I am currently taking part in some group therapy as treatment for my recently diagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder. This therapy is mentalisation based… sounds a little pretentious doesn’t it? I have actually found it really helpful and I still have 4 weeks left. Not many people have heard of mentalisation so I thought I’d try and explain what it is.
What is mentalisation?
Put simply, mentalisation is about being aware of what is in our own minds and the minds of others. “Holding mind in mind” is a common phrase used in therapy. But more than that, mentalising is about not making assumptions about things and being open to alternative possibilities.
For example, whenever my friends reject my invitation to do something, my thoughts immediately turn to “they’re going to leave, they hate me, I am an awful person.” With mentalising, it is about opening up, thinking that maybe this is not the case, maybe they really are busy or they have their own stuff going on.
It is something that everyone does naturally, a skill we develop as infants. If you have ever thought “why did I do that?” or “maybe what I said has upset that person” then you were mentalising. You were thinking about your own feelings and those of others. However, some people find it easier to do than others which is okay because it is a skill that can be practiced.
Surely thinking too much is not good?
It is not about the quantity of your thinking but the quality. This sounds strange but, usually thinking too much is quite negative. We tend not to ruminate on good things that happen, it is usually the bad stuff. Mentalising asks us to think about things in a more open way. This means that while we might be thinking a lot about feelings, the thoughts will not be damaging but helpful.
Back to the rejection example. If I were to over think it, I would constantly go round and round thinking that everyone hates me. But, mentalising is about stopping that and thinking differently.
Failing to mentalise can lead to difficult relationships. If we are always sure that we know what others are thinking, this can be very damaging. If you think that every time your partner talks to another woman, they are thinking about cheating, you will become distrustful and paranoid. Yet, if you think about why you believe this and other options, communicate this to your partner… well, it would make the whole situation a lot less horrible!
How am I supposed to mentalise if I am really angry?
This is probably the most difficult thing when it comes to mentalising. When our emotions are heightened, it is much harder to stop and think about anything. The best mindset to mentalise in is when our emotions are balanced – we are not completely numb and we are not feeling everything at once. How do we get there?
Stop and take a step back. Whenever you feel yourself getting to the point of extreme rage, for example, take some time out, move away from the situation until you feel calmer. Then do some thinking and go back into the situation when you feel ready.
If you cannot do this because it’s really difficult then that is okay. Because it is possible to mentalise about the past, present and future. We can look back on situations, as we all do, and think that maybe the person we were interacting with was having a bad day and that caused their angry behaviour. This is still an important thing to do as it allows us to see things in a wider perspective.
Who can use mentalising?
Everyone! It is a really useful skill that can improve our relationship with ourselves and others. It is particularly good for those with mental health problems.
So hopefully this hasn’t been full of too much jargon and has helped you understand mentalising a little and why it is so useful. Personally, it has been hugely beneficial for me so far. If you would like to have mentalisation based therapy as you think it would be useful, talk to your GP about it.