Many people are unaware of what social workers actually do, and particularly what we know. The truth is that what we do represents some of the noblest pursuits in humanity; we broker essential supports that folks need to live and to thrive, we connect and reconnect loved ones, and we guide others through mental health journeys. My career in social work has been of a clinical nature. I work as a mental health therapist with a focus on helping others improve their interpersonal wellness. Through my education in a clinical social work program, work experience, and continuing education, I have learned invaluable tools to help others in this way. And, I have absorbed principles that I believe hold as much value to being human as our most venerated philosophical and dogmatic wisdom. Appraising all of my knowledge in this area, I feel the concept of ‘meeting a person where they are’ is the most important to our unimaginably diverse and nuanced world.
Do We Actually Believe There is Natural Equality?
On the surface, this phrase can sound simplistic and vague, which may be true. But, some of our greatest ideas do have a simplistic yet profound elegance about them. I believe that what makes the idea of meeting a person where they are so important is that it directs us to reflect on what it really means to know someone, what it means to know others…sure… but also ourselves. Most importantly, this expression leads us to either accept or reject the notion that there are indisputable differences between people due to their nature or environment - it forces us to consider whether we all, in fact, stand on equal footing amidst the myriad and often untold challenges that life offers. We are compelled to decide not only whether there are real differences between us, but what it would require for us to live in a universally beneficial and unified way.
What Exactly is Mentalizing?
So, what does it mean to meet a person where they are, and how do we do this? First, it’s important to bear in mind that we all navigate our social lives with a built-in mechanism to help us do this. Think of this mechanism like a tuning fork. Just as tuning forks are tools to help us verify musical pitch, there is a mental mechanism we use to verify feelings and thoughts. We use it to infer mental processes that give rise to what is observable, our actions. We do this to make sense of not only other people’s actions but also our own. Several terms describe this process in one way or another, like empathy, self-awareness, mindfulness, and emotional intelligence. However, only one term, in my view, fully brings all of them together. That term is mentalization. There is a catch to this tuning fork analogy, however, which is that our mental tuning forks register pitch differently from person to person; for some, the pitch can be slightly or wildly off.
Many forces impact the quality of our mentalizing. I hope you like metaphors because here is another one! Like a car, the systems within our minds can falter, which in turn throws the functionality of the whole system out of whack. At times, these systems can get so out of balance that we completely lose our ability to mentalize; in other words, empathy and self-awareness are lost entirely. It is like a car stalling out. Many of us may know what it looks like when a car stalls out, but what does it look like when we aren’t mentalizing? What makes our mentalizing stall?
Just like a car, there are many different causes of our mentalizing stalling. One cause is our emotional systems taking complete control, which is perhaps the most familiar to us. This manifests as emotional outbursts, where our rational mental systems are woefully underperforming. You may already know these states to be very unstable and quite destructive. But, you may not be aware that in these moments strange things happen within our minds. When our emotions are kicked into overdrive, the force can be so powerful that what we feel becomes synonymous with what we believe to be true. A great example is paranoia. With paranoia, fear is the predominant emotion, and if this emotion becomes strong enough we can no longer appropriately distinguish between rational and irrational threats; our thinking systems are crippled.
However, stalled-out mentalization can take other modes. One other such mode is when our thinking systems are overworked and our emotional systems are turned down. This creates pretend-like, fantastical experiences, those that can sound like we’re talking about something that holds meaning, but we aren’t really talking about anything at all. Rhetoric from politicians can often have this flavor - you know, things that sound nice, but are obvious to those that are more aware that all of the dots aren’t connecting. Think about someone being performative, pandering, or virtue-signaling…often people doing this convey sentiments or ideas that sound nice but do not comport with reality and lack emotional awareness.
A third mode is when we only attribute what is tangible (i.e. what we can see, feel, taste, smell, measure, etc.) to what we consider to be real. We know that human life means to live in the abstract, the intangible, and the cerebral, yet we can fool ourselves into believing that only what we can see is reliable and/or valid evidence of reality. Have you ever had a loved one accuse you of not loving them because you forgot to text or call or because you neglected to hug them the last time you saw each other? Have you ever felt this way toward someone else? Without a doubt, none of these things in and of themselves are proof that a person doesn’t love us, nonetheless, we can be convinced of it under the right circumstances.
It may be helpful to think about characteristics that underpin all of these modes to make non-mentalizing more identifiable when you encounter it or experience it within yourself. Tell-tale signs of non-mentalizing include a disinterest in actual mental states (our own or others'), absolute certainty in our perspective or constantly changing our perspective, emotional flooding or emotional detachment, preoccupation only with actions, a disconnect between feeling and thinking states, and inauthenticity.
Is it Possible to Live Without Resentment?
You may have a specific person in mind that embodies these qualities. You may have struggled with this person time and time again until resentment reaches intolerable levels. Maybe you cut off communication with them or are considering it. This is a phenomenon I’m seeing more and more of these days. Before you go no contact or if you have already done so, I implore you to consider this: none of us are immune to poor mentalizing. It’s a hard thing for all of us to accept, but this is the nature of being human - we are susceptible to emotional forces, and we can rationalize just about anything when framed in the right way. There is also a natural learning curve with any new challenge…just pick the subject - riding a bike, playing an instrument, performing math, learning to walk or talk - for any of us that can do these things, we had to undergo a rather slow and deliberate learning process, full stop. So why do we hold exceptions for social skills?
Unquestionably, working with someone to help them better these skills is an immense challenge - it will work you on every level. No one is obligated to undertake this responsibility, and it should only be accepted under circumstances of informed consent. This is especially important under circumstances where there is a risk of harm. One should always place their safety and the safety of others first. But, meeting someone where they are means accepting a person’s social qualities as the limit on what they can do at that moment. For some, there exists a likelihood that the quality of their social functioning will never move from where it is. However, I believe for the majority of folks, this setting is adjustable, and continued exposure to good mentalizing is the key to moving the needle forward. Good mentalizing necessitates meeting a person where they are, at first, and then helping them slowly develop or scaffold skills from there.
How To Meet A Person Where They Are…
So with that, let’s end with describing qualities of good mentalizing/‘meeting a person where they are’ to guide you in forming a mental image of what this looks like:
Express validating curiosity - Not-knowing isn’t the same thing as knowing nothing. We may have a lot of knowledge in many areas, but what none of us ever knows is exactly what is going on in the mind of someone else, even those we have known the longest. Lean into your curiosity by remaining open and interested in someone else’s mind. Let them know that you value what goes on in their mind;
It’s OK to ask questions - The mind is perhaps the most complex thing we know of. We can be befuddled and angry at people that harbor views that do not comport with our own, but for every belief, every view, there lies an internal logic for that person, which enabled them to arrive at that belief. Be inquisitive about this so you can understand for yourself;
Be authentic - Authenticity does not mean spouting off the first thoughts and feelings that occur to you. It means that if you hope for others to be more open and reflective, you should be striving for this yourself, with equal measure. Search yourself - What are you really feeling? How did you arrive at the thoughts or beliefs you did? Strive to make these necessary internal connections for yourself and be transparent about them with others.