Current research in psychotherapy focuses on neurobiology, mindfulness and meditation, and attachment theory. In his wonderful workshop on the attachment styles of the therapist, David Wallin talked about both mindfulness and mentalizing. As described in many books and papers, mindfulness is the focus of attention on one’s own current experience as it is happening. In other words, not the past, not the future, not some other place, but right here and right now, what is my experience? While it seems simple to describe, maintaining a stance of mindfulness is remarkably difficult to do. So many ideas are vying for our attention, and most of them are about other places and other times.
Mentalizing is the capacity to understand what is in another person’s mind and especially to understand that the other person’s mind and experience are different from our own. The theory is that if a person is good at mentalizing, he or she will have better relationships and therefore a better state of well-being. The idea of mentalizing is most prominently described by Peter Fonagy, and it is related to the idea of secure attachment in childhood. It implies that the parent had the ability to understand the child’s mind and to respond to the child’s needs accurately. When a child has this experience, the child becomes secure and therefore able to understand the minds of other people.
Fundamentally, our capacity to be accurately aware of our own experience and that of other people arises from a basis of inner security or safety. When we can engage with our lives from this stance, we are freed up to act constructively in building our own lives and in promoting the growth of others. Our energy and resources are not taken up with defending ourselves from inner pain or with protecting ourselves from losses.
The most wonderful thing about the new research and practice concepts is the understanding that we can repair pain from the past and we can create an internal, earned security, even if we did not get it as children. What the research has shown is that this earned security can be created in one of 3 ways, all based, of course, in relationships: First, if the parents get help early enough, and they improve their parenting, the child will benefit. Second, if we have a very serious relationship, such as with a relative or spouse, that provides the kinds of unconflicted deep connection that is caregiving. And, of course, the third way to earn secure attachment is through psychotherapy with a good therapist.
Both mindfulness and mentalizing are terms that imply being present with reality–our own and that of other people. We can be present because we are confident that we can cope with whatever reality presents to us. And we are confident because he have built an inner security, based in being cared for by being responded to in a way that is consonant with our innermost needs. In the busy-ness of everyday life, these deep structures can be overlooked, but they form the background of all our experience.