Borderline Personality Disorder,  Mentalizing

A failure to mentalize – Mentalization Information Part 2

Often, when speaking with someone who is a close “attachment person,” misunderstandings, assumptions and ineffective modes of thinking creep into the situation. Bateman identifies several “modes” of thinking that inhibit mentalization. These modes are:

  • Psychic Equivalence – when the world is equivalent to the person’s mind. This is the “feelings = facts” mode. “If I feel sad, there must be someone/something that made me sad.”
  • Pretend – mental states are not anchored in reality. Pretending “as if” something is true, when external evidence shows the contrary. This is “bullshitting” mode.
  • Teleological – mental states can only be expressed in action. “If you loved me, you’d buy me a car.” Only tangible actions count, not words or thoughts.

In addition, there are other ways of thinking that inhibit mentalization such as:

Concrete thinking – “But he said he hated me!” Taking something as gospel and ignoring the underlying mental states and their malleability.

Pseudo-mentalizing – seemingly understanding of mental states, but used in a self-serving fashion.

What do you do when the failure to mentalize happens? When a break in mentalization occurs, you must intervene immediately. You cannot let the break go unnoticed or simply “let it go.” You have to be attentive to the level of mentalization in the conversation and stop the flow of the conversation right away.

Bateman has 3 basic ways of dealing with the break in mentalization, each used for a different intensity of the break. They are:

  1. Stop, Listen, Look (for minor cuts, bumps or abrasions).
  2. Stop, Rewind, Explore (for breaks, burns and internal injuries).
  3. Stop and Stand (for life-and-death struggles and near-fatal injuries)

Huh? What’s up with those?You will notice that “Stop” begins each of these methods. Bateman suggests actually holding up your hand, palm forward in a traffic cop sort of way and saying, “Stop…” (or some variant). This “mentalizing hand” is the “shock to the system” that indicates a hold on further progress to a conversation. It is an indication that you can’t continue the conversation without some sort of clarification of what just happened.

Stop, Listen, Look

This puts the conversation in “pause mode.” It is to remedy a small break in mentalization. It is a reaction to the reaction of the other person. If the person is triggered into an emotion by something that you said, you must stop, listen and look. Some of the ways to do this are:

  • “Wait. I’m confused. What I said seemed to have upset you. That wasn’t what I intended. Can you clarify how you feel?”
  • “Stop for a minute. You said I was being mean. I didn’t intend for that to be mean, but I guess I was. What do you feel that’s about?”
  • “Hold it. You appear to be angry at that. Is that right?”
  • “Hang on. I think what I said upset you. Can you help me out here and explain why?”

I know all of this seems rather clunky; however, the purpose of this is two-fold: 1) to get the other person thinking about their thinking (a re-engagement of mentalizing) and 2) to communicate that you are really engaged in the conversation and interested in how the other person is feeling.

Stop, Rewind, Explore

This process is a bit arduous. It requires you to step back through the last few moments of the conversation and explore each, “frame by frame.”

  • “Let’s go back and explore what happened just then. It seemed to me we were relating well and then something happened. What do you feel happened?”
  • “Something happened just now. Let’s try and rewind a bit to see where the conversation went astray, alright?”
  • “Hang on a second. I feel like my intention and the way you felt about what I said are not in synch. Let’s go back and see what happened.”
  • “Wait. There appears to have been a misunderstanding a moment or so ago. What do you feel about what I said?”Then, you have to go forward, step-by-step, statement-by-statement and explore each one and see how those made the other person feel.
  • “So, I said, ‘maybe he was just tired’ and you felt I was being dismissive of your feelings? Is that right?”
  • “You said that you didn’t want to talk about it and I continued. You felt badgered, correct?”
  • “When I started talking about our daughter, you felt I wasn’t being attentive to your feelings. Do I have that right?”

Stop and Stand

This process is for the big problems. It is the way that you apply your own personal boundaries to a situation. When the other person is way down the path of emotional dysregulation, stop and stand can be the only option. It is basically your way of either ending the conversation or trying to re-frame it completely.

  • “As far as I can tell, we are going around in circles about this. I don’t see any point and continuing to talk about it.”
  • “I feel we have reached an impasse. You have your view and I have mine. I don’t think going back and forth will do either of us any good.”
  • “I can’t really discuss this anymore right now. Maybe we could discuss it again in the morning.”
  • “I can’t listen to you when you’re drunk. Let’s talk about this later.”

Remember: like any application of boundaries, this one is likely to cause an immediate strong reaction, but the “stand” part is that you have to stand your ground.

This content is based solely on my interpretation of mentalization skills.


  • chloe

    Hi i have been reading your posts for a while i have a few questions
    1some of the things that people think r a borederline trait r actually woman in general ie we well feel upset when not listened to and our husbands r trying to fix us instead of listen to us when we need to talk. This can sometimes make us feel unloved. But the professionals call this unstable. Why r we as woman not able to celebrate our uniqueness how god made us

    2. My second question is can someone look like they have BPD even though they dont just because there partner put them down at home and crazy make them so they start exhibiting outward signs like depression mood changes in response to the abuse and possibly even clingyness as the abuser has made them dependant on them.

    3. My last question is i do do the stop signal with my partner as our converstions get out of hand very quickly i will also say something to the effect could u please stop and let me explain what i meant cause your saying something that i never did. This never goes well he will talk over me accuse me further. I get to the point were i tell him i dont want to talk bout this anymore and i go to leave he then follows me every where i go and tries to rub my arm and tell it will be okay dont worry i keep telling him to stop i want to be left alone he wont stop what do i do i dont know why this is happening

  • Bon Dobbs


    Hi. I’ll try to answer your questions. It appears that you feel unheard and unfairly criticized by your partner. That is a hard situation to be in. I think everyone get frustrated and upset when they feel unheard. While my tools are intended to work with people with BPD, just about everyone wants to be heard and validated emotionally. Everyone wants compassion from their loved ones. That is normal. And most everyone will get dysregulated when they feel that there is little understanding and compassion. We all need to work on tuning our emotional sense and developing the skills to communicate more effectively.

    Question 1: BPD is a certain configuration of the brain and mind that is generally dysregulated in feelings/emotions, behavior and certain thoughts, especially self-referential thoughts. If a person has been abused or mistreated, he/she can develop PTSD, which, at times can look a lot like BPD. If a person feels unheard and misunderstood, this causes frustration. While a person with BPD might express this frustration in a more intense and prolonged way, each person will react to frustration. Sometimes these reactions can appear to be BPD, but the reactions to emotions – sadness, frustration, anger, fear, pain – is a normal part of our being. If your partner is judging you for your emotional reactions, that just fuels frustration and anger.

    Question 2: Yes. A person can look like they have BPD when they feel frustrated and abused and unheard. There are certain features of BPD that are NOT “normal” in the sense that the reactions are usually extreme. There is also a lot of “base-line” emotional pain in BPD and a feeling of “not right in your skin” or “dead inside”. These features have to do with brain chemistry and are not a constant factor in other disorders (including the “disorder” of being unheard). The pain can cause all kinds of maladpative behavior, like drugs, cutting, spree shopping, etc. This site is called “Anything to Stop the Pain” for that reason.

    Question 3: The stop signal is to be used in a specific way. The intention is to interrupt the conversation and to go back and review and repair the emotional misunderstanding. If the other person is “fighting with the (their) truth” and using logic and not mentalizing and seeing your point of view, the stop signal will not necessarily work. First, mentalization must occur before a break in mentalization occurs.

    I hope this helps.


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