“Looks Can be Deceiving”: Mentalization Skills in Relationships, Part I

So I’m going to talk with you today about some ideas that come from something called “mentalization based therapy”. Some of you may have heard of that but probably most of you have not. I’m going to start with some basic explanations and then we’ll look at some examples of how these ideas can actually help you with your parenting. What this is really about is some common types of misunderstandings that happen in relationships that matter to us. Relationships that feel important are more likely to push our buttons than relationships that we don’t really care too much about. For example, we’re much more likely to have strong emotional responses with our own children than with someone else’s children. If our child gets hurt, our instinct is to protect them- moreso than if we’re walking in the street and see some random person get hurt. If our spouse criticizes us, it’s more likely to hurt than if some random person in the bank makes a critical comment. The more important the relationship, the more emotional power it has.

So why does this even matter?

Well, one important reason that it matters is that when we have strong emotional responses, there are several automatic reactions that are likely to happen. Something happens to our ability to think when there are strong emotions around, and it becomes much more likely for us to “do something”. For example, suppose you see a fire in your house. You feel a rush of fear. The instinct would be to get out, escape, or call for help. You don’t stop to think about why the fire is there or whose fault it is or how interesting the sight of fire is, or the science behind the event. You simply don’t think about all of those things when there’s an emergency going on. Your emotional response in your brain prepares you to take some sort of immediate action. And this is really a great thing, because if every time there was a dangerous situation, we took the time to think about the situation, we’d lose a lot of time that was needed for getting to safety. If you see your child running out into the street, you really don’t want to start analyzing what it was that he was running after, or empathizing with how interesting the ball that he was chasing must have seemed to him. You want to simply react- take the child away from the danger. So the body’s emergency response system is certainly helpful to us.

But what happens when people start to react to mental states with the emergency response? I will explain what I mean by mental states in a minute, but this is the question I’d really like us to deal with today. Because when we react to mental states in the same way that we react to physical dangers or information, then some really interesting things start to happen to our minds. Either the mind turns off, or else it starts to do something interesting with the information it’s getting from the environment. So that is what I’d really like to talk about, because this happens with parents and children all the time. It’s sort of the way that we’re wired. But we can change those responses. The techniques for doing so are simple, but they aren’t easy. And I’d like to show you some of those techniques so you can use them.

So I promised I would explain what I mean when I say “mental states”. Okay, so suppose you look at this picture that I have here. Mental states are the hidden things that go on inside of us- like feelings, thoughts, beliefs. No one can see our mental states. Actually, mental states can’t be directly observed through any of the five senses. If I were to ask you what the feeling “caring” looks like, we couldn’t really answer, because it doesn’t have a “look”. It’s something invisible that goes on inside of a person. However, there might be certain things on the outside of a person that can give us hints about what’s going on inside. We have certain expressions on our faces when we feel different emotions. Our body language tells a lot. And so people make guesses about what’s going on inside of us based on the objective things they can see, hear, etc. If my voice is really loud and my face is very red, someone might assume that I’m angry. They can’t really see the “anger” if I am, because it’s invisible and it’s inside of me. But they can see certain things outside of me, like my expression or the color of my face and make guesses based on that. Many of our guesses are quick and automatic. We don’t even think about it. For example, you call someone on the phone and her voice sounds really distant and cold. You immediately feel hurt and assume she doesn’t want to talk to you, so you hang up. It could be a million things though- maybe you caught her in the middle of an upsetting conversation with someone else. Maybe she’s distracted by something. Maybe she’s tired and doesn’t realize how distant she sounds, but would love to talk to you. We don’t really know. We guess all the time. And usually that works well. The problem is when we believe that we know for sure what’s going on inside of the person. The problem is when we react based on our interpretation, without stopping to gather more information check if we are making the right guesses.

So this is the first thing that can happen when our emotional buttons are pushed in relationships. We might react before we have enough information, or we might believe that we absolutely know what the other person is thinking or feeling or meaning, without checking it out.

So, here’s an example of what can happen. You go to the store with your two year old and she throws a major, embarrassing tantrum in front of everyone. You already feel like a failure as a mother because all of your sisters always seem to have it together and your house is always a mess and your children don’t just listen to you the way theirs’ do. So now your child is throwing this major tantrum in public, and, already self-conscious, you feel like the entire world is staring at you and seeing the real truth- that you’re a failure as a parent and you can’t even control your own two year old. You tell your child to be quiet. You bribe her. You threaten. You try holding her down. Nothing helps. So now your emotional response system is turned on very high. You feel shame, embarrassment, and anger. You feel that your child is trying to expose your flaws to the entire world. You can’t really think too much about what’s going on, and you especially can’t think about what’s going on for your child. You’re fully in reactive mode because you feel that your very own child is out of control and purposely trying to embarrass you in public. So it’s hard for you to slow down and think about how your child missed her nap today, or might not be feeling well, or maybe just needs a little snack. It’s hard for you to think about what her behavior means for her…because you’re so worked up about what’s going on for you. This happens all the time, at any age and any stage. We either lose track of what’s going on for the other person, or we lose the ability to think.

Now, the other thing that happens when we’re in reactive mode, is that emotions can get to be contagious. This is especially true if you’re the kind of person who picks up easily on other people’s emotions. So, for example, say your child is running around, then falls down and gets hurt, and starts to scream in fear- well, you might then feel a rush of fear too. So you start to scream, or maybe even yell at your child for not being careful enough. Really, you are having a reaction to the fear that your child’s fear caused in you.  The other situation where this happens is when we give advice or solutions because our child’s experience brings up uncomfortable feelings in us. So, for example, say your daughter comes home and says that all the other girls were invited to someone’s house and that she was left out. She starts to cry and you start to feel rejected for her. It hurts you so much, now her pain is your pain. So you start to give her all sorts of solutions about how she can change situation, or maybe you rush in to fix it, and call the other mothers in the class to complain about the situation. What happens here is that because emotions are so catchy and contagious, everyone has a lot of emotional problems to deal with. Because when one person is hurting, everyone is hurting. So you don’t just have to deal with your own aches and pains, but you have to deal with everyone else’s too. And they have to deal with yours’. That’s a lot of feelings for everyone to be dealing with!

But you don’t want to be uncaring either. You do want to be able to empathize with your child’s experiences. We all know that empathy is very important.

The issue is really being able to empathize while also staying outside of the feelings, being able to step back. You want to be able to show your child that you care about his/her feelings- but you don’t want to feel exactly the same thing your child feels. That wouldn’t be healthy. After all, you’re an adult and you’re also your own person. When your child gets a shot at the doctor, it’s okay to feel bad for your child that it hurts, but you don’t want to feel as if you’re the child getting the shot. Then you’d have to go through the experience of feeling like you’re being pricked by a needle every time any of your children go through this! And that’s too much painful experience for one person. So it’s important to learn how to care but detach at the same time, how to see the whole picture- after all, you know that a needle prick just lasts for a moment and that it’s important to keep your child healthy. You want to be aware of that too, even as you care about your child’s pain.

Families that can do this- stay out of other peoples’ emotional experiences even as they react to them in their own muted/less intense way- have less of the emergency response when emotions happen, and less of the reactivity that goes along with the emergency response. So step one is to try not to react to other people’s mental states as if they are exactly the same as your own.

Okay, so suppose you’re in the park and you see a mother who is holding a baby and smiling, while talking to another mother who is pushing a young boy on a swing. There is also a little girl a few feet away in a sandbox, who calls out to her mother with the baby every few minutes, with some sort of question or just saying “Look over here! Look what I did!” Each time she does this, the woman with the baby turns around to look at her and says “I see, I can see the big castle you are building with the sand. You’re doing great.”

So anyone watching this scene would notice a lot of objective things about it. These are the things that are really facts about the situation, things that just about anybody would agree about. For example, if 10 people were watching this same scenario, they would all notice that there is an adult woman who is holding a young child. And that there is another adult woman who is pushing a young boy on a swing. And, if they were to pay attention to things like the colors of the clothing these people are wearing or the color of the baby carriage, everyone would agree about what they are seeing. Some of the people might pay more attention to certain details than others, but essentially, everyone who looks can agree on the sights they are seeing as facts. The same would be for the sounds they hear. All 10 people would be able to agree that the two adult woman are talking to each other, and that there is a little girl in a sandbox who keeps calling out “Look, see what I did”.

So, physical things that we can experience with our senses- such as things that we see or hear, well, we all mostly agree on things like that. There are exceptions, like if someone cannot hear or see too well, if someone’s imagination is very vivid and they get mixed up between what’s in their head and what’s in their mind, or if there’s an optical illusion, for example. But in normal situations, we don’t have arguments with people about things that we can observe directly. If our child has a fever, we don’t say “The thermometer is making it up, you’re just faking”. We believe the thermometer and we believe the facts about the fever. If we go on a scale that we know is pretty accurate, we don’t say to ourselves “Oh, the scale must be in a bad mood today, it’s making up a really high weight for me”. We accepts the facts. If we take something out of the oven and say out loud, “Wow, this is hot!”, it’s not likely that someone will say “What are you talking about? It looks cold to me”. We agree about facts pretty easily.

It’s the subjective stuff that’s a little harder though. And that’s the part that gets us into misunderstandings and conflicts in relationships. And to understand that, we need to explore the difference between objective facts and subjective mental experiences and how this difference impacts relationships.

Read more about this in Part II!