The Mentalisation based Therapy model promotes the capacity to reflect on one’s own emotional and mental experiences and to understand more readily the emotional and mental experiences of others.
There is a growing body of evidence that points to mentalising as the key to resilience – the ability to adapt successfully to adversity, challenges, and stress. Mentalising promotes coping with vulnerabilities, including the vulnerability to psychiatric disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, addictive disorders etc. Research is demonstrating, for example, that people who can mentalise in the face of trauma – including childhood trauma – are less vulnerable to psychiatric disorders.
Mentalising is an innate human capacity which can be developed or undermined in the context of our early attachment relationships. It describes the ability to make sense of mental states (needs, desires, feelings, goals, purposes, and reasons) in oneself and others which underlies overt behaviours (i.e. crying, tantrums). All our behaviours are based on mental states that are always in dynamic flux, which makes understanding other people (and ourselves) the most complex problem solving of which we are capable of as human beings.
Mentalising is crucial to our well being. It is the basis of self-awareness and a sense of identity. Moreover, it is the basis of meaningful, sustaining relationships. When we mentalise we cannot help but empathise, that is, putting ourselves in the other people’s shoes and seeing things from their perspective. While empathising, we retain self-awareness, a sense of where we are coming from. Such empathizing – with ourselves and with others – is the cornerstone of healthy relationships and ordinary human interactions. Also, mentalising is the key to self-regulation and self-direction. Mentalising enables us to manage losses and trauma, as well as distressing feelings such as frustration, anger, sadness, anxiety, shame, and guilt.
Mentalisation based Therapy promotes the capacity to mentalise flexibly encouraging seeing ourselves and others from a fresh perspective. When we cannot mentalise flexibly, we need others to help us see things from different perspectives. Think of the child freely exploring the toys in the playroom. We need the same freedom to explore our mind and the minds of others. But this exploration can be frightening as well as exciting, and we may need help to do it. If we are to explore our mind in the mind of another person, it is essential that the other person is accepting, interested and empathic. Sometimes a climate of safety and trust can best be found in treatment settings that are designed to foster and maintain a reflective space in which the capacity to mentalise can develop and thrive. This can happen in individual, marital and family therapy.