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What is Mentalization?

As humans, we always seek to understand why someone responds in a certain way: what are their intentions and what do they hope to achieve? We want to make sense, to put their actions into a box, so that we in turn can know how we should react both in terms of how we feel and what we do.

Yet this is actually a lot more difficult than it sounds. Once our own emotions are triggered and our buttons are pressed, our ability to hold an open mind in understanding others is diminished. We lose our own ability to mentalize.

So, what is mentalizing? It’s not a new concept at all, more a term to bring together our understanding of how we make sense of ourselves and others. It is a form of imaginative activity that we do to try to understand a person’s behaviour by attributing intention to that behaviour – i.e. that they did what they did based on a need, a desire, a feeling, a belief or a goal. It is us trying to work out the reason for that behaviour occurring. This is much more than just empathy – it is a huge range of cognitive and emotional processes all rolled into one.

This is happening all the time, both implicitly and explicitly; we are not always consciously aware of this process, often until something happens that leads to an intensified emotional reaction within ourselves. For example, we may see someone in a shop being irritable or snappy with the cashier, and because it isn’t directed at us, we might be able to hold an open mind about what actually happened (e.g. ‘he’s had a bad day’, ‘the cashier was a bit rude to him first’, ‘this is the third time he has had to return a product to this store’). However, what if the person was rude to you? What if they raised their voice at you, pushed past you and didn’t say sorry? Would you still have the same thoughts? Or would you be more inclined to think ‘he’s a nasty person’, ‘he did that on purpose to wind me up’, he doesn’t care about anyone else but himself’. All of these things may be true, but we struggle to hold an open mind when we ourselves are feeling hurt, angry, shocked or embarrassed.

Mentalization is the ability to understand ourselves from the outside (how other people may view us, how our actions impact on how they think and feel) as well as the ability to see others from the inside (i.e. to hypothesise what they may be thinking or feeling in any given situation). This means that it is central to all human communication.

Mentalizing is a skill, a mental muscle that we have to train and strengthen. Some people have greater capacity to mentalize than others; some people struggle with this a lot. It is something we learn through our own attachment relationships when we are growing up, but it is a skill that we continue to learn and grow all through our lives. It does however take a level of curiosity and interest in others; a desire to understand that we all have our own thoughts and emotional responses to situations. And that these are likely to be very different. It is an awareness that we can never truly know what is in the mind of others unless they tell us. Our minds are opaque, and unless we are explicitly told by the other person what their thoughts or intentions are, we can only make assumptions.

Assumptions are generally okay most of the time; life is so busy and fast paced that it would be impossible (actually, it would be odd) if we were to question the intention behind every single action that people around us take. The difficulty is when we attribute definitive and concrete absolutes to why someone does something (or doesn’t do something). ‘They did that on purpose to wind me up’, ‘they are just a rude and inconsiderate person’, ‘they don’t care’ are examples of fairly definitive statements as to the intention behind someone’s behaviour.

Now, all of these things may be true to a certain extent, but they are assumptions that we are making in the moment.

The thing is that even the best ‘mentalizers’ in the world will lose the capacity to do this effectively at times of high emotion. Our ability to think, to understand, to be curious, is often thrown out of the window when we are feeling intense emotions. We need to bring our own emotions to a manageable level before we can even start to wonder about what the intention was behind someone else’s behaviour. It is not a skill that can be undertaken when feeling intense sadness, anger, guilt or shame, which is why when developing our mentalizing ability, we first need to understand our own emotions and internal world.

This is what can make relationships complex and why we need to look at ourselves as well as others when working through relationship difficulties.