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Introduction to Mentalization. What is Mentalization. It is the capacity to reflect on one’s own mental states (thoughts, feelings, beliefs, desires etc.) and to attribute mental states to others, as an explanation of their behaviour.

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what is mentalization
What is Mentalization

It is the capacity to reflect on one’s own mental states (thoughts, feelings, beliefs, desires etc.) and to attribute mental states to others, as an explanation of their behaviour.

Mentalization involves being able to recognise, tolerate and respond to one’s own, and others’, mental states.

Mentalization is dependent on whether primary attachment figures recognise, tolerate and respond empathically to the infant. Deficits in care will impact on how an infant represents their own mental states, and also how they represent the thoughts, feelings, wishes and motives of an abusive, neglectful or poorly attuned primary attachment figure.

the structure of mentalization based treatment
The Structure of Mentalization Based Treatment

The overall aim of MBT is to develop a therapeutic process in which the mind of the patient becomes the focus of treatment. The objective is for the patient to find out more about how he thinks and feels about himself and others, how that dictates his responses to others and how ‘errors’ in understanding himself and others lead to actions in an attempt to retain stability and to make sense of incomprehensible feelings.

trajectory of treatment
Trajectory of treatment

There are three main phases to the trajectory of treatment.

  • The initial phase is assessment of mentalizing capacities, personality function and engaging the patient in treatment. Specific processes include giving a diagnosis, providing psychoeducation, establishing a hierarchy of therapeutic aims, stabilizing social and behavioural problems, reviewing medication and defining a crisis pathway.
  • During the middle sessions the aim of all the active therapeutic work is to stimulate an ever-increasing mentalizing ability.
  • In the final stage preparation is made for ending intensive treatment. This requires the therapist to focus on the feelings of loss associated with ending treatment and how to maintain gains that have been made, as well as developing, in conjunction with the patient, an appropriate follow-up programme tailored to his particular needs.
questions that can reveal quality of mentalization assessment
Questions that can reveal quality of mentalization (assessment)
  • You described how your parents were with you, do you have any idea why they acted as they did?
  • Do you think what happened to you as a child explains they way you are as an adult?
  • Can you think of anything that happened to you as a child that created problems for you?
  • As a child did you ever feel that you were not wanted?
  • In relation to losses, abuse or other trauma, how did you feel at the time and how have your feelings changed over time?
  • How has your relationship with your parents changed since childhood?
  • In what important ways have you changed since childhood?
common assessment questions
Common assessment questions
  • Questions

Looking back, can you think a bit about what made her behave like that?

How do you explain his action?

Is that something that has happened before?

Is there any other explanation?

What do other people think about it?

  • Probes

I can see that you must have wanted to end the relationship but somehow you stuck it out. Tell me what made you carry on.

You must have been so excited when the relationship started and felt so let down when he was unreliable. How did you manage those feelings?

indication of very poor mentalizing during the assessment process
Indication of very poor mentalizing during the assessment process
  • Anti-reflective


active evasion

non-verbal reactions

  • Bizarre responses
  • Failure of adequate elaboration

complete lack of integration

complete lack of explanation

  • Inappropriate

complete non-sequiturs (no relation to what has gone before)

gross assumptions about the interviewer

literal meaning of words

assessment of mentalization non mentalization
Assessment of Mentalization(Non Mentalization)
  • Concrete understanding

Generalised lack of mentalizing

  • Pseudo-mentalizing

Looks like mentalizing but missing essential features

  • Misuse of mentalizing

Others’ minds understood and thought about, but used to hurt, manipulate, control or undermine

therapist stance mentalization
Therapist Stance Mentalization

Therapist continually questions his and patient’s internal mental state:

  • What is happening now?
  • Why is the patient saying this now?
  • Why is the patient behaving like this?
  • Why am I feeling as I do now?
  • What has happened recently in the therapy that may justify the current state?
therapist stance
Therapist Stance

Highlighting alternative perspectives

  • I saw it as a way to control yourself rather than to attack me (patient explanation), can you think about that for a moment
  • You seem to think that I don’t like you and yet I am not sure what makes you think that.
  • Just as you distrusted everyone around you because you couldn’t predict how they would respond, you now are suspicious of me
  • You have to see me as critical so that you can feel vindicated in your dismissal of what I say
therapist stance mentalization1
Therapist Stance Mentalization

Using questioning comments to promote exploration

  • What do you make of what has happened?
  • Why do you think that he said that?
  • I wonder if that was related to the group yesterday?
  • Perhaps you felt that I was judging you?
  • What do you make of her suicidal feeling (in the group)?
  • Why do you think that he behaved towards you as he did?
therapist stance1
Therapist Stance

Affective experience and its representation

  • Focus the patient’ attention on therapist experience when it offers an opportunity to clarify misunderstandings and to develop prototypical representations
  • Highlight patient’s experience to therapist
  • Use transference to emphasise different experience and perspective
  • Negotiate negative reactions and ruptures in therapeutic alliance by identifying patient and therapist roles in the problem
clinical example
Clinical Example

Suicide Attempt and Self Harm

Intervention should be simple and short, affect focused, refer to current context and address conscious or near-conscious contact.

The pathway for intervention moves from affect identification to interpersonal context to meaning.

The therapist should not assume responsibility for the patients actions and a comment early in treatment defining the extent of his responsibility is necessary.

(e.g.) “I can’t stop you harming yourself or even killing yourself, but I might be able to help you understand what makes you try to do it and to find other ways of managing things”.

The primary purpose of self harm and other actions is to maintain self structure following sudden de-stabilization.

function of self harm
Function of self-harm

To maintain the self-structure

  • Explore reasons for de-stabilization of self-structure
  • ‘Tell me when you first began to feel anxious that you might do something?’
  • Make a systematic attempt to place responsibility for actions back with the patient to re-establish self-control
  • ‘I can’t stop you harming yourself or even killing yourself but I might be able to help you understand what makes you do it and to find other ways of managing things’.
motivation of self harm
Motivation of self-harm
  • Re-stabilize
  • Predictable, mentalizable schematic relationships
  • Rigid understandable motivations – ‘He didn’t turn up because he wanted me to suffer’.
  • Formulaic explanations – ‘He deserves to suffer because he is bad’.

I won’t come because they don’t want me there’.

  • Reduce panic
  • Establish existence
  • Support for body existence through seeing blood
  • When mental existence is in doubt reinforce existence through your body
  • Emptiness becomes partially filled
  • Rarely to control/attack other
pathway and interventions for self harm
Pathway and interventions for self-harm
  • Empathy and support
  • Define interpersonal context
  • Detailed account of days or hours leading up to self-harm with emphasis on feeling states
  • Moment to moment exploration of actual episode
  • Explore communication problems
  • Identify misunderstandings or over-sensitivity
  • Identify affect
  • Explore the affective changes since the previous individual session linking them with events within treatment
  • Review any acts thoroughly in a number of contexts including individual and group therapy
interventions for self harm
Interventions for self-harm


  • Explore conscious motive
  • How do you understand what happened?
  • Who was there at the time or who were you thinking about?
  • What did you make of what they said?
  • Challenge the perspective that the patient presents


  • Mentalize the transference in the immediacy of a suicide attempt or self-harm
  • Interpret the patient’s actions in terms of their personal history, the unconscious motivations or their current possible manipulative intent in the ‘heat’ of the moment. It will alienate the patient.
stop and stand dealing with an impasse
Stop and Stand – Dealing with an Impasse

During a typical non-mentalizing interaction in a group or individual session.

  • Stop and investigate
  • Let the interaction slowly unfold- control it
  • Highlight who feels what
  • Identify how each aspect is understood from multiple perspectives
  • Challenge reactive ‘fillers’
  • Identify how messages feel and are understood, what reactions occur
stop listen look questions
Stop, listen, look - questions
  • What do you think it feels like for X?
  • Can you explain why he did that?
  • Can you think of other ways you might be able to help her really understand what you feel like?
  • How do you explain her distress/overdose?
  • If someone else was in that position what would you tell them to do?
  • Recruit – Gemma is obviously angry. Can anyone help her with this, because I wonder if beneath it she is beginning to feel ignored.
stop rewind explore
  • Let’s go back and see what happened just then.
  • At first you seemed to understand what was going on but then…
  • Let’s try to trace exactly how that came about.
  • Hang on, before we move off, let’s just rewind and see if we can understand something in all this.