Mentalizing is crucial to our well-being in several respects. First, mentalizing implicitly and explicitly is the basis of self-awareness and a sense of identity. Importantly, when we mentalize, we have a feeling of self-agency, being in control of our own behavior. Thus mentalizing provides us with a spontaneous sense of ownership and responsibility for our actions and our choices, rather than feeling that our behavior just “happens.”
You are mentalizing when you’re aware of what’s going on in your mind or someone else’s. You’re mentalizing when you puzzle, “Why did I do that?” or wonder, “Did I hurt her feelings when I said that?” Your ability to mentalize enables you to make sense of behavior. You hear a car door slam shut and it draws your attention. Then you see the man who slammed the car door reaching into his pockets and coming up empty handed. He starts to get agitated, tries unsuccessfully to open the door, looks through the car window toward the ignition, and starts cussing. All this behavior would be bewildering if you didn’t automatically infer that he’s frustrated because he locked his keys in the car.
Mentalizing, you automatically interpret behavior as based on mental states, such as desires, beliefs, and feelings. The man wanted to be able to drive his car, believed that he’d have a hard time getting back into it, and felt frustrated—perhaps also helpless. Sometimes you need to mentalize to interpret your own behavior: “How could I have been so gullible as to loan him money when I knew full well that he’s totally undependable?” Often you need to mentalize to understand your emotional reactions: “Why am I this upset about her not calling me back right away? Why am I so sensitive right now? I’ve been feeling like a lot of people have been letting me down lately…”
Such questions are merely the launching point for how you might explain things to yourself. Seeing the man become frustrated about locking himself out of his car might stimulate your own memories of being locked out and a recognition that this happened when you were distracted. Using this further understanding from your own self-exploration will enhance the interaction if you go over to sympathize with the man and to see if you can help.
A shorthand idea for mentalizing: keeping mind in mind. Mentalizing requires attention and takes mental effort; it’s a form of mindfulness, that is, being mindful of what others are thinking and feeling as well as being mindful of your own thoughts and feelings. Thus mentalizing is similar to empathy. But mentalizing goes beyond empathizing, because it also includes awareness of your own state of mind—empathizing with yourself. Thus, you’re mentalizing when you’re going in to ask your boss for some time off and you’re thinking, “I’m feeling anxious. It makes sense that I’d feel anxious right now, because he might feel put out. Well, I can tolerate that.” If your boss unfairly gives you grief about taking some time off, you’d be mentalizing in thinking, “I’m getting frustrated, so I need to choose my words carefully. I need to acknowledge that this makes his life more difficult and let him know how important the time off is to me.” Thus you are mentalizing when you demonstrate your understanding of your boss’s annoyance and try to address it while simultaneously explaining your own point of view.
Like using language, you mentalize naturally; most of the time you don’t need to think about it. You don’t need to be a linguist to use language, and you don’t need to become a professional psychologist to mentalize. Yet mentalizing is a skill that can be developed to varying degrees. Failing to mentalize can contribute to serious problems in relationships. Your friends, family members, or spouse will be unhappy if you’re oblivious to their needs and feelings or you continually misinterpret their actions.
Mentalizing involves awareness of yourself as well as others. Our colleague, psychiatrist Jeremy Holmes at the University of Exeter in the UK, puts it this way: mentalizing is seeing yourself from the outside and others from the inside. Mentalizing with regard to others takes effort: you cannot merely assume that others think and feel the way you do, although they might; you must shift perspectives and try to take their point of view. Thus the more you know about another person, the more accurate your mentalizing will be. For example, you are probably better at understanding a person with whom you have an intimate relationship and others who are close to you than you are at grasping the motives of more distant acquaintances. Yet, as we will discuss below, you might be aware that you also have greatest difficulty mentalizing when you experience conflict with those to whom you are closest. Each of us runs into circumstances that interfere with our ability to mentalize, usually when we feel threatened or find ourselves in the throes of intense emotional arousal.
You cannot take for granted your ability to mentalize with respect to yourself: even though you live in your own mind, you don’t necessarily always know how your mind is working. All of us are capable of self-deception. It’s common for others to see aspects of ourselves to which we are blind. Often, we know ourselves best through dialogue with others: you might start out just feeling vaguely “upset” and, over the course of the conversation with a trusted friend, come to recognize that you’re feeling hurt, ashamed, and resentful. Thus others, seeing us from the outside, can help us see ourselves more clearly from the inside.
You can mentalize in different time frames. You can mentalize about specific mental states in the present: “I’m getting all worked up for nothing.” “She’s starting to get impatient with me.” Also, you can reflect on past mental states: “Now that I’ve calmed down, I can see that she intended her criticism to help me, not to belittle me.” In addition, you can mentalize by anticipating future mental states: “If I don’t let her know that I’ll be late, she’ll worry and then I’ll feel guilty.”
Most important, you can transform hindsight into foresight: mentalizing about problems in the past can enhance your ability to mentalize in the future. “I know I’m extremely sensitive to criticism and I get so defensive that I can’t listen to her point of view. Next time, I’ll try to think about where she’s coming from, listen carefully to what she’s saying, and avoid another blow up.”
Just as you can mentalize about the present, past, or future, you can mentalize with a narrower or broader perspective. You can focus narrowly on a person’s feelings at a given moment: “She looks irritated.” In addition, you can be aware of the broader context of her mental state: “She thinks I lied to her.” You can even take into account a broad swath of the person’s history: “She’s extremely sensitive to any sign of betrayal because of her father’s recurrent untrustworthy behavior.” Thus, expanding the scope of mentalizing may take into account a broader time frame as well as the wider network of interactions and relationships that influence an individual’s mental states.
The same applies to your own mental states: self-understanding often requires you to consider the wider context beyond the present moment. You might wonder, “Why am I so upset that he didn’t acknowledge how much work I did on this project?” Mentalizing, you might realize that you’ve been feeling unappreciated for a long time, and not having this particular project recognized was the last straw. You can take this line of thinking all the way back to your childhood, for example, connecting your current feelings with repeated disappointments in the past, when a parent routinely failed to attend school plays or sports events. Your feelings about the present invariably are colored by your past experiences, and mentalizing involves being aware of this coloring—the “baggage” from the past—so that you can see the present for what it is.
You can mentalize more or less consciously. Mentalizing explicitly is a conscious process in which you think deliberately about the reasons for actions—often when you are puzzled: “Why would she have said that?” “How could I have forgotten to do that when I knew it was so important to him?” You mentalize explicitly when you put your feelings into words, whether you’re trying to make sense of yourself in your own mind or needing to express what you’re feeling to someone else.
Most often, however, you don’t have time to mentalize explicitly when you’re interacting with others; you’re mentalizing implicitly, that is, spontaneously and intuitively, without thinking about it. Mentalizing implicitly, you’re guided by your gut feelings. When your friend tells you about a major disappointment, you automatically adopt an expression combining sadness and caring, leaning forward to make emotional contact. Thus the natural empathy you have for others is based on your ability to mentalize implicitly. You also mentalize implicitly when you engage in conversation, keeping the other person’s perspective in mind and taking turns naturally without having to think about it. You’re likely to find conversations annoying when others fail to mentalize, mentioning names of people you don’t know without taking into consideration that you have no idea who they’re talking about.
When all goes well, you can get by with mentalizing intuitively and implicitly. Using language naturally, you don’t need to think about your choice of words until you’re misunderstood. Similarly, you need to mentalize deliberately and explicitly when you hit a snag in a relationship. Much of your explicit mentalizing takes the form of narrative, through which you make your own and others’ actions intelligible. You ceaselessly create stories involving thoughts and feelings. Think of a time when you had to justify your actions to someone, such as asking your boss for time off. Think about how you explain your emotional reactions to someone else’s behavior. Think about how squabbling children behave when a parent confronts them. Each one comes up with a different story. Then the parent needs to mentalize to sort it out and intervene appropriately.
You begin learning to mentalize early in life by creating stories to account for your actions. And you do this in your own mind. For better and at times for worse, you continually tell yourself stories about yourself, and these stories influence who you are. Self-critical stories, for example, can undermine your self-confidence. “Nothing I do ever turns out right, no matter how hard I try. I’m useless. If anything goes wrong, I’m always the one to be blamed. The story of my life…”
Ideally, mentalizing, like story telling more generally, is creative: mentalizing, you come up with fresh perspectives, seeing yourself and others from more than one point of view. Thus you’re mentalizing when you wonder, “I’m really irked at him. What else might I be feeling? I guess he hurt my feelings.” Similarly, you’re mentalizing when, after you think, “What an idiot I am,” you reconsider and think, “I made an understandable mistake; I was trying to do too much at once.” Jeremy Holmes insightfully construed psychotherapy as a “story-making” and “story-breaking” process. Mentalizing, you move out of old ruts in the stories you create about yourself and others.