Your situation may not be as dire as it feels. Whether you are facing a health crisis, an untenable work situation, or intense marital struggles, you can respond in ways that make an “impossible” situation manageable; or that make it even worse. People who do best at navigating all of these life challenges have an important trait in common: they are strong mentalizers. Mentalizing is an ability to really “get” yourself and others. And the better people are at mentalizing, the better they are at maintaining a positive sense of themselves, developing strong relationships, and being resilient during times of difficulty.
The concept of mentalizing has been explored and developed as a basis for therapy by the well-respected researchers and clinicians Anthony Bateman and Peter Fonagy. They have noted that people who mentalize well are able to see themselves from an outside perspective – as others see them – and see others from the inside perspective, with a sense of what is motivating them. Having these perspectives has many benefits, such as having a greater ability to:
Unfortunately, even the best mentalizers face stressors that undermine their abilities. You might find that you slip into non-mentalizing when you’re tired, hungry, sick, or overwhelmed with too many or too high expectations. It is also likely to happen when your emotions overwhelm you, whether they are positive ones – such as being happy or in love – or negative ones – such as being scared or angry. Some signs of poor mentalizing are when you are:
The good news is that if you recognize that you are mentalizing poorly (or are likely to in a given situation), you can then work on changing it. In fact, even just recognizing that you need to reconsider how you are reacting is a step toward better mentalizing. Good mentalizing requires flexibility in how you relate to experiences. For example:
Mentalizing is a skill that you can improve with practice. Over time, you can learn to mentalize more often, more fully, and return to it more quickly after you’ve slipped into a more nonmentalizing stance. When you are mentalizing, you will probably notice that you feel more grounded, at peace within yourself, and happier in 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 Message Board.
Dr. Becker-Phelps is also the author of Insecure in Love and consultant psychologist for Love: The Art of Attraction.
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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 awareness