In order to communicate effectively, we need the ability to understand and think about how our own minds function and to imagine a range of possibilities around what others may be thinking. This is known as mentalising. It’s really all about an ability to consider how we come across to others and to imagine what others might be experiencing or thinking.
Some of us are better at this than others, and any one of us can find clear thinking eludes us when we are very stressed or emotional. On such occasions, we are likely to misread others’ intentions and motivation. This can lead others to react negatively, so that we expect conflict.
Learning to manage feelings
Other experiences also influence our ability to mentalise successfully.
In order to have a sense of ourselves and what we think, we need to have been looked after and brought up by people who could recognise and help us to understand and manage our inner states or feelings.
When children become frustrated because it’s time to go home from the park, for instance, they need an adult to explain that it’s natural to feel sad when a nice time ends and that they’ll be able to come back soon. They need to know that it’s lunchtime and that soon they will start to feel hungry.
Explanations like this enable children to trust that adults are trying to be helpful (and usually succeeding), rather than merely imposing their will. Just shouting at any child - but particularly one who is confused by the strength of their emotions - doesn’t help them to recognise what they’re feeling or to manage those feelings.
Children who rarely receive age-appropriate explanations of their mental state grow up unable to understand themselves, and they don’t trust other people either as they can’t predict how they might be feeling or their motivation. Because they haven’t felt understood as children, they grow into adults who care a great deal about being heard and often accuse others of not listening to them. If they argue, they may find it difficult to leave the argument, believing their point of view must be accepted and that the argument needs to be fixed right now.
To this end, they’ll often follow others around, repeating the same points, becoming more and more distraught. This is very unsafe as both they and the person they’re arguing with may become increasingly desperate and angry as one struggles to be heard, and the other attempts to get away or close the subject.
People who have difficulty in mentalising often apply the same automatic responses to all situations and don’t consider the context. For instance, they might be offended because a friend said they couldn’t see them on a particular date, forgetting that this date was the anniversary of their mum’s death when they always visit her grave. Or they might assume their partner was cross with them when they didn’t want to go out for dinner, not taking into account that their partner had a bad cold and had already prepared a warming stew.
Strangely, people who have difficulty in appreciating others’ experience often consider themselves to be good listeners, highly empathic or emotionally intelligent. They often talk about their feelings a great deal and are upset when others don’t react to what they say in ways they’d expected or don’t respond with confidences of their own. They often are very attentive to others, but don’t always read their intentions accurately. Sometimes this is because they look for some sort of pre-determined sign they imagine will indicate their mood.
An example would be the case of "Caroline", who expected her partner to take her out for a romantic dinner on her birthday. Her partner didn’t know this was what she was expecting and had, instead, gone to considerable trouble to organise a surprise party with all Caroline’s best friends. Caroline was furious when she arrived at the party, cried all the way through and told her friends her partner obviously didn’t love her. She was unable to recognise or appreciate how hard her partner had tried to please her just because he hadn’t done what she’d been imagining.
Caroline also had difficulty in separating thoughts and bodily feelings from real events. Like many people, she believed she should respond to signals from her body. So, if she felt anxious, she would panic and feel convinced there was something wrong that needed to be worried about. In fact, the anxiety may have actually been caused by a fleeting experience, trigger, thought or memory which had no particular significance.
It’s often difficult to trust others when people in your past often seem to have let you down or behaved unpredictably. This can lead some people with poor mentalising skills to perceive rejection when none is actually intended. As a result, they may coerce rather than ask for what they need and can become increasingly angry and disappointed if this fails.
Just like small children, they may often feel confused by their emotions and lash out at people around them who they assume have caused them to feel bad. It’s then difficult for others to reassure them. Because they haven’t experienced enough helpful interventions from adults when they were growing up, they find it hard to believe people who explain their point of view or offer new, helpful information. This means they become even more confirmed in their negative view of others or of themselves, as this may make them feel unlovable.
If you have difficulty mentalising
It is, however, possible to overcome all these difficulties and start to develop effective mentalising capabilities. A great first step is to adopt a curious or not-knowing approach rather than just accepting the first (negative) thought that pops into your head. In every situation, there is more than one possible explanation for someone’s behaviour so it’s worth trying hard not to make assumptions. Most of all, training yourself to think of lots of reasons why someone is behaving in a particular way is an effective strategy to avoid feeling bad.
Developing soothing self-talk is a great way to manage uncomfortable feelings. If you imagine yourself advising a friend, you can probably come up with some sensible and reassuring advice which makes clear that feelings are not truths and that they’ll soon pass if you let them.
Distraction can be helpful if you need to stop an argument or find a way not to pay attention to negative thoughts and feelings. If you have frequent frustrating conflicts with someone such as a partner, it’s a good idea to discuss how to stop this at a time when neither of you is feeling emotional. Agreeing in advance that the other person will take a break during an argument may help you to remember that they aren’t rejecting you, but just trying to stop the row. When you both get a little space, you may each feel completely differently about what just happened. Remember that it’s impossible to think straight when you are stressed or emotional.
Asking for what you want or need, rather than hoping others will know/guess, will avoid disappointment and ensure your needs are met.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking others would know what you need if they loved you enough - in reality, no-one can read your mind and the signals you give off may even contradict what you want.
All this can be really difficult but is possible – especially if you explain how you want to change and enlist the help of others. Therapy could be very helpful too, especially with someone who understands mentalisation-based therapy and can guide you. The difference it could make is well worth the effort.