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The Benefits of Mentalization for Empathy and Relationships

June 27th, 2024
By: Maggie Harris, Clinical Psychologist

Understanding Mentalization

Mentalization involves recognizing and interpreting the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, intentions, and desires that underlie human behaviour, both within ourselves and others (Allen, Fonagy, & Bateman, 2008; Arabadzhiev & Paunova, 2024; Lüdemann, Rabung, & Andreas, 2021). This skill is usually developed in our early relationships with our caregivers. Let’s imagine that a little girl is running down the path of a park, and she falls and scrapes her knee and begins to tear up. As her mother comes up behind her, she says to her daughter, “Oh you fell and scraped your knee! That must have been a shock. Are you ok?” In the same scenario, a different mother walks up to her daughter and says, “Come on, you’re fine, let’s keep going.” While both of the mothers’ reactions may be acceptable, the first mother is helping her daughter engage in the process of mentalization. By noting what happened and imagining how it might have felt, the first mother is helping her daughter create a representation of her own mind (MBT Canada, 2024). That representation can then allow her daughter to communicate her thoughts, feelings, and ideas with others. These experiences are the beginnings of developing a sense of self, which, with time and experience, can later become an identity. 

Mentalization is also a crucial aspect of relationships and interpersonal interactions. The ability to understand other people’s intentions helps to create smoother social interactions and better social competence overall (Bączkowski & Cierpiałkowska, 2015). Beyond knowing what someone is doing, mentalizing helps us understand why they are doing it. It is also essential to comprehend that other people have different thoughts, feelings, and ideas than we do. This deeper awareness allows for more meaningful and empathetic connections. As a psychologist, I’ve witnessed that people who build their mentalization skills can achieve greater insight into themselves, improve their empathy, and strengthen their relationships.

Enhancing Empathy

Empathy, the ability to understand someone else’s feelings and see their perspective without losing your own (Arabadzhiev & Paunova, 2024), is a cornerstone of healthy relationships. Mentalization can enhance empathy in several ways:

  1. Improved Emotional Awareness: By mentalizing, people become more attuned to their own emotional states and those of others. Being more familiar with our internal processes heightens our awareness, fosters deeper emotional understanding, and better communication.
  2. Reduced Misunderstandings: Mentalization helps to clarify the reasons behind behaviours, which reduces the likelihood of misunderstandings. If we attempt to understand the ‘why’ behind someone’s actions, we are less likely to misinterpret or react negatively (Arabadzhiev & Paunova, 2024). 
  3. Greater Compassion: Recognizing the internal struggles and motivations of others naturally cultivates compassion. It becomes easier to respond with kindness and support, rather than judgment. For example, if your friend snaps at you, you may initially be inclined to snap back. However, if you take a moment to remember that they are going through a period of high stress at work, you may be more likely to respond compassionately.

Strengthening Relationships

Healthy relationships, whether with family, friends, or romantic partners, thrive on mutual understanding and respect. Mentalization can contribute to relationship strength in several key ways:

  1. Better Communication: Mentalization promotes clearer and more effective communication. When people understand their own mental states and the mental states of others, they can express themselves more accurately and listen more empathetically.
  2. Conflict Resolution: Conflicts are inevitable in any relationship, but mentalization can help manage and resolve them. By recognizing each other’s perspectives rather than reacting emotionally, people can find common ground and solutions that respect the needs of both sides (Arabadzhiev & Paunova, 2024).
  3. Increased Trust: Trust is built on knowing that someone can understand and validate our internal experiences, and help us feel safe (Obegi & Berant, 2009). Mentalization fosters this trust by ensuring that both partners feel seen and understood.
  4. Emotional Regulation: Relationships benefit when both parties can regulate their emotions. Mentalization provides a framework for understanding and managing emotional responses with flexibility, rather than reacting automatically in ways that may be self-destructive. Mentalizing can offer us more tools to cope on our own, and create more stable and supportive interactions with others (Allen, Bleiberg, & Haslam-Hopwood, 2003).

Practical Applications

Here are a few practical tips for incorporating mentalization into your everyday life:

  1. Practice Self-Reflection: Try to reflect on your own thoughts, feelings, and reactions throughout the day. Understanding your internal state is the first step towards greater self-awareness and clearer communication.
  2. Engage in Active Listening: When interacting with others, focus on truly listening and trying to understand their perspectives. It is also helpful to ask questions that encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings.
  3. Be Curious, Not Judgmental: Approach interactions with curiosity rather than judgment. Try to understand the reasons behind your own behaviours and those of others, especially behaviours that initially seem perplexing or upsetting. When we seek to comprehend before reacting, we can avoid escalating a situation into a conflict.
  4. Reflect on Interactions: After a difficult interaction, such as receiving a hurtful comment from a partner, take time to reflect on what happened and why. Consider what you and the other person were thinking and feeling. Rather than blaming yourself or the other person for the problem, you might be able to notice other reasons for the person’s behaviour.

By enhancing mentalization, we can foster empathy and build stronger, more resilient relationships. The goal of this skill is to better understand ourselves and others, which many of us strive to do throughout our lives. However, beyond the insight we can gain from mentalizing, the act in and of itself can open up many opportunities for connection, validation, and feeling known, which can make us feel more comfortable as we move through the world.


Allen, J., Bleiberg, E., & Haslam-Hopwood, G. (2003). Mentalizing as a compass for treatment. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic. 67. 

Allen, J., Fonagy, P., & Bateman, A. (2008). Mentalizing in clinical practice. Washington: American Psychiatric Press.

Arabadzhiev, Z., & Paunova, R. (2024). Complexity of mentalization. Frontiers in Psychology, 15, 1353804. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2024.1353804

Bączkowski, B. & Cierpiałkowska, L. (2015). Mentalization within close relationships: The role of specific attachment style. Polish Psychological Bulletin. 46. 285-299. 10.1515/ppb-2015-0035. 

MBT Canada. (2024, June 1). What is Mentalizing. mbt-tbm.org. https://mbt-tbm.org/what-mentalizing

Lüdemann, J., Rabung, S., & Andreas, S. (2021). Systematic review on mentalization as key factor in psychotherapy. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(17), 9161. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18179161

Obegi, J. H., & Berant, E. (Eds.). (2009). Attachment theory and research in clinical work with adults. The Guilford Press.

About the author

Maggie Harris received her doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology from the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, Yeshiva University in New York and is a psychologist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.