Click here to read Part I of this article

“Looks can Be Deceiving”: Mentalization Skills in Relationships, Part 2

What are the differences between the private mental experiences that happen inside of us, such as feelings, thoughts, or beliefs,  and the objective, concrete behaviors or actions that happen outside of us?

One of the main differences is that we can experience things that happen outside of our minds by using our senses.

For example, when people smile, we can see their lips turned up in the familiar expression (this is an outside behavior).  When someone looks away in embarrassment, it’s easy to see the eyes looking off to the side (another outside behavior).  When someone yells in anger, we can similarly hear the loudness of their voice or see the red in their face.

But looks can be deceiving!

Have you been at a social event and put a big smile on your face, even though you were feeling terrible inside? Have you ever sounded really angry, when you were really feeling scared inside (such as when your child falls down and you yell “Be more careful!”) Have you ever looked really composed while speaking in public, when inside you were shaking? Have you ever told someone that you were really happy to see them, when inside you really didn’t want to be around anyone at all?

Most likely you can relate to at least one of the above scenarios. There are many times when our insides don’t match our outsides. Yet, most of how we read other people is based on what we observe: their body language, expressions, tone of voice, and the words they say.  And this is what makes relationships so confusing at times! We think we are reading other people accurately- and many times we are. But how many other times are we making guesses about what people mean or feel, when we don’t really know what’s going on inside their minds at all?

This gets even more complicated when people tell us stories about things that have happened to them. Suppose your son comes home from school and says, “My class is so mean. No one likes me. We were at recess and one boy started a ballgame. All the boys got to join in, but they wouldn’t let me play. I had to just watch all recess long! Everyone gets included for everything except for me!”

What would your automatic response be?

Many parents would immediately have some reaction. Some parents might be dismissive, and tell the child to “get over it”. Others might be sympathetic and say, “I’m so sorry, that must have felt so bad.” Others might run interference, perhaps by calling the child’s teacher. Yet another parent might give advice, such as “Maybe you can befriend the boy who usually starts the game and ask him to include you next time.” There are so many possible responses!

Well, the tricky part is that this story (like every story) has two different types of information in it. Some of the information is about outside things, such as the things that actually happened in the scene; things that your son heard, observed, did, or had others do to him. But there are also subjective parts to this story, such as your son’s interpretations of what people felt or meant- and those are always guesses, because we can never see other people’s private intentions or reactions. We can only assume them.

Can you tell which parts of your child’s story were about mental states, and which were about behaviors? If you can, then you already possess a very powerful tool for helping your child to develop a sense of security and good social development. Yet, even if you can tell the difference between mental states and actions, it’s still hard to remember to pay attention to those differences when we’re emotionally activated! That’s why it’s good to practice with low-key scenarios.

So, let’s break down this example.

“My class is so mean”, and “Everyone hates me” are both referring to mental states. “Mean” and “hating someone” are not things we can see, feel, taste, or hear. We can describe and observe behaviors, but whether they are intended to be mean, or to represent feelings of hate, is something that goes on inside a person’s head and heart. How often do we think someone is being “mean”, only to find out later that we’ve misunderstood the situation?

So, your son’s classmates may have been “mean”. Or, they may not have been “mean”.  And even if someone’s behavior seems unkind, there are so many feelings and thoughts that go on in other peoples’ minds that affect their behaviors too. Knowing some of those private experiences might change how we see the situation. For example, if a child recently lost a parent and started acting “mean” at school, we might feel sorry for him, rather than angry. Context matters so much. What goes on inside of people makes a big difference.

Perhaps your son came late to the game, and the teams were already picked by that point. Perhaps the boy said your son could play, but your son couldn’t hear because the game was so loud. Perhaps your son was a “sore loser” in the last game, and the class was frustrated about that. Perhaps the boy in charge of the game was jealous of your son because your son does better than him in school. Perhaps the boy’s father had just bullied him that morning on the way out the door, and your son caught the brunt of it. Any information about the context is going to change how he feels about the situation, and how your son interprets it- even if the scenario was the same.  But unless we ask questions, we’ll never have the chance to wonder about any of those things!

Now, back to the behaviors and outside details in the story: Watching his friend play ball, asking to join and being told the word “no”, etc. are not mental states. These are behaviors that your son experienced directly.  These are things that “happened”.  He then interpreted their “meanings” in a specific way. Many times, our interpretations are correct. But what happens when they’re not? This can lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and emotional upset. When a person thinks that being left out of a game means that other people hate him, he is going to feel a lot worse than just disappointed about not getting to play.  So our attributions and explanations of things we experience directly, in terms of what we think they mean, have a lot to do with our emotional reactions to them.  And we often react based on false assumptions!

So, how to slow this down? First of all, before reacting and doing something of your own, such as giving advice, sympathizing, telling your child to “get over it”, distracting him, trying to make him feel better, etc. , explore the context.  Ask questions.  Go over the story piece by piece, from start to finish, and try to find out as much as you can about what actually happened, and how he interpreted the situation. For example, you might say to your son: “Please tell me the whole story. Start from the beginning of recess. Tell me what you said, what you thought, what you did to try to join the game, and what they said to you or did.” Then, talk with your child about how he interpreted the situation, and ask him what clues he used to come up with those thoughts. Perhaps you can offer some other possible interpretations at that point, or ask your son if he can come up with any others on his own. Or, after hearing more details, it might seem that his interpretation was accurate based on the whole context, in which case, you can offer advice, some sympathy, or encourage resilience at that point. But at least you will understand the situation before reacting to it!

Taking time to reflect before reacting is absolutely key to healthy relationships…so, how good are you at this?