Sometimes a word just seems to show up everywhere. This past week the word “mentalize” has come up in conversation a number of times. A colleague who is looking for a referral for therapy says that she needs someone who can “mentalize well.” One of my patients who just completed a DBT-based treatment program says that she is doing better because she is learning how to “mentalize and think about the future.” And one of my coworkers tells me that a young man who she sees in therapy is struggling to make improvements, because he “just won’t mentalize.”
What is this thing known as mentalizing? It sounds good, but how can you do it, do more of it, or do it better?
Well, of course I immediately went to Google to look up the word. The first definition, from a psychoanalytic journal article was pretty unhelpful.
The second article, from the Menninger Clinic website, talked about the benefits of teaching mental health professionals how to mentalize, which is fundamental to their treatment program for helping burned-out clinicians. That sounded interesting and the article was well-written and lucid, but I started to wonder, what is not mentalizing since it includes humor, trying to understand oneself, trying to understand others, developing goals and purposes in life, etc. Well the best I can come up with is that what mentalizing is not, is thinking about inanimate objects. I guess I’m doing a lot of mentalizing! This becomes even more clear when the article says that mentalizing can be either “explicit or implicit.” What does implicit mean? It means unconscious mentalizing. I’m probably mentalizing all day since this includes unconscious processes.
How is the concept of mentalizing useful? It certainly is relevant to the issue of developing an understanding of oneself and others. I spent a fair amount of time this past week talking to young people, whose problems are worsened by their stories about themselves and their past and future lives. They seem to be stuck with the “I’m sick or I’m depressed” story, which is pretty limiting and defeating as a narrative. And I have been recently thinking about a great book on that topic “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankel which highlights the essential role that a story about the meaning of one’s life can play in life, even to the point of making the difference between life and death for concentration camp prisoners in World War II.
Here are some notes about mentalizing from one of my colleagues, Kelsey Schraufnagel, PsyD:
- Mentalization combines the practice of observing our experience and that of others and the practice of looking for meaning or understanding about the experience (i.e., being curious about thoughts, feelings, behaviors, such as “Why did I do that?” or “I wonder what she meant by that?” or “What might have led me to feel this way?”). It encourages better awareness and understanding of ourselves and others, and in turn, helps to create healthy relationships.
- Without practicing the skills of mentalization, we might be more prone to jumping to conclusions and reactivity. Intense emotions can also limit our ability to take perspective, be curious, and try to understand our experience or that of another (i.e., mentalize).
- Secure attachments can help us develop the skills to mentalize when we are young. Our parents may have reflected our experience to us, or their own, helping us learn how to observe, describe, and understand ourselves and relationships (these are complicated dynamics!). That said, we didn’t all have that growing up, and the good news is that these skills can be learned!
Interested to learn more (I know I am!)? We liked this video titled “What is Mentalizing and Why Do It?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLT7ieO3hTk
Jon G Allen, PhD, an expert on the subject of mentalizing and a senior psychologist at the Menninger Clinic, is interviewed by Janice Poplack, LCSW, director of Social Work.
And if you want to read more about mentalizing, we find the following resources useful: