at St Luke Institute, in Maryland.  Participants were residential clients, who had sufficient therapy prior to the group to be sufficiently resourced. They had previous practice in disputing their everyday cognitive distortions and were capable of insight.  This workshop is presented in the structure that was provided to the clients.


Let us begin by considering: Clocks, Apples, and Christmas.  

Clocks:  These represent structure and our drive to make order out of chaos.  Clocks help us track time.  We write to-do lists.  We create social structures.  The child sees shapes within clouds.  We use Google maps.  Even when a rebellious teenage wants to push against the conserves, we need structure against which we rebel. 

Apples:  Consider Isaac Newton and his theories of gravity.  We might study physics of gravity late in grammar or middle school, yet we recognize gravity at a much earlier age.  Whether it’s falling and skinning our knee or repeatedly playing the ever popular game of ‘Push teddy bear off the bed and watch daddy pick it up” - we understand that things fall DOWN.  Yet we rarely consciously think about gravity – it becomes part of our background.  Yet we live every day on the principle of gravity holding things in place. We don’t worry that our coffee will float out of our cup or that a sneeze will cause us to rise from the ground and drift on the wind.  Many of our daily activities are based on the premise of gravity. 

Christmas: For many children, Santa is an actual person. And they have good evidence for this.  We are told he is real by the adults we trust.  Identifiable images of him begin appearing well before Thanksgiving.  We go to sleep with a bare tree and wake to find treasures beneath it.  All solid proofs to his existence.  Yet we gain additional data as we grow older: we’re told that he’s a myth; it’s really our parents.  We figure out that reindeer are not aerodynamically built for flying.  We discover our Christmas presents hidden in a closet or under the bed. 

Let us draw these three disparate perspectives together in terms of negative core beliefs.  Beginning as children, we experience and process events in our lives.  However, we draw conclusions from a limited perspective, much as children believe in Santa Clause.  We attempt to make sense of complex adult situations with our limited capacity.  Like a clock, we strive to make order out of the chaos.  And, if this belief is not challenged, like gravity, it becomes an unconscious part of our background.  It forms a significant presence in our world yet is not something in our immediate awareness. 

Add to this mix the incredible dependence we have on our parents or parental figures when we are very young.  It can be easier to absorb blame or personalize a negative situation than to view our primary caregivers as significantly flawed or inadequate to their task of parenting.  As young children, independence from parents is a far away, unforeseeable future. 

In many ways, we have increased our sensitivity to these dynamics.  But consider how children might blame themselves when parents began divorce proceedings.  Thinking: “I must have done something wrong” allows the child to maintain the parental figures in their powerful role.  Parents can remain ‘stable’ and ‘wise’ and ‘powerful’.  They are not the ones with flaws.  If this distorted perspective is not corrected, it can lead to formation of negative beliefs about self.  If something works, we are likely to try it again. And therefore patterns form in which the child creates a narrative containing serious distortions about self. 

One powerful aspect of psychodrama is our ability to hold a past moment and present awareness simultaneously.  In this workshop we will examine how to use these tools to help clients recognize the splinters of that dark mirror and begin the process of washing it out of their eye or heart. 

In a treatment setting, I began by offering the perspective given above.  Participants are invited to identify an early uncomfortable memory.  They needn’t immediately know why it was uncomfortable.  One person’s memory was visiting the State Fair.  They remembered it as a good day, yet nonetheless felt discomfort associated with it; this subsequently led into their sculpting. 

In creating the family sculpting, we are working with vulnerable material.  Be attentive to safety issues.  Individuals are active protagonists in the sculpting, yet we regularly use a mirror or create the tableau as version of Playback Theater to maintain safety.


A focus for the director is to identify those moments where a child could misinterpret events, or misconstrue them from their limited perspective.  Examples might be situations such as:

  • Hearing threats from parents: “Any more problems and I’m dropping you kids off at the orphanage!”
  • Being told, “Be quiet, your father had a hard day” when the problem is actually the father’s drinking and bursts of rage.
  • Being seriously punished out of a parent’s fear for situations that as adults we know are dangerous. Often, these are not viewed that way by a child: playing with matches/fire/sharp objects, wandering away in a store or park.
  • Mental illness or addictions in a primary caregiver.

As director, we want to identify these distortions, but without deflecting into parent-bashing.  While parents’ mistakes are overtly identified, these are reframed to group members as ‘empathy failures’ on the part of the parents or caregivers. In situations of family alcoholism, for example, we might identify how a codependent spouse might feel at the end of their rope, fearful, or angry. In this situation, they can lose their capacity to role reverse with the kids or consider how these dynamics appear to a child. Parental figures might expect a 4-5 year old to take on responsibilities or responses far beyond their years. We can understand the parents’ stressors, yet nonetheless identify these as empathy failures, an inability of the adult to role reverse and appreciate the child’s perspective.  It helps to note that, if we sculpted the parents’ childhood dynamics, we might see what developed during their childhood, underscoring the generational aspects of these patterns. 

Allow the dynamics in the sculpting to reach an affective or somatic level with the protagonist.  As the protagonist immerses in their memories, they are asked repeatedly to complete the sentence stem, “I am…..”  These frequently begin with feeling statements: “I am scared/hurt/angry.”  These might also be behavior focused: “I am supposed to do better/behave/fix this.”  The person will typically expand to identify attitudes that focus on core beliefs: “I am Bad”  “I am Unlovable”  “I am Worthless.”  Note these belief systems are less an overt statement and more of an emotional/somatic response; this makes these beliefs harder to identify and dispute when limited to verbal therapies.  At this point, group members might support the person by offering their adult observations:  “It was your father’s drinking, you were only a child.”  “At age 5, you could not and were not responsible for repairing the conflict between your mother and your grandparents.” 

Identify how these beliefs become reinforced and pervasive.  Someone who internalized “I’m worthless” could be in a classroom where 4 or 5 people feel positive towards them, 8 are fairly neutral and 1 or 2 are hostile.  The core belief, that fragment of dark mirror, says the hostile person sees them accurately while the positive attitudes are mistaken or offered out of pity. 

This work brings up considerable vulnerability for the group as a whole and particularly for the protagonist.  Sometimes, individuals begin to criticize themselves for being stupid.  Validate the formation of these negative core beliefs as a highly creative coping response to a complex adult dynamic and given the child’s capacity.  Then help the protagonist considers what additional skills they can access as an adult.  This could lead into a scene of re-parenting self, or of group members offering alternative, more empathic responses from a parent.  Sessions end with sharing as with any psychodrama.

 Returning to the story of the Snow Queen:  Gerta seeks Kay and during her journey undergoes considerable self-discovery.  She eventually finds Kay alone in the Snow Queen’s Ice Palace.  With his own heart frozen, he is oblivious to the isolation and the cold.  Gerta weeps at finding him; her falling tears wash the fragment of the dark mirror from his heart.  Kay’s subsequent tears wash the mote from his eye.  With their additional experience, they are then free to return home, in time to appreciate the roses blossoming.   

This reflects how we replace our negative core beliefs.  Gerta and Kay began and complete their journey together.  Just as these beliefs and wounds occurred in relationships, we need the investment of both others and self to heal.

I am grateful to my past clients who, risked vulnerability to co-create our experience of learning together ways to free one another from these fragments of the dark mirror. Thank you, Manny Lockyear, for your artwork

Stephen F Kopp, MS, TEP




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