There is something I should clarify about my last post, Empathy, Mentalization, and Complex Trauma. Actually, several things.
The first of these is that I made an assumption about complex trauma, which may not be correct, but that I do think was probably reasonable. I assumed that most or nearly individuals with complex trauma have someone in their immediate family with a mental illness which affects that person’s ability to empathize, mentalize, or regulate emotions. I am assuming that complex trauma is not just about having lived through repeated traumas, but about other factors that tend to go along with spending a lot of time around the kinds of people that are more likely to harm themselves or others or risk harm to themselves or others.
In other words, if your parent (like mine) attempted suicide when you were a kid, there was probably a lot more going wrong than just that. And it probably had something to do with empathy, mentalization, or regulating emotions. Because most things that make us really unhappy or really unable to function do.
In my last post, I also talked about skill gaps in mentalization. There are three types of skill gaps that can occur really. One of them has to do with understanding the minds of people you care about and are close to that have a mental illness.
I’ll put it to you like this. I have a number of skill gaps as an accountant. In fact, I really know almost nothing about accounting. However, I am not an accountant. It really doesn’t matter.
If you have no one close to you who doesn’t, for example, have BPD, then you really don’t need to understand how people with that disorder think. “That’s a whack job if I’ve ever seen one,” is probably as complex as your understanding of their inner emotional lives needs to go.
If that person is your sibling, your parent, your spouse, or your best friend, then that just isn’t going to cut it.
But the other skill gaps affect the rest of your life. They will still be there even if you decide to cut out of your life altogether everyone who is mentally ill, emotional unstable, or neuro-atypical.
One of them is understanding your own mind and how it works, how you think and feel and what motivates you. If you spent a lot of time with someone who had difficulty mentalizing (as BPDs are speculated to have), especially during your growing up years, you are likely to have trouble with it yourself.
It’s a little like learning math from someone who is mixed up about math. You may learn it, but you may also learn it wrong, or you may learn some things but not others. You may be able to do it, but not with any fluency or confidence.
When you spend a lot of time around someone with difficulty mentalizing, you may be told frequently that you think or feel something you do not think or feel, or be told you feel things you don’t feel or that you don’t feel what you do.
Because we are profoundly social creatures, we often believe what people tell us, especially if we are told it repeatedly. Even if we know it can’t be the truth. If you were a kid and just getting a handle on this whole mentalization business in the first place, you are doubly likely to believe this. You will mislabel your own feelings and motives and misunderstand how your own mind works. And that’s going to be a problem for you.
The third skill gap has to do with how we learn how to mentalize in the first place. And although there are a several different theories about how mentalization develops, as a completely non-expert observer, it seems to me that mostly we base our models of the mind on our own minds and on the kinds of minds we have the most experience with.
As the child of a psychopath, it’s not really very difficult for me to understand how a psychopath thinks or what motivates him. I spent a lot of time with one and it’s really not very complicated.
It took me a lot longer to understand the minds of people who aren’t disordered. I had very little experience with them.
So it may also be difficult for you to understand the minds of people who aren’t mentally ill, or who are mentally ill in a different way. And that’s going to make a lot of things just hard.
In sum, those with complex trauma can have difficulty with mentalization in three distinct areas. You may have difficulty mentalizing about an important person who is mentally ill, because that person’s mind is so unlike yours. You may have difficulty mentalizing about your own mind, because it was so deeply misunderstood by someone else for so long. And you may have difficulty mentalizing about ordinary people, because their minds are so unlike the minds of people who shaped your view of how minds work.
It’s a problem. Indeed.