Sometimes either you or your relationships (or both) “go off the rails,” leaving you to feel like a train wreck. You struggle to understand what’s going wrong and how to fix it. To help with both, consider the psychological concept of mentalization. It is the ability to really “get” what motivates people – yourself included. When you mentalize, you can hold a person’s heart and mind (emotions and thoughts) in your heart and mind. People have varying abilities to do this, but everyone struggles at least sometimes with doing it well. And it’s at these times that you are at risk for “going off the rails.” But when you learn to recognize poor mentalizing, you can also learn to avoid, or quickly recover from, it; and then you can respond in healthier ways. [To learn more about mentalizing, read Feeling Stuck, Lost or Overwhelmed? There is Hope]
According to mentalization-based treatment, there are four dimensions of mentalizing that you can learn to recognize and keep in balance. (Although this therapy approach has been developed for people with significant emotional difficulties, the ideas offered in it can help anyone.) I will cover each of the dimensions in a separate article, beginning in this article with the automatic versus controlled mentalizing.
You mentalize all the time without effort or even thinking about it. It is automatic. You do it when you hold the door for someone, reach out to an acquaintance in need, or negotiate with a friend about where to go for lunch. If you couldn’t mentalize automatically, just making it through a day would be too taxing. So, doing it without thought works well... except when it doesn’t.
You will sometimes run into a situation that you realize isn’t going as expected. You feel anxious or sad and don’t know why. Your friend gets upset with what you thought was a benign comment. Whatever the issue, you pause and reflect. You check in with yourself or your friend to try to understand what is going on. With this controlled mentalizing, you must consciously consider the motivations or reasons for the actions of yourself and others.
Unfortunately, there will also be times when you don’t realize that you need to switch to more controlled mentalizing. This is often the case when people repeat old, destructive patterns. You may sometimes mindlessly binge on sweets or carbs. Or, you might repeatedly fly off the handle when your partner takes out their cell phone at dinnertime. What you are not doing in these situations is asking questions like: What is going on in me that I’m doing this? What keeps me from handling this situation in a more productive way? Controlled mentalizing calls for consciously putting effort into being aware and reflecting. It takes time and focus. But it also allows for responding to difficult situations in a healthier, more effective manner.
On the other hand, there are times when people get stuck in controlled mentalizing. Even when things are going well with people they feel secure with, they are forever reflecting on themselves and others, searching through every conversation and action to make sense of things. So, even interactions in safe, simple situations are cumbersome and uneasy.
The ultimate goal is to flexibly move between automatic and controlled mentalizing. By doing this, you will be better able to give controlled attention when situations call for it, but also relax and enjoy moments that are going well. This will support you feeling good in yourself and having happier, healthier 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.
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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