How to use mentalisation to develop better relationships

By Malvika Padin,
updated on Oct 6, 2023

How to use mentalisation to develop better relationships

It’s a therapeutic tool that helps you gain a new perspective, so how can we apply mentalisation to our everyday interactions?

“Why don’t you try putting yourself in my shoes?” It’s a phrase many of us have used, whether in the middle of something as personal as an explosive argument with a loved one, or a professional disagreement with a co-worker. Though it’s a statement that’s often brushed aside after the heat of the moment, doing exactly that could have been the solution to solving the tension.

As someone with borderline personality disorder, I regularly struggle with my sense of self, as well as an emotionally unstable perspective of how others see me. Often wondering why people say or act in a certain way towards me – be it positive or negative – I have spent a lot of time questioning every interaction I’ve had.

To manage this, I was introduced to the concept of mentalisation, which is one element among others of mentalisation-based therapy (MBT), a type of long-term psychotherapy used to treat personality disorders, eating disorders, depression, and more.

While MBT is a fully-fledged therapy aimed at fostering trust and secure attachments among people who experience long-term difficulties in relationships, as well as intense emotional distress, the specific technique of mentalisation can be a practical tip for all.

In just three simple steps, mentalisation helps us see ourselves from an outside perspective, as well as see and understand the behaviour of others from their perspective rather than our own, to build healthier relationships with others and yourself. Ready to try it?

Step one

The first step of mentalisation involves thinking about a relationship or situation in your life. This step is all about your perspective on the matter.

Start by identifying your personal feelings about your needs from the relationship, goals of the relationship, reasons to keep the relationship, as well as any other specific thoughts about that particular relationship – and note these down.

Drawing from a personal experience, as someone with severely low self-esteem, I have struggled with accepting compliments from people, often dismissing them as just empty words.

Once, when I was complimented on my professional success by a former classmate, my first instinct was not to be flattered, but to wonder why she would say anything nice to me. Suspicion came to the forefront with the question, “What does she want from me?”

In this particular case, the first step of mentalising was to identify the dynamic I shared with my classmate. What was my relationship with her? Why did she give me this specific compliment at this point? Are there any reasons that warrant this compliment, such as any achievements – big or small – I’m proud of?

I identified that while my classmate and I weren’t close, we respected each other’s skills. She was struggling in her career path and sought to compliment me, and seek out my advice. And, yes, upon reflection, I had achievements that made me worthy of her compliments.

Step two

The next step of mentalising involves doing the same thing of identifying personal feelings, but this time from the other person’s perspective.

Try to imagine answers from the other person in the relationship. What would they need from our relationship, what might their reasons to keep this relationship be, and what are their thoughts and feelings about their relationship with you?

Taking the example I provided, I put myself in the shoes of my classmate and began noting down how I believe she may have viewed our dynamic.

Stepping outside of my own head and view of myself, I asked how she viewed me and why she would continue to reach out to me. I came up with the answer that perhaps she saw me as someone successful, and as someone who was at a point in a career that she aspired to. She continued to reach out to me because she trusted, on some level, that I wouldn’t rebuff or ignore her.

Step three

Now that you have two sides of the same relationship noted down, the final step of mentalisation is to compare and reflect on the two different perspectives (self and other).

Don’t just stop with comparing, take a moment to reflect on how you felt imagining the other person’s emotions, needs, goals, reasons, and thoughts about their relationship with you.

This helps you empathise with them, but also see yourself in a better light; the way they might be seeing you!

In short, evoking this empathy is the basis of mentalisation. So take a moment to mentalise, to see ourselves from the outside and others from the inside as we all continue to work on making sense of each other.

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