Mentalizing, it’s a big word. But so so integral to our security and wellbeing.
The best way to describe it, is to liken it to empathy, but then imagine a more dynamic version of empathy, where you are truly curious (not sarcastic!) about what the other person is experiencing. You seek out that information of the other person’s experience either out-loud or nonverbally through touch. Then at the same time, you observe your own experience of the situation.
I’ll explain it better with a common interpersonal situation: Conflict!
Imagine you are having an argument with your teenager (or partner, friend, who ever else you might get into a heated argument with). You feel the rise of anger in your body and head, you experience the frustration of their behaviour, “why?” and other maddening thoughts race through your head. So you’ve got step 1 of mentalizing down pat when you can observe your own feelings in this situation. Step 2 is harder: to regulate yourself enough, during your own heightened emotion, to then say to your teenager, “I want to know more about your feelings. I can see you’re angry/bored/sad/numb (or any other feeling they are noticeably projecting), and I’m curious about why that is.”
Of course if your teenager or other half is not accustomed to sharing verbal information about their feelings, you can simply bring it down to a non verbal touch, with the above message travelling through your hand. Non verbal mentalizing is powerful and healing in secure attachment relationships. BUT if you approach someone who is not securely attached to you in this non-verbal way, they may become overwhelmed with negative emotion. It’s probably better to stick to the verbal approach in people who are not securely attached to you.
The impact of this reaching out and connecting by Mentalizing is far and wide. Not only does it rapidly de-escalate an argument and resolve conflict, but it heals the damage done in a relationship rupture. We are not perfect, and we all make relationship errors. Mentalizing is a way to correct the errors and heal the underlying wound.
Mentalizing is not just for conflict resolution. It’s an ongoing attachment behaviour. At a less dynamic level, Mentalizing can look like this:
Imagine your house mate calls out “Hi, I’m home” you can read their emotional tone with curiosity, and detect how you react to this. When the tone is positive, mentalizing flows. When the tone is negative we become a little jolted by the emotion, and then need to re-orientate to being curious. Our internal curiosity can be enough to end the mentalizing process there, instead of always following through with seeking out the information from the other person.
Mentalizing for your own inner parts of self.
We all have parts of our selves. They look like different opinions. E.g. I have a presentation tomorrow. One part of me feels exhilarated and proud of the opportunity. Another part feels terrified. This is such a common experience for many. Mentalizing this situation of the inner parts of self looks like this: I’m feeling exhilarated and proud, and I can be curious about that emotion, at the same time feel curious about my fear. Mentalizing holds both emotions or parts together at the same time, being curious about both feelings, wondering why they exist. With inner work it’s much easier to write sentences or draw diagrams of the information that you seek from these different parts/opinions of your self.
With time you can also integrate these parts into a bodily expression and move between these two feelings with your body. E.g. my exhilarated part has a lengthened spine that leans forward, the chest is puffed, eyes are wide and the breath is superficial (speech would be racing), then I would slowly transition into the terrified part, whose posture has a curved spine, hovering over a nauseous stomach, a concentrated brow to control the anxious thoughts and images of what tomorrow brings. Then I would slowly transition out of that part of myself and back into the exhilarated part, and then return again to the terrified part of myself. This dance of moving back and forward between the two parts of self is met with curiosity of each of the body postures. How it feels, how it looks, how it sounds, what thoughts and images accompany both, what memories accompany both. As you can probably tell, this would be a very interesting exercise to do in therapy.
I hope you like this blog on Mentalizing. There are so many resources on this topic.
Dan Siegel’s book on Mindsight (mindsight is a synonym for mentalizing)