Mentalizing: The Engine of Our Social World
Updated: Dec 18, 2022
After reading the title of this blog, you may be wondering, “what the heck is mentalizing, exactly?” Perhaps the most direct answer I could offer is exemplified in the very first sentence…quite simply, mentalizing is to imagine what is occurring in someone’s mind. To be more specific, mentalizing is the mental process of imagining what is occurring within both the minds of others, as well as our own, in terms of thoughts, feelings, desires, intentions, etc. to explain behavior. It’s anything we might imagine occurring within a person’s internal world to offer some understanding to what we can observe of them externally. We all do it automatically, with perhaps rare exception. So, for something so basic, so universal, why is mentalizing hardly mentioned? It could be that the word itself sounds something more like a magic trick than a basic mental function, or it could be because there are many other terms that are related to mentalizing - emotional intelligence, empathy, self-awareness, just to name a few. Regardless, examining why the concept of mentalizing is not more well-known is rather fruitless compared to examining the importance mentalizing and other similarly-described phenomena have in social functioning. Mentalizing is the vehicle we use to transmit socio-cultural information.
We need others to learn and to grow. Sure, we can amass a great deal of knowledge on our own, but truthfully, it pales in comparison to what is gained from an aggregation of minds. For example, think about opening a jar of pickles — How do you normally open a jar of pickles where the lid doesn’t easily budge? How many different methods do you know of? There is the method of putting a rag or towel over the top of the lid to add friction, or the method of running warm water over the lid to expand the metal some. Maybe, you’re familiar with tapping the lid on a countertop or hard surface to loosen tension? But now for the really important question…where did you learn these methods? Chances are good you did not intuitively realize or rationally deduce them on your own, rather learned them from someone else. Now, try and imagine how you might attempt to open a jar of pickles without a system of sharing information. You may arrive at something successful but perhaps very inefficient, something like smashing the jar itself… Or, you may develop a method no one else has tried before and is rather efficient, however, that information isn’t shared to benefit others. In either case, something important and relevant is lost either to the individual or to the collective whole and progress is stifled, functioning made worse. This idea of collective progression undergirds other important systems of learning…the scientific method being an excellent example. The expression of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ exemplifies the idea well. Sounds simple enough, right?… "just open myself to the guidance of others more.” As humans, we know this simple idea is much simpler in theory than in practice. As humans, something gets in the way. The simple version of that complex answer is emotion. We feel emotion as we interact with our world, coloring our experiences uniquely. Because of this, not all purveyors of information carry equal weight - we deem some as trustworthy and some as untrustworthy, and therefore, the quality of our mentalizing goes down.
There is a simple equation - as our emotional arousal increases, our mentalizing quality decreases. But, what does it mean to have poor mentalizing?
Poor mentalizing is characterized by inaccurate thinking and beliefs divorced from a shared reality. One does not have to go far to encounter problems like this. Civic and political divisions are described as being wider, with conflicts between camps more intense than in any recent history. It appears we are all responding as the above equation would suggest, firming our beliefs and making them more inflexible, starving our impulse of curiosity and desire for exploration, ceasing to challenge our assumptions, and solely focusing on actions while seemingly losing any interest in the authentic mental states behind those actions. All of these responses characterize poor mentalizing, and as a result, our world becomes split, a black and white existence that lacks nuance where one thing does not relate to the other.
So, what is good mentalizing? - Good mentalizing is like looking through a kaleidoscope. It is complex, vibrant, and fascinating! Good mentalizing is open, curious, flexible, deliberate, and controlled when necessary. Good mentalizing does not see differences in experiences or perspectives as incompatible, rather inherently connected and correspondent to one another - all representing facets of a larger whole. Good mentalizing is the cornerstone of the bridge to unity. So, how do we achieve this? How do we improve our mentalizing?
All of the qualities of good mentalizing spring from a strong sense of trust, and trust develops from feelings of safety and security…but, “what makes us feel safe and secure?” From a mentalizing perspective, feeling cared for, understood, valued, and loved makes us feel safe and secure — Do you have something you love doing in your life, something that fills you with boundless passion and interest? How about something you loathe, something connected to feelings of anxiety or anger? Now think about how you feel and approach these two things - how are the experiences different? The difference in the relationship you have with that thing you love compared to the thing you loathe is likely very closely related to what it is like to mentalize well versus mentalize poorly. In the former, there is the desire to know more, experience more, explore more, all in an effort to form a greater connection with that which you enjoy so much. In the latter, there is a feeling of need to distance yourself or close down for your own good somehow. In the latter, interest and curiosity is stifled and exploration ceases, learning stops. In this metaphor, we are talking about our relationship to particular activities, but it parallels our relation to other people.
For mentalizing, the real challenge is to cultivate experiences of appreciation, understanding, and acceptance for the things that repel us, because it is in our nature to turn away or act to eliminate that which repulses us. Ironically, it is our survival instinct of fight, flight, or freeze that during these times is working against us, working against its cause...for what we turn away from are our very selves. But that is our nature, as part of nature itself - magnificently complicated, where all things serve a function within a particular set of circumstances and another function under other circumstances. Our minds are the building blocks of our social universe, like matter in our physical universe, the component parts cannot be created nor destroyed, only change in form to establish new structures. It is then our task to look toward, not away from these parts of us - to uncover the linkages and make the necessary connections within these parts for the sake of the health and functioning of the whole system.