Have you ever felt chronically misunderstood by someone? Are there some people with whom you simply can’t work through a conflict no matter how hard you try? Are there times when a conversation suddenly gets uncomfortable or heated and you don’t know why or how you got there? Do you struggle holding on to your own feelings and perceptions when in a conflict?
Mentalization sheds light on the above situations. No true communication can occur if we cannot understand each other. To resolve a conflict or impasse successfully, we must “walk a mile in the other person’s shoes,” in addition to having our own experience clarified and validated. In both cases, the ability to mentalize is a key component in successfully addressing difficulties with another person.

Mentalizing is vital for mental health, social functions and intimate relationships. Mentalization is a concept used in psychology that was derived from the philosophical underpinnings of Theory of Mind. This theory recognizes that having the ability to imagine things, and to develop ideas in our mind, is what makes us human. In psychology mentalization is the understanding that behavior is motivated by internal states of mind. This means that our own, and others’ behavior, is motivated by internal mental states that include, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, intentions, desires, goals and knowledge.

You are mentalizing when you are aware of what is going on in your own mind or imagine what is going on in someone else’s mind. For example, I see a couple across the street gesturing and shouting. I imagine they are having an argument, even though I can’t hear what is being said. Initially I feel distress because it appears volatile and it looks like they are very upset with each other. Let’s use this example to explore the 3 dimensions of Mentalizing.

Three Dimension of Mentalizing

The implicit dimension refers to the often unconscious, intuitive, procedural level of awareness. This includes nodding empathically when a friend is talking about a struggle in which they’re involved. Or saying, “hello”, when someone we meet smiles at us and nods. These can be responses to verbal or non-verbal cues that happen reflexively and automatically. Implicit mentalizing is a form of procedural memory. We use procedural memory when riding a bike or driving somewhere automatically while being lost in thought. In the example of the couple gesturing and shouting across the street, an implicit reaction would entail quickening my pace to avoid this uncomfortable situation.

Explicit mentalizing refers to conscious or deliberate reflection on our own experience or that of others. This includes reflecting on one’s own feelings or wondering what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Let’s return to the example of the couple on the street to give an example of explicit mentalizing. As I observe this couple, I wonder if they are having an argument since I cannot hear what they are saying but am only seeing their gestures. It appears they are upset. Explicit mentalizing includes reflecting on someone else’s behavior without making assumptions. It also includes awareness of my own responses. For example, watching this couple evokes past memories of unpleasant interactions I’ve observed of my parents prior to their divorce. If I am mentalizing effectively, I would not assume that they are arguing just because it evokes an uncomfortable response in me. There could be many reasons behind their heated exchange.

Both explicit and implicit mentalizing is necessary to navigate human social interactions. Normally mentalizing happens implicitly. When we depart from expected responses, we shift to explicit mentalizing.

Mentalizing includes our ability to reflect on our own reactions and emotions (self-dimension) or wonder what someone else might be thinking or feeling (other dimension). In this way, the self-dimension in mentalizing overlaps with the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the nonjudgmental awareness of what is evoked inside oneself in the present moment without identifying with that thought or feeling.

The other-dimension overlaps with empathy. This includes understanding another person from their point of view. This dimension is akin to social perspective-taking which distinguishes our own experience from other’s experience. It is keeping in mind that there are always reasons behind another person’s behavior, even if this other person is not aware of these reasons consciously. Without knowing a person’s level of knowledge, awareness, emotional state, past experiences, future wishes, values, desires or motivations it can be easy to reduce their behavior down to one driving factor. It’s akin to watching a character in a movie and having an idea about the reasons for the character’s actions at the outset of the film. But as the movie unfolds, and this character becomes flushed out, we see that the situation is more complex and the character’s motivations are multi-determined.

In the example of the couple on the street, the self-dimension would include my reflecting on my reaction to the couple. The uncomfortable feelings that are aroused and my awareness of the memories it evokes of my past. The other dimension is the idea that there might be a variety of reasons why this couple is gesturing and shouting, along with the observation that it appears as if they are in distress.

Mental~Emotional or Cognitive~Affective
Mentalizing has an affective and cognitive dimension. This dimension is about my ability to reflect on my own thoughts and feelings as well as reflecting on the possible thoughts and feelings of others. In the example of the couple on the street, it would be awareness of my emotional (affective) reaction to the couples’ distress and the memories it stirs up (cognitive) of my parent’s past arguments. This mental/emotional dimension would include my ability to reflect on the couples possible reasons and feelings behind their behavior.

Why Mentalizing Matters

Learning how to effectively mentalize leads to better relationships and smoother social interactions. It can also be used as a diagnostic tool; helping us to understand what’s causing interpersonal difficulties or social distress. When mentalizing goes off-line, it leads to problems within ourselves and in our relationships.

When we fail to mentalize, we label behavior. This can result in what’s knows as a category error; mistaking a trait or character assessment for a state of mind. If we use our example of the couple in distress it would be the assumption that because the man is yelling, he’s out of control or a “bad man.” Or because the woman is yelling she’s argumentative or “difficult.” Assigning a trait to someone as if they are a type of person (e.g. cheap, disloyal, cruel, thoughtless, inconsiderate, bad, difficult etc.) does not allow for the fact that we are complex human beings and our behavior is motivated by multiple factors. This does not preclude holding people accountable for their actions. Rather, it’s about avoiding jumping to conclusions. Assigning a negative character trait to someone evokes defensiveness. This can easily lead to interpersonal conflict, distance and misunderstanding.

Without an ability to mentalize, we can fall into these traps:

  • Being certain about another person’s motives
  • Inability to reflect on our own internal state of mind and how this could be influencing our interpretation of a current situation
  • Overlooking the role we play in how the other is feeling
  • Inability to take in and understand another’s perspective
  • Use labels to describe behavior
  • Needing to be right and win an argument
  • Telling people what they feel and why they are like they are
  • Making unhelpful assumptions

 Mentalizing helps us to better navigate our relationships and cultivate the following:  

  • Curiosity about another person’s perspective or the reasons behind our own behavior
  • Openness to how another person is thinking/feeling
  • Empathy and forgiveness
  • Awareness of our impact on others
  • Humility
  • Playfulness and humor\
  • Belief in changeability
  • Assuming responsibility and accepting accountability

Holding your own perspective, along with openness to the other person’s perspective requires effort, intelligence, sensitivity, and respect.  Yet, even if we have this ability, we will all run into situations where mentalizing goes off-line.  When we feel threatened or experience intense emotional arousal, mentalization usually shuts off as we shift into a fight, flight or freeze response. Even if the threat is not fully conscious, it could lead us to take an offensive or defensive stance, leading us to be less flexible in our thinking.  Trauma, psychiatric disorders or substance misuse will negatively impact our ability to mentalize, possibly leading to a distorted view of self or undermine our ability to understand another’s experience.

Mentalizing explicitly takes effort.  We need enough glucose for our brains to work optimally.  If we are too angry, amped up, anxious (hyper-aroused) or too flat, exhausted, deflated depressed (hypo-aroused), we will have less access to our higher cortical processes.  Mentalizing necessitates that we have enough resources (both physically and emotionally) to reflect on our own internal process and also make room for another’s perspective.  The ability to mentalize is necessary in repairing ruptures between people.  

If you find yourself at an impasse such as the ones listed at the beginning of this article, chances are that mentalizing has gone off-line for one or both participants.  The next time you face a troubling conflict or distancing from a friend or family member, ask yourself: Can you reflect on your own state of mind and how it might be contributing to the conflict?  Can you approach the situation with an attitude of openness, inquisitiveness, and curiosity?  While you may not understand or agree with the other person’s perspective, it helps to remember that in their minds, they have reasons for thinking and feeling the way they do.  Mentalizing can help us to clarify our own perspective along with an openness and flexibility in seeing more than one side of the situation.