How Well Do You Mentalize?

By John M. Oldham, MD

At the Menninger Clinic, where I work, we speak a lot about the importance of mentalizing. It simply means the ability to see yourself from the outside and to see others from the inside. In other words, the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and try to see things from that person’s point of view.

Empathy and Mentalizing
Mentalizing is similar to having empathy for someone. It’s imagining what it would feel like to be the one bullied, shouted at or criticized instead of doing the bullying, shouting or criticizing. It’s imagining being the one grieving for the loss of a loved one, instead of being annoyed that the grass isn’t mowed or the house is a mess. You can think of a million examples. We all have them, and we all can be insensitive at times.

Mentalizing can work the other way, too. Another person can put him- or herself in your shoes and imagine what it would be like to have the pressures and responsibilities that you have to deal with every day.

How to Swap Time
We have an exercise we call “swap time,” which many couples or family members have found enlightening. Let’s say you’ve been in a serious romantic involvement for about three years. It’s had ups and downs but mostly ups. It isn’t clear, though, that the relationship is going anywhere, and the clock is ticking.

You and your partner each take The New Personality Self-Portrait test. Then, pretend you are your partner and take the test again, answering every question in the way you think he or she would answer. Your partner does the same. Next, swap results and compare. There are almost always some good areas of agreement between your results and the results of your partner’s idea of what it’s like to be you. But often there are big surprises. These are opportunities for fun, as long as you don’t take the results too seriously. They can open your eyes to ways your partner sees you, and ways you see your partner.

Whatever the results, they can lead to some interesting discussions.