Getting along with others means connecting with them. The more you understand each other’s thoughts and feelings—and care about each other—the closer you feel. Similarly, the more connected you are with your own experiences, the more you feel like your “true” self —which inevitably feels good. Some people are particularly capable of tapping into others’ experiences while also tapping into their own motivations—an ability called mentalizing. (For more on mentalizing, click here.)
Because you can’t really know what’s in someone else’s mind, you have to use clues to understand what’s going on for them. External mentalizing is when you understand someone else’s experience based on external signs, such as their actions, tone of voice, and facial expressions. For instance, your friend might sound harsh as he talks, leading you to feel he is angry with you. But you might also go a step further to focus on his possible inner experiences, which is called internal mentalizing. In reflecting on how he has been having a very difficult time at work, you might conclude that his intensity is probably related to his job.
People also understand themselves by focusing both internally and externally. So, if they have a pattern of not answering phone calls or texts (external cues), they might conclude that they just don’t really want friends. But if they were more curious about their behavior, they might pay greater attention to their inner experience, leading them to the awareness that, actually, they fear being judged by others—a very different conclusion.
It’s essential that people have a healthy balance of focusing externally and internally to truly understand others and themselves. To help balance your own approach to situations, consciously check in with yourself about whether you are attending to both external and internal factors. As you think about yourself, consider:
What do my body posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, choice of words, actions, and other observable signs seem to indicate about what I’m experiencing? (external focus)
What do I think I might be experiencing based on what I know about the current situation and myself? (internal focus)
Looking more closely at the earlier example of your friend with the job-related stress, you might note that when he talks about work, you repeatedly interrupt with your observations and suggestions for how to solve the problem. You might also notice that your body is tense and you feel annoyed. As you consider your tendency to avoid or override your feelings, you might realize that your annoyance is less about your friend not fixing the problem, and more about your discomfort with his distress. You have a strong urge to ease his distress.
Also, consider your friend’s experience. Ask yourself the same questions in the above bullet points, but with a focus on your friend.
Now, you might see that he is upset and venting, but is not really in a panic or out of control. You know from past experience he has little tolerance for incompetence, and so his reaction seems to be about his dealing with that impatience—not about being unsure how to proceed.
In considering both yourself and your friend, you might reel in your need to try to “fix” the situation (it’s not what he’s looking for), remind yourself that there is no emotional crisis (he’s not out of control or angry with you), and, instead, be more aware that he just wants you to listen and support him as he vents. As you listen to him pour out his frustrations, you might notice that his intensity begins to wane.
The above steps are a lot to consider, but by balancing both an internal and external focus in understanding yourself and others, you will be more in sync with yourself and others. As a result, you will feel a greater sense of well-being and enjoy healthy, happy 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