The capacity to ‘mentalize’ is important for regulating emotions and managing relationships. Mentalizing involves paying mindful attention to your own and others mental states and involves more complex understanding of behaviour in relation to the mental states that drive it. If you started to feel and anxious and tried then to figure out why, you are mentalising. Another example would be if a friend suddenly laughed out loud and you asked them why they are laughing – you are trying to make sense of the mental states driving their behaviour.
Mindful attention to mental states is the basis of mentalizing. Mentalizing involves giving a mental quality to something. It is the awareness of mental states in others as well as oneself. Mental states include sensations, perceptions, thoughts, feelings, desires, impulses, dreams, imagination etc. We can mentalize explicitly which is more a conscious and deliberate process or mentalize implicitly which happens more automatically like taking turns in a conversation. When you name a feeling or anything else in your mind you are mentalizing explicitly. This also takes place when you interpret behaviour: ‘I think I was angry at you because you were late’. A lot of explicit mentalizing emerges in stories – life narratives are mentalising creations that are open to revision.
Mentalizing is a skill we can all learn to do and something we all do to different degrees at different times. When we are emotionally overwhelmed or feeling defensive, we tend not to mentalise well. Identifying an emotion is a first step in mentalizing; understanding the reasons for the emotion would be a higher level of mentalizing. This understanding might include consideration of your personal history (being controlled in a previous relationship may make you more sensitive to being controlled now).
Mentalizing overlaps with empathy and other concepts like mindfulness, but is more encompassing than these concepts. Mentalising is like empathy that includes empathy for yourself. Mentalization involves gut-level emotional experiences as well as reflective thinking. Mentalizing helps us to be self-aware, attuned to others and communicate well. Jon Allen argues that mentalising should be framed as a verb – ‘mentalizing’ – as it is something we do, or are not doing, at any given time.