Mentalization

Have you ever felt chronically misunderstood by someone?   Are there some people with whom you simply can’t work through a conflict no matter how hard you try?  Are there times when a conversation suddenly gets uncomfortable or heated and you don’t know how you got there?

Mentalization sheds light on the above situations.  You are mentalizing when you are aware of what is going on in your own mind or someone else’s.  This includes, thoughts, feelings, intentions, ideas and goals.  Sometimes we are aware of what we are thinking and feeling (called explicit mentalizing) and other times our motivations, thoughts and feelings can be automatic, reflexive or outside our conscious awareness (called implicit mentalizing).

An example of explicit mentalizing is you are asked to switch places with your teammate towards the end of the 1st half of a basketball game.  You are mentalizing when you wonder if your teammate feels dejected as you observe her looking sad and withdrawn after being benched.  An example of implicit mentalizing is after seeing your teammate’s reaction to being benched and notice your coach looking irritated; you play with added focus and intensity, without thinking through the situation.  At half-time you mentalize explicitly when you entertain different ideas about what might be going on for your teamate, such as, “maybe she was tired and relieved to be getting a break.”  Or, “I wonder if she resents me for taking her place so early in the game.”  Mentalizing also includes the capacity to reflect on your own internal state.  For example, I’m excited to play in the basketball game but I also feel a little nervous.”  As you reflect on this nervousness you think to yourself, “I don’t want to let my coach down and regret having put me in the game.”  While this is a fairly simple illustration of mentalization, it is actually a complex social construct that helps us to understand how relationship difficulties often result from a failure to mentalize.

“Resolving a conflict or impasse successfully necessitates we are able to “walk a mile in their shoes,” in addition to having our own experience validated. In both cases, the ability to mentalize is a key component in successfully addressing difficulties with another person.”

Here are some examples of poor mentalizing that can lead to impasses or conflict:

  • Not thinking about, or taking into consideration, how the other feels
  • Being certain about another person’s motives
  • Inability to reflect on our own internal state of mind
  • Overlooking the role we play in how the other is feeling
  • Inability to take in and understand another’s perspective
  • Use labels to describe behavior

When you have a conflict with a person and are unable or unwilling to address it directly, you might be tempted to talk with someone else, to seek some understanding, comfort or to just vent.  This can be helpful to clarify what you are upset about but it does not provide an opportunity to understand the reasons behind the other’s position. When the discussion is centered on how unreasonable, ridiculous, cruel or thoughtless the other person is, it might help you to feel better in the moment or perhaps even righteous in your indignation of the situation.  However, if there is little or no consideration that the person with whom you’ve had the conflict could have a very different experience with a very different perspective that is not being hosted in the conversation – then there is a failure to mentalize.

When I work with couples and families, I come up against this problem all the time.  We all want to feel our point is valid and understood by the other person.  This helps us to feel we are not alone in our experience and that we matter.  But in order to navigate complex social interactions, we must also have the capacity to understand the other person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions.  Resolving a conflict or impasse successfully necessitates we are able to “walk a mile in their shoes,” in addition to having our own experience validated.  In both cases, the ability to mentalize is a key component in successfully addressing difficulties with another person.

Here are some examples of a good mentalizing stance:

  • Curiosity about one’s internal experience (both your own and another’s)
  • A “not knowing,” exploratory stance
  • Openness to discovery
  • Having an emotionally present and engaged approach to communication
  • Good eye contact
  • Questions that deepen the conversation and bring out relevant moods, thoughts and emotions

We all have the capacity to mentalize barring genetic conditions such as autism.  Yet like language, mentalizing develops best in an environment conducive to learning.  Our capacity to mentalize is predicated on having caregivers who can mentalize. Growing up with trusted, responsive, safe relationships (what we call secure attachment) is necessary in order to develop this ability. Dr. Peter Fonagy has applied mentalizing to developmental psychology; looking at how secure attachment is necessary in order to learn how to mentalize.

“Holding your own perspective, along with the other person’s perspective requires effort, intelligence, sensitivity, and respect. Yet, even if we have this ability, we will all run into situations where we are unable to mentalize.”

Holding your own perspective, along with the other person’s perspective requires effort, intelligence, sensitivity, and respect.  Yet, even if we have this ability, we will all run into situations where we are unable to mentalize.  When we feel threatened or experience intense emotional arousal, mentalization can go off-line.  Even if the threat is not fully conscious, it could lead us to take an offensive or defensive stance, leading us to be less flexible in our thinking.  Trauma, psychiatric disorders or substance misuse will negatively impact our ability to mentalize, possibly leading to a distorted view of self and undermining our ability to understand another’s experience.

Mentalizing explicitly takes effort.  We need enough glucose for our brains to work optimally.  If we are too angry, amped up, or too flat and depressed, we will have less access to our higher cortical processes.  Mentalizing necessitates that we have enough resources (both physically and emotionally) to reflect on our own internal process and also make room for another’s perspective.  The ability to mentalize is necessary in repairing ruptures between people.  If you find yourself at an impasse such as the ones listed at the beginning of this article, chances are that mentalizing has gone off-line for one or both participants.

The next time you face a troubling conflict or distancing from a friend or family member, ask yourself: Can you reflect on your own state of mind and how it might be contributing to the conflict?  Can you approach the situation with an attitude of openness, inquisitiveness, and curiosity?  While you may not understand or agree with the other person’s perspective, it helps to remember that in their minds, they have reasons for thinking and feeling the way they do.