What is mentalization?
Basically, mentalization is the connection of mind to mind in a particular exchange. It is about in-the-moment interaction, not about the past or future. It is about communicating and understanding your and the other person’s explicit and implicit expressions and motivations, feelings, goals, etc. It is about accurately expressing yourself and listening to the other person in a search for meaning. It is about internalizing the other’s viewpoint and having the other internalize your viewpoint. A really good example of mentalizing is an inside joke – both you and the other person completely understand the meaning of the joke and have internalized the meaning.
Jerry Holmes, a researcher that works with Anthony Bateman (a co-creator of mentalization therapy), calls mentalization the process of “seeing yourself from the outside and others from the inside.”
We mentalize for several reasons. The main one is that mentalization is a “meeting of the minds” in which a personal connection is made. Mentalization encourages the integration of thoughts, desires, feelings, motivations, intentions, goals and all other internal mental elements and the communication and understanding of the same in others. When we mentalize, we are out of “lizard brain” thinking and into the prefrontal cortex. That requires the reflection upon meaning and discourages emotional dysregulation, concrete thinking, bullshitting, dismissive attitudes, blaming and IAAHF.
Mentalization serves to:
- Improve trust – others feel that you “get them.”
- Improves communication between two people – the meaning is exchanged.
- Builds empathy and compassion – you can see the world through the other’s eyes.
- Help work on a relationship – people take responsibility for feelings, words, and mental processes.
- Decrease misunderstanding and resentment – understanding other person’s intent.
- Change viewpoints and assumptions – when alternative meaning is applied to situations, beliefs and assumptions can change.
How does one mentalize?
It is important to remember that mentalization is about NOW. It is not about any other moment than now. Therefore, if you are dragging old issues or future worries into the conversation (or if the other person is) then you are experiencing a “failure to mentalize.”
You mentalize by continually monitoring the progress and state of a conversation. You mentalize by asking questions about the current conversation, the feelings and intention of the other person and monitoring your own feelings and understanding of the current conversation. It is a natural skill and is built into the human mind; however, it is also a difficult skill, because we are often not mindful of the current moment when having a conversation. We are often distracted by our own thoughts and feelings, assumptions and automatic thoughts, history and attachment to the other person. If your mind meanders into these things, you are experiencing a failure to mentalize.
Mentalization is done from a “stance,” which is summarized as follows:
- Compassionate for yourself and the other person
- Focus on the other person’s mind
- Humble about your viewpoint and not bullying
- Curious and interested, an authentic desire to see the other person’s point of view
- Validating for additional information about inner mental states (before offering alternative perspectives)
- Normalizing and generalizing – “everyone makes sense (to themselves) at all times”
Mentalization is the true essence of love, compassion and understanding, because it allows you to internalize the authentic “image” of the other person’s mind (and they can yours as well).
Mentalization is essentially done through asking questions, but not leading questions. One cannot ASSUME the other person’s thoughts and feelings are what you think they are. You have to start with a blank slate each time. You can “read” momentary feelings (such as recognizing micro-expressions) but the MEANING of those feelings is not always clear.
If you don’t know, you have to ask.
You ask by being “dumb” and not assuming. For example:
- “I’m not sure I understand. Can you help me out and explain how you feel?”
- “Why do you think he said that?”
- “What happened?”
- “How did you feel about that?”
- “That’d make me feel sad. Do you feel sad about it too?”
- “What do you think was up with that?”
- “Could you tell me more about that?”
- “Really? That wasn’t my intention. Perhaps we could talk about that more?”
- “I wonder if…” statements
The purpose is to probe the other person’s mind and to get as close to a full understanding of the other person’s internal mental processes as possible. It is impossible without a true interest in the other person. It is impossible if you judge the other person, or if you get in your own way, entangled in your own mental processes.