Mentalization

According to Peter Fonagy, “Mentalizing is the process by which we make sense of each other and ourselves, implicitly and explicitly, in terms of subjective states and mental processes. It is a profoundly social construct in the sense that we are attentive to the mental states of those we are with, physically or psychologically.”

In other words, when we mentalize, we recognize that our own perspectives and understandings are based on our own filters and meaning structures and are very different from those of any other person. When we try to understand another person’s experience, we take into account that his or her understanding will be specific to him or her.

While this may seem like an obvious concept, we do not often make the effort when we are with other people to stop and recognize that we are operating out of our own assumptions. But the important part of this idea is that it is the way that we connect deeply with other people: It is the basis of our feeling of closeness with another person.

One of the fundamental experiences of our lives is a wish to be seen–to exist in the mind of another person or persons. This is the antidote to loneliness and despair. And the way that we get this feeling is when we are deeply understood in ways that feel accurate to who we think we are. When another person can reflect to us that they see and understand us in the way we understand ourselves.

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What You Get Is What You See

Sometimes you hear people say “What you see is what you get,” meaning the thing or person is exactly as it appears. Whatever you see is what you will get from that thing or person. But I think it works the other way around, too. What you get is often a result of what you see. If you see the world as a dangerous and discouraging place, that is what you will get–bad luck and a lot of unhappy experiences. And if you see the world as a basically good place and you assume other people have good intentions, that is what you will get more often than not. Even when a person disappoints you or exploits you, if you have a mostly trusting view of the world, you will assume that person has a lot of inner pain and his or her inborn good nature has somehow gotten distorted.

Much like the character of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, the world around us will be transformed by how we see it. You may have read or heard of the scene where Jean Valjean steals valuable silver from a priest’s home and is apprehended by the police and taken back to the home to return the silver. When they arrive, the priest tells the police that the silver is not stolen, it was a gift. By this act, Valjean is changed from a thief into a beneficiary. And at this moment, Valjean has a change of heart and begins to live into that positive view of himself.

We all have mixed motives most of the time. We want to feel good and get what we want, and at the same time, we care about other people and will make effort to promote their well-being. We have lapses and we have moments of deep altruism. When we can give other people the benefit of a more nuanced understanding of human motivation, both ours and theirs, we will see good intentions and bring good intentions, which is a wonderful perspective from which to engage with the world. And because we will see it, we are more likely to get it.

 

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Yes, but I’m not trying to mess up.

You know how you run into some obstacle in getting yourself to do something or in getting yourself to stop doing something and you complain about it to someone and they say something on the order of: “You just have to power through,” or “Make a plan and stick to it,” or “Hold yourself accountable….” You know how infuriating that is. If I could just make a plan and do it, I wouldn’t be wrestling so hard with myself, now would I.

The thing is, with all the advice out there about creating better routines, or modifying our own behavior, or, worse, our children’s behavior, you would think we believe that if we just understand the problem and think up a good solution, we’d conquer it. Like if we have the problem, we just haven’t created the right system for fixing it. And sometimes, of course, that is true.

But really what all this self improvement effort misses is that we have unrecognized meanings and identities that SEEK difficulty; we are our own worst enemy; we have unseen motives that cause us to create conflict with the people we love; we sabotage ourselves at work; and we generate unhappiness when we think we are looking for happiness. We get in our own way, and we even can see it sometimes and we still do it. How frustrating is that.

How are we suppose to befriend ourselves and take care of ourselves when we see that we make so much trouble for ourselves. And, worse, we can’t seem to stop doing that. The point is, we are extremely complex creatures, with personal history and cultural meanings and patterns of relating which are intertwined and ambiguous. We are skillful and at the same time awkward, we have moments of greatness and moments of petty selfishness. No picture of who we are that reduces us to a few motives or a few concepts or a few behaviors will be able to contain the many selves within us.

It just seems like it would be helpful for us to remember that as smart as we are in our thinking minds, there is a lot more to us than just what we can think up, and we ought to at least take that reality into account when we try to understand who we are. We are not just thoughts, and we are not just feelings or emotions. We are a complicated bundle of all the factors that combine to create a human being, and we just keep on trying to learn more about what that means and about who we are, even beyond what we can comprehend with our thinking minds.

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The Real Causes of Depression

I am just reading Johann Hari’s wonderful new book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression–and the unexpected solutions. Hari is an investigative journalist, so his work is thoughtful and well researched, but he is a great storyteller and very accessible to a broader audience than academic research can be. Hari visited and interviewed scientists, policymakers, and ordinary people to put together an understanding of depression and anxiety, both of which he had experienced over much of his own life.

Hari’s formulation emphasizes the increasing disconnections we experience in modern life: from meaningful work, from our deepest values, from people and community. He presents interesting points of view that contradict some of what we have been told about our own inner experience and our response to our lives and to social changes. We are neither weak nor defective: we are responding in predictable ways to being more and more untethered in our lives.

Depression is one of the most intractable mind experiences because by virtue of its organization, it destroys the motivation to feel better and get better. We lose interest in our lives and in the people around us. We are unable to do those things which might help.  Sometimes we do need other people to recognize that we are getting stuck and to try to do something about it. Sometimes we cannot even bring ourselves to act in our own behalf. The changes can be minor, like going out for lunch, especially with a friend, or they can be major, like moving to a different state. Sometimes we can get ourselves to take these small steps for ourselves, and sometimes we need help.

Hari’s book is a useful way of understanding our own inner mind states. It gives us back the power to actually change our experience, and it acknowledges the reality of the environments and experiences that lead to dysfunction. In other words, we may not have caused the problem, but we are responsible for solving it.

 

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The Type of Story We Tell

When faced with puzzling behavior, we often attribute reasons to it–some of them flattering to the person and some of them critical. Research has shown that when we consider the behaviors of people in our group, tribe, or community, we will create stories that show their behavior in a positive light, and the opposite, of course, for out-groups. It is difficult to remember that motivation is complex and multi-determined. We look for unitary reasons for whatever we see and particularly reasons that match what we already think.

The stories that we create, sometimes almost instantly, color how we see the world and reinforce our own biases and assumptions. It is comforting and reassuring to be right about what we think we see, and we are reluctant to get out of that comfort zone. Even within our inner circle of closest relationships, we sometimes attribute self-serving or destructive motives to the people we interact with. This factor underlies a great deal of conflict in marriages and between parents and children.

I was speaking with a young man in the throes of getting a divorce and he said, “All of my so-called friends have disappeared.” I said, “Maybe they are scared. Maybe they are afraid if you get divorced and they spend time with you, they will also get divorced. Or maybe they are scared they will say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing.” This perspective was new to this young man. He assumed his friends were false friends, and he felt like he now knew the truth about them.

His story left him isolated and bitter. My story gave him more hope and more ideas about how to manage this shift in his life. It is not so much that one or another of these stories is more true as it is that each story then leads to a different perspective in the world and a different action. We create ourselves as we go, and reality tends to conform to our expectation of it.

We do not need to deny real facts about what happens in the world, but we can recognize the difference between facts and interpretations. The facts are, his friends are reaching out to him less frequently. That is all. Probably the reasons are different for each person, and they are also probably complicated. He can feel wounded and rejected or he can feel compassion for them in their own lives. His freedom comes in how he interprets what he sees, how he decides to respond to it, and what kinds of inner subjective experience of the world he is practicing inside his own mind.

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I’ll Just and At Least

Okay, so it is the time of year for resolutions. I like the idea of aspirations more than resolutions, though. Aspirations are what we are moving toward. You cannot fail an aspiration, but you can fail a resolution. Anyway, that is not my point today. The point is, when you encounter resistance to your intention (which is not lack of motivation, by the way, but blockades to your natural motivation), one trick is to tell yourself, “I’ll just…” some small first step. For example, if I cannot get myself to exercise, I might say to myself, “I’ll just put on my exercise clothes and go to the gym. Then if I don’t do anything it’s fine.” It’s a way of getting around resistance without confronting it and without letting it win. “I’ll just do a little….” Kind of simple, but it seems to work for some things.

The other new year’s trick is “At least.” When you are telling yourself all the things you did not do or did badly, always, always end with “At least….” So it might be like, “I didn’t stick to my spending plan, I didn’t study enough; I forgot to do what I was supposed to…” There is always an ending that goes, “At least I cut back; At least I did a little; at least I thought about it….” Because after all, we don’t want to leave ourselves with a feeling of being disappointed in ourselves but instead, recognize our intentions and efforts, however inadequate we may think they are.

Motivation and success are built by pluses. So we have to recognize the pluses however small they are in order to ensure that we protect our relationships with ourselves. Ok. This isn’t exactly about long term therapy. But we don’t have to be deep all the time. Sometimes we have to be practical. At least we are trying to improve ourselves.

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The River that Runs Through It

Depression is a liar. It tells a story with great conviction. The story is this: “This depressed me is the real me. Sometimes I feel temporarily happier, but I know I will just return to this real self. I can fake it, but it’s not genuine. Nothing will ever change. No matter how hard I try, I’ll always be defeated. All I can do is just tolerate it.”

It’s a big fat lie. The truth is, life has its ups and downs. Good things will happen; bad things will happen. We will be selfish and destructive, and we will be heroic and talented. We will fall down and not want to get up. We will play and be joyful. And we will help other people and inspire them. We will be loved and rejected. Worried and confident. We will be depressed and happy.

Sometimes we think the river that runs through our lives is hopelessness or sadness or ultimate defeat. “That’s just how I am,” we say to ourselves. But that is not true. The truth is, the river that runs through us is the self that has continuity over our lifetimes. It is not our moods and it is not our actions. The river is the deep convictions and ideals we care about.

What we pay attention to grows in strength and consistency. We keep coming back to what matters. We put our focus on what we care about; we remind ourselves to inhabit the joy when it happens. We appreciate the good in our lives and recognize the losses. We get back up and keep making effort. And the quality of our experience gets better. Incrementally. Two steps forward and one step back.

And weirdly, the actual structure of our brains changes. The chemistry in our heads is altered. And we find, after all, that we are in charge of our lives. Not in the ways we thought. Not by controlling the world and not by giving up. Not by insisting on the outcomes we want. But by little by little constructing ourselves to be the persons we want to be and appreciating–not just accepting–the richness of this journey of being alive.

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It’s Ok To Be Where You Are

There need not be tension between acceptance and growth. We can accept who we are, the limits that we have, and the mistakes we have made without worrying that we will become complacent and stop trying to be better. There really is a developmental process to a life. It really will be different in different decades. We get better at life as we go along. We really are okay, and we really can continue to be better.

First we start with actually inhabiting the point where we find ourselves in our lives. We allow ourselves to be curious, to get to know ourselves in a sort of never-ending reflective delving. We know our self-knowledge will always be partial. We accept the understanding we get about those parts of ourselves that we wish were better. We learn to live with ourselves without self criticism, self doubt, or self destructiveness. We are who we are.

And we look forward, not backward. In which direction do we want our lives to unfold? Do we want more harmony and quiet? More adventure and learning? More challenge and mastery? Do we want to practice being better friends, better professionals, and/or better caregivers? What kinds of choices and efforts would move us the very smallest incremental step toward those wants?

Mostly we can drift along, reacting moment by moment to the vicissitudes of our lives, or we can be deliberate about making choices that move us in our desired directions. We may still have unwanted feelings, unfortunate experiences or misguided choices. But we will be in charge of our lives instead of helpless passengers in an undirected vehicle.

I heard an interview with Atul Gawande, the surgeon and author, who said, it is very difficult for him to accept that we will always be limited, our knowledge will always be partial, and our choices will always have uncertain outcomes and yet we still must act. We still must make choices and we still must be responsible for our lives. We have to learn to live with that uncertainty and with our own limited capacities.

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It Doesn’t Matter How Long It Takes

When we are striving for some outcome that we want, sometimes we lose motivation because we think it will take too long. I usually tell people that time will pass anyway so you might as well go after what you want. Whether it is a graduate degree or training for a race or learning a language, two years is going to pass anyway. You might as well build what you want to build. Embark on the ambitious goals. They are the ones worth doing. Plus, if you make effort, you grow, whether it is physical effort, mental effort or emotional effort. You will grow in the domains where you are willing to make effort. More effort, more growth. Up to a point, of course.

And this same rule applies in relationships. If you are engaging with someone you care about and have a commitment to, it does not matter how long it takes for that person to feel better. If your person is struggling with life, wallowing in a valley of despair, engaging in self destructive or isolating behaviors, it just does not matter how long it takes that person to get traction and get out of the depths. Since you are committed for the long term, you are just going to be there. No matter what.

To the extent that we tell ourselves that he or she ought to be better by now; ought to be trying harder; ought to take some responsibility; and so on, we are making it harder for ourselves on the journey. The magical trick in relationships is the simple admonition: “Be With.” Just be with that person in whatever puddle he or she finds him or herself in.

Alternatively, when we take on the emotions and problems of that other person, the relationship becomes about us and our reactions. We have difficulty tolerating the feelings that we osmose from the other person. This also interferes with genuine relating and it robs the other person of ownership of his or her experience.

When we tell ourselves we are exhausted, we can’t stand it, we are being exploited, used, and disrespected, we simply make it more unpleasant for ourselves to be with that person. When we can respect the integrity of that person, when we can allow the other person’s journey to unfold as it does, when we can appreciate that the gift is the ability to be a part of that person’s life, we can return to the inherent joy in the word “together.”

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Emotional Independence

I was listening to an interview with Thupten Jinpa, the translator for the Dalai Lama, on the podcast “On Being,” hosted by Krista Tippet (On Being). Thupten Jinpa was a Tibetan monk in the same order as the Dalai Lama, but at some point, he decided to leave the order, get married, and have children. This interview is wonderful and I highly recommend it.

Ms. Tippet asked Mr. Jinpa how he felt about those two lives: monk and householder. He said, “Being in a partnership is much more difficult than being a monk. And being a parent is much more difficult than being a monk.” When she asked him what he brought from his training as a monk that was helpful in his new life, he said, “emotional independence.” You realize after much meditation that your feelings are arbitrary and are created by you. At the same time, you do not take other people’s feelings personally. This is an important understanding: You have to be able to listen and understand without taking it personally and you have to be able to express your own inner experience without blaming the other person for it. In other words, you have to remain connected while being separate.

We find in our relationships we are constantly negotiating our needs for intimacy and our needs for autonomy. We long for close relationships, but we struggle with the complexity of being connected and not losing ourselves. As David Richo says, we need to learn to be adults in relationship. We look for our partner to manage our feelings, or we look to be “taken care of,” or we look for “support” or we look for that person to “meet our needs.” But this perspective means we are using the relationship for our own needs rather than that we are engaging for the benefit of coming to know another person deeply and appreciating them as the work of art that they are. It does not acknowledge the mutual encouragement and support we can provide for each other, as we are, when we are free to be ourselves, not out of obligation.

It is not that we do not care about each other. It is not that we ignore the impact of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. It is that we take responsibility for engaging with another person based on our own inner understanding of who we want to be in the world and what we believe is right. And we expect the other person to do the same. That means that the measure of my behavior, and the measure of my friend or partner’s behavior, is not how it impacts me or how it makes me feel, but whether it is aligned with my own or their own inner ideals. Only that person can know that. We trust that they will be responsible for that part of it. And we bring our own best selves, as much as we can, to the connection. When there is static on the wire of our connection, we can trust that something in that person or something in us is interfering with our feeling connected, and we can wait and trust that it will improve. The joy of being with can only arise from a genuine freedom of connection and an appreciation of the work of art that that person is.

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