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Is Mentalising Just a Fancy Word for Empathy?

By Jenny Sanbrook

Accredited Mental Health Social Worker

BSW, MSW Couple and Fam Ther.

Certified Gottman Therapist

3 counter intuitive ways to take on another person’s point of view

It’s tempting to think of “Mentalising” as another word for empathy and while there is overlap, there are some differences.  We learn to mentalise in the same way as we learn to talk, some of us learn this more effectively and consistently than others and some environments and conditions make it easier to mentalise.   Here are  key points to know about mentalising and how it is different from empathy.

Keeping mind in mind  – A Mentalising attitude is defined as “an attitude of openness, inquisitiveness and curiosity about what’s going on in others minds and in your own…the mentalising stance requires tolerance for ambiguity and comfort with not knowing” (Allen et.al 2008).  Mentalising helps us to explain things to ourselves – why s/he and I reacted in a particular way.  When you wonder  “did I upset him when I cancelled our dinner plans”.. when you say “I’ve made someones life more difficult when I have to change an appointment” you are mentalising.  As such, mentalising in therapy invites the client to perceive the mental states (desires, beliefs and feelings) of self and others.  

Empathising with yourself – You are mentalising when you are aware of what is going on in your own mind..“I am aware that I am becoming anxious in the session, why am I sensitive to this right now.. does it relate to a previous experience or story in my life”. Mentalising involves an awareness of one’s own thoughts and feelings along with others.  Specifically, empathising with oneself can be useful in times of stress eg, disciplining a child, resolving a conflict, asking for a reduction in rent, applying for a pay increase, planning a group event etc. 

Not assuming – Mentalising invites the awareness that anothers experience is different from ones own. During therapy this may mean pausing and commenting on a client assuming you understand what they mean.  It means not assuming what is in the mind of others… “the client wants to change, the client feels safe” etc. It means checking in rather than assuming -The antithesis would be having a conversation with a colleague  about a friend and failing to tell them the friends name or giving any context..assuming they know who and what you’re talking about.

How Does Mentalising Develop?…Nature and Nurture 

Developmentally children learn to mentalise during language development and within a securely attached relationship when primary caregivers are sensitive to their states of mind and emotions.  Mentalising often goes“offline” when there is attachment disorganisation and trauma seen in conditions such as Borderline Personality Disorder (hyperactivation of attachment system) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (Alexythymia- not picking up affective signals of others).

Biologically, the research in neuroscience around the ability to shift and infer mental states points to “the activation of mentalising networks in the medial prefrontal cortex responsible for working memory, inferring and attention along with the tempoparietal junction linked to social cognition”. (Baetens et.al 2017: 2).

When Mentalising is Disrupted Relationships Suffer

When a person stops mentalising the following qualities are present:

  • A person is more likely to be certain about the mental states of others and of the self “I know that he doesn’t like me, she hates me, she thinks I’m stupid…”
  • A person is more likely to misinterpret the actions of others – “They are running late this means I am not important to them”. 
  • A person can be oblivious to the others needs
  • Rigidly holding on to ones own perspective or too easily changing perspectives

Generally, the ability to mentalise is also influenced by current mental state, emotional arousal levels and flooding.  Thus mentalising is often most difficult when it is most needed.  

How is Mentalising Different to Empathy

Research by LeBlanc et.al (2012) in organisational conflict resolution points out that individuals with overly high levels of empathy can become retaliatory under threat thus escalating conflict. Conversely individuals with higher capacity for perspective taking which involved more cognition than emotion, had better outcomes than individuals high on empathy alone.  In other words empathy was more closely associated with more emotionality and escalating conflict and those good at mentalising and perspective taking are more cognitively flexible, better able to to self regulate and understand others viewpoints even when they disagree.

Ways to Improve Mentalising Capacity – The Role of Perspective Taking

  • Character Identification: The role of media in imagination, socialisation and societal roles, aggression etc  is widely researched and can be used to facilitate social learning (Cohen, 2001).  
  • Consider watching a movie and pause to consider what the main character is thinking and feeling, why are they behaving that way. 
  • Think about a situation/photo from multiple view points – in this image below there is a man holding gun and a person approaching, consider what each person is thinking and feeling – think about what might have led up to the situation, how it might end.  Write down each story – then reflect on how easy or hard it is to determine mental states of each person and shift perspectives. (https://psychologycompass.com/blog/point-of-view/
  • Consider conflict –  Think about how a conflict is affecting the other persons emotions, what might the other person be thinking about your actions.
  • Ask people what they think and feel, check with others how they saw a situation
  • Use your imagination and think below the surface.
  • Be self aware of small signs – the word  “just” is often a tip off to non-mentalising – “he’s just a whinger”, “I’m just unmotivated”, it closes of the possibility of other reasons for a behaviour.  

Summary 

I started this article talking about mentalising as defined as “keeping mind in mind” the ability to  perceive mental states of self and others.  The capacity develops in childhood and can be hardest when it is most needed.  Not to be confused with empathy which alone is not enough as it can lead to higher emotionality.  Mentalising can be seen alongside perspective taking which involves being cognitively flexible, self regulating and understanding others viewpoints even when they disagree. Practical strategies to encourage mentalising can assist in greater attunement and better relationships.  Even a shift from “I know this” to “I’m thinking this” can be a great start in developing mentalising attitude in ourselves and clients.

References

Allen, J, Fonagy, P and Bateman A (2008) Mentalizing in Clinical Practice. Washington DC, APA publishing.

Baetens, K, Ning M. Et al (2017).  The Dorsal Medial Prefrontal Cortex is Recruited by High Construal of Non-Social Stimuli.  Behavioural Neuroscience.  Front. Behav. Neurosci., 14 March 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2017.00044

Cohen, J (2001).  Defining Identification: A Theoretical Look at the Identification of Audiences with Media Characters In:  Communication and Society 4(3) 245-264

Fonagy, P and Bateman A (2019) Handbook of Mentalising in Mental Health Practice. APA Publishing.

LeBlanc D, et al (2012) Perspective Taking and Relational Conflict at Work: An investigation among participants in a workplace Conflict resolution Program.  Paper presented at 25th Annual International Conflict Mangement Conference 

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