Imagine thinking of yourself as the following: happy, loving, confident, emotionally resilient, compassionate, satisfied with life, feeling like part of something bigger (e.g. significant relationship, community), and having close and supportive relationships. Not only does this sound
good, but it can also really be
you. While there is no one skill or exercise that can deliver this ideal you, developing the ability to mentalize
can go a long way toward that goal.
Mentalization – a concept developed by psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy – is the ability to understand on an intellectual and emotional level the way people (including you) think, feel, and experience themselves and the world. It enables you to understand why people act as they do and to have empathy for their experiences. With this way of understanding and connecting with yourself and others, you can maintain a compassionate stance in relationships, which will help nurture happy, healthy connections – including how you relate to yourself. It will also enable you to remain motivated to reach for goals and support yourself through difficult times. It can even help you to navigate situations and politics at work, since so much of that has to do with the way people think about and approach their tasks and others.
To engage this amazing ability, you must be able to take the perspective of a third party observer. When you are seeing the world through your own eyes, so to speak, your perspective influences your assessment and reactions to others’ behaviors. It also biases your perceptions and assessments of yourself. As an outside observer, though, you can think about yourself and others in terms of understanding how the human mind works. This helps you to understand where you and others are “coming from.” Of course, you can only really “get” people’s emotions, action, reactions, and motivations if you are also emotionally connected. So, that’s the real trick of mentalization; to remain emotionally connected as you relate from a third party perspective.
One good way to develop your ability to mentalize is to choose to be curious. In an exercise I offer in Insecure in Love, I essentially suggest that you practice doing the following:
Choose a situation in which you question your emotional or behavioral responses. For instance, Sybil struggles with low self-esteem. Not surprisingly, when her neighbor Russ asked her on a date, she thought it was a “pity date.”
- Acknowledge and reflect on your thoughts and feelings. Sybil might realize that she feels insecure and anxious, and that she is also excited.
- Consider possible alternative reactions and explanations. In reconsidering the situation, Sybil thought Russ might have asked her out because he pitied her, was bored, liked her as a friend, or really was interested in her.
While it would be helpful for Sybil to find out what really motivated Russ (especially if it was his attraction to her), this is not essential in developing the ability to mentalize. However, what is essential is that Sybil practice emotionally connecting with the different possibilities so that she develops an openness to alternative understandings. With practice, this process will help her to break free of her bias of being self-critical.
Along with helping you to break free of a destructive biases, mentalization can help you open up to the idea that you are part of a greater community of people who have similar struggles. This will help you to understand and have compassion for others and for yourself. It can guide you in responding in more positive and positive ways. And, in the end, mentalizing can help you to nurture that ideal person you want to be.
Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community.
Dr. Becker-Phelps is also the author of Insecure in Love.
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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.
Personal change through compassionate self-awareness