What Is Mentalisation and Am I Doing It?
Trainee Clinical Psychologist, Maddy Lykourgos, writes about using mentalisation as a way to help people cope during times of conflict.
Mentalisation is the skill of understanding what someone may be experiencing in their given set of circumstances and having insight into why they might be reacting in the way that they do. It goes hand in hand with our use of empathy, but there is more of an emphasis on understanding a person’s state of mind, rather than just how they may be feeling. The goal is to use our own understanding of ourselves and our emotions to relate to others and how they may be experiencing the world. It provides a helpful basis that supports us to adapt to challenges, deal with conflict and understand the basic workings of forming and maintaining healthy bonds with others. In its simplest form, mentalisation is the ability to acknowledge an alternative perspective of the same situation. We can then use this as support to understand that our worldview is a personal one that may not prove to be absolute for everyone. Therefore, difficulties with mentalisation can often be associated with problems in relationships, as we may have trouble interpreting the actions of others and regulating our emotional response based on what we and others are facing at the time.
How do I learn to mentalise?
It’s suggested that the main time period in which we learn this particular skill tends to be during childhood, while we’re still learning from interactions with our caregivers. Caregivers who are able to, and have the capacity to, respond to the needs of their children demonstrate mentalisation, in that they have an understanding of what the child may be trying to communicate and what they require. Then, the child’s reaction to the aid they receive will inform the caregiver of whether or not they need to amend their strategy. Through these interactions we start to stabilise our own sense of identity and learn to interpret our feelings, which helps to understand those of others. It provides a helpful model for us to use from a young age as we continue to develop. We come to understand which social cues to pay attention to and how to reflect on what they mean i.e. the feelings and motivations others are trying to convey during an interaction. As adults, this grounding helps us to adapt in different social situations depending on the objective we are trying to achieve in each given instance. This also creates a slowing down of our more ‘knee-jerk’ reactions. For example, if we get an urge to do something, but it conflicts with our desired outcome, we may be more likely to take a step back before acting. As such, we learn to tolerate more intense emotions without the urge to act as impulsively.
However, there are of course times where this learning cannot happen during our early years. For instance, in homes with absent parents or when caregivers struggle to attend to the needs of their children because of other difficulties they may be facing themselves. This may provide limited experience of seeing others mentalising and therefore lead to problems understanding our own emotional reactions, and a subsequent difficulty extending this learning to the responses of others. In essence, the templates we learn early on about interactions may be inaccurate or not as generalisable to all our later relationships, but without reflecting on this as we grow, we keep using them without question. For example, if we have been unable to explore the role our emotions play in shaping our worldview, we can take our thoughts and mental representation of the world as the truest reality for all people involved. This limits the consideration of how other people’s experiences also shape their view, making it hard for us to identify that there may be alternative perspectives on the same issue. This might inform how we make judgements of others in a more concrete way, which is less flexible to change as we get to know them, or we might find it even more difficult to form these bonds to start with. For this reason, we might then develop a fairly fragmented sense of ourselves, what our needs are and how to get them met; it impacts on how we relate to ourselves and others around us. This can lead to impulsivity and emotional reactivity in interpersonal relationships, because of how difficult it is to remain mindful of the other person’s standpoint.
Just because we may have had limited experience using mentalisation or seeing it used in early life, does not mean that we are unable to learn it later on too, but it does require a step back and some curiosity. The main steps we can take are:
- To monitor and explore what has happened in a given event, what we felt and what we believe others felt and whether we had considered another perspective to the one we assumed to be true.
- To challenge the perspective we took. Why did we conceive this particular narrative of the event? Sometimes doing this with another person can help to identify when we may be thinking more rigidly or may be missing out important bits of information.
- To consider if our emotional state may be biasing our view of an event e.g. when we’re feeling hurt, we may conclude that it was someone’s intention to make us feel this way despite not having enough ‘evidence’ for this. Or when we feel low, we may notice that it’s easier to discount and dismiss the positive things going on. Our emotions are valid and tend to be a helpful indicator of how to act, but we can acknowledge that they put a filter on the way we interpret situations.
- To question. What happened? (the facts not my view or interpretation) Why did I say that or act in that way/what was I responding to? Why could the other person have said that or acted in that way/ what were they responding to? What has led me to feel the way I am now? What else has been happening recently that I may not have accounted for?
These are only a few simple techniques we can bear in mind if we find that we are struggling to relate to others. This may be especially relevant now that we are perhaps more isolated from others and relying on limited communication that may not even be in person. It is important to mention that these techniques do not seek to discredit our own experience or perspective, but rather it is about ensuring we have an appropriately balanced view, taking in all the necessary information. It seeks to be non-blaming and above all there is no right or wrong, after all we cannot read the minds of others! It is also worth mentioning that when we ourselves are feeling overwhelmed or emotionally and physically exhausted by all that we may be dealing with, it is understandable that sometimes our capacity to mentalise can fluctuate. We all have this ability, but sometimes it can feel particularly effortful. There are an infinite number of factors that influence how we feel, the way we think and how we act and it is just as important to stay attuned to those. Above all, it is essential to remain kind to ourselves, especially when facing conflict or adversity.
If you notice that you are having more interpersonal or relational difficulties and wonder if you may benefit from some added friendly and non-judgmental support, contact us here at The Blue Tree Clinic.