Unhappy with yourself? Your job? Your relationships? As you may have noticed, the one common factor is you. For this reason, you must become an expert in you to find happiness. But here’s the catch: You are more similar to others than you are different. So, while being a “you expert” is important to your happiness, being an expert in the human mind is equally important.
Mentalization is a psychological term, which describes the mainly unconscious way that people understand their own and others’ actions. It can be a complicated concept, but it is basically an ability to grasp the way that people think and experience life. So, when people have a strong mentalizing ability, they tend to “get” others, or to be empathic.
This empathy allows for compassion, a feeling of wanting to ease someone’s pain. When you have compassion, you naturally want to support and help people when you see their mistakes, failings, or weaknesses. Similarly, when you have self-compassion, you have a sense of self-acceptance, feel motivated to soothe your own distress, and a desire to improve your life. Self-compassion also encourages you to nurture those aspects of life that you make you happy, feel fulfilled, and lead to a sense of well-being.
So, how do you develop self-compassion? Begin by strengthening your ability to mentalize – to have an innate grasp on what it is to be human. One effective way to do this is to develop some fundamental forms of self-awareness, which can be remembered with the acronym STEAM:
Sensations: Consider the sensations you feel in your body, such as tension in your jaw or chest or welling tears in your eyes. Then open yourself up to whatever emotions might be associated with those sensations.
Thoughts: Observe the thoughts you have and consider what beliefs they might be reflecting. For instance, calling yourself “an idiot” might reflect your belief that you are inherently flawed and unworthy of anyone’s appreciation. You might notice that particular thoughts are related to specific emotions or sensations.
Emotions: Attend to whatever emotions may arise and label them. Rather than just noting that you are upset, challenge yourself to be more specific. You might feel hurt, fearful, angry, or betrayed. The better you are at “sitting” with your emotions, the more emotions you might notice, and the more insights into your thinking you might have.
Actions: Think about what your actions say about your thoughts and feelings, and how they might be part of a pattern of reacting in a particular way. For instance, you might become self-critical or angry and walk away anytime someone hurts your feelings.
For more information about how to develop an awareness of sensations, thoughts, emotions and actions, see: Breaking the Pattern of Bad Relationships.
Mentalization: As I described above, mentalization is the ability to understand what motivates people’s actions. Once you “get” where you (and others) are coming from, you can experience greater empathy and compassion. By developing the above areas of self-awareness, you are consciously helping to build a foundation for the mentalizing process (which will eventually be more automatic).
As you gain STEAM, consider how your experiences are not so different from others around you. Think about how you would react to others who were going through your experiences. Little by little, you will develop an improved understanding of the human mind. With this, you will have greater compassionate self-awareness – a richer and more compassionate awareness of yourself. From this perspective, you will naturally – and with much kindness – pursue personal growth opportunities and find ways to nurture your relationships.
Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset in Somerville, NJ. She is also a regular contributor for the WebMD blog 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.