Where does "unable to look myself in the mirror" come from?

related example:

...I asked her what she does if after six months or so it becomes obvious that a salesperson is not bringing in business. Would she fire the person? Without hesitation, she blurted out, “I have to look myself in the mirror!” — as if firing someone who isn’t doing the job would make her a bad person.

  • I think the original expression was something along the lines of "How can you look at yourself in the mirror?", implying that the person should be ashamed of himself.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 2:15

3 Answers 3


Etymology-wise, this may come from a conflation of two older/clearer phrases:

To look someone in the eyes (or in the face, or eye): as Rhodri says, this means to make eye contact with someone, and is considered a sign of sincerity, confidence, and absence of shame or guilt. This is a somewhat peculiar idiomatic phrasing — it seems to use “look” as a transitive verb, which isn’t usually correct — but it’s fairly old and widespread.

To look at someone/something in the mirror: this is pretty clear — it’s a perfectly standard use of to look.

So then look myself in the eye and look at myself in the mirror get conflated as look myself in the mirror, which doesn’t quite fit either of those patterns, nor the standard usage of look. As Rhodri said, it certainly has the same meaning as look myself in the eye. Grammatically speaking, I must admit it felt wrong to me when I first read it; but googling around, it’s that it’s very widespread. Is it perhaps new, or is this just recency illusion on my part?

  • 1
    +1: What I would have said. There is a bleeding together of look me in the eye" and "look at myself in the mirror."
    – Robusto
    Commented Feb 8, 2011 at 18:29
  • I've heard this all my life, so I think it's probably just recency illusion [which sounds equally fascinating], but I think that "look myself in the eye" is a lot more common (even though both are pretty common... in this corner of the English universe anyway).
    – sova
    Commented Feb 8, 2011 at 18:29
  • 1
    There's also don't look a gift horse in the mouth, but that's the only other use of look to mean look at I can think of. Apparently one can only look <direct object> in the <anatomical feature>.
    – user1635
    Commented Feb 8, 2011 at 20:23

She wants to be able to face herself. Also known as "I want to be able to sleep at night" or "I want to be able to get up in the morning". She doesn't want something negative hanging over her. It's a decision she doesn't like, doesn't want to take and in the meantime is hard for her to have waiting.


It means to reflect on self. Take a self assessment: What is or isn't quite right about you. But only You can be honest with You! How many people say the same thing about me, good or bad that don't even know each other. That's a starting point! You must be willing to self assess (look in the mirror) and make those changes. Ask yourself: Do I manipulate? Do I gossip? Do I lie for no reason? These are a few starter questions on reflecting...

  • 1
    Welcome to ELU. I don't think this has much to do with the idiom "unable to look myself in the mirror," I'm afraid. It's not usually used as an examination of conscience.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 17:06

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.