Non-mentalizing systems

Peter Fonagy writes about mentalization and personality disorders. He talks about mentalization occurring (or not occurring) within systems. In other words, whether we have a habit of considering others as thinking, feeling beings or not is sustained by others in the group we live in.

There are several points he makes which resonate very strongly with me. One of them is that, when a child is raised by a parent unable to imagine accurately their mental sates, they internalize an inaccurate, “alien” self. To function, the child who grows up with an alien self must externalize or in some other way disconnect from a self which feels painful, evil, lacking, shameful and wrong. Sometimes the externalization is maintained via projection: someone else is seen in this way.

Fonagy claims this alien self is the parent. I think it may be the way I imagined my parent imagined me. It certainly feels resonant. The times I feel really bad are washes of memory of experiences of being seen as this person, and then not knowing whether it is the truth of who I really am underneath a fragile layer of pretense and trying to be good (in whatever sense that may be). I suspect I hide for fear that this “alien” self will be discovered. When there is not enough of an anchoring within a social setting, I don’t think you know what your “true” self is. Self is a social construction. In other words, there is no coherent “true” self to squarely challenge a sense of “alien” self.

He also writes about what he calls epistemic trust: a trust in what is known and can be passed along culturally, so not trust about intent or behaviour, but trusting that someone has knowledge worth adopting. Trauma destroys epistemic trust and makes parents and other adults or authority figures unreliable purveyors of knowledge–either the knowledge is incorrect or irrelevant to oneself. He says at the same time, the need to receive knowledge is so strong in us, that without epistemic trust, we become starved for it. I can relate to this very strongly, wishing so badly that someone knew what I ought to do about my problems and yet feeling they don’t know or don’t understand well enough to tell me. I don’t usually doubt intention. I doubt knowing. And then I believe people who don’t know anything, because I want so badly for someone to know.

He also talks about pre-mentalizing states and non-mentalizing as well as the systems which sustain them. Pre-mentalizing states include pretend mode (disconnected from reality), psychic reality (thoughts are reality), and teleological (only concrete and easily understandable behaviour can be trusted to communicate intentions).

I’ll describe about about what he says about each system, but I recognize them. C lives in a teleological world. Her family understands gifts, food and money as communicating intention. In times of stress, that is what C demands: signs of care that she can understand

I think I have often been encouraged to live in a non-mentalizing world, because the inner states of others seemed to be so unfathomable and toxic.

Dinner time–more later.


Empathy and mentalization

I have started to be able to recognize affection. I can’t explain to you why I was unable to recognize it before. I think it created so much cognitive dissonance, I didn’t process it. I didn’t realize it was a distinct feeling, with its own facial expression, its own tone of voice, or that it was as evident as happiness or anger.

I am beginning to recognize it because there is one boy in my class who feels it for me and it’s very clear and obvious in his face. I also hear it in C’s dad voice when I talk to him, and sometimes in his older sister’s manner. (She lives in Y-town.)

I was writing last time about mentalization. I read some things that were interesting to me. I am trying to organize them in my mind this morning, because they are lying there in my head in disarray, like loose threads on the verge of tangling.

The first of these threads is that the ability to understand inner states–to make sense of motives and beliefs and feelings–develops over time. Under stress, we tend to lose later-learned abilities.

Our initial ability to mentalize is teleological–in other words, concrete. I know what you are thinking or feeling only from easily recognizable physical actions. If you do things that I understand will bring comfort to me, then I know that you care.

The process of learning to mentalize is disrupted in abused children, because the malignant intentions of the parent are so unfathomable, and it is stalled in neglected children because of loss of opportunity.

Under stress, we are all vulnerable to regressing to this earlier state.

To me, it explains the controlling people I have encountered, as well as C’s tendency to make demands for money or possessions which can feel exploitative to me. If only actions can communicate care, and even then only actions which you have predetermined to be caring actions, then the only way to feel cared about is to control someone’s actions very carefully. It also explains to me why when I first began to work with parts, I needed to find things which were very sensory and physical to help myself calm down. Self-talk had no impact, because I have learned people can lie. I am even capable of lying to myself.

The other strand lying loose in my mind, ready to tangle, has to do with non-mentalizing. Because borderlines hypermentalize (and I think I do too), then trying to make sense of other’s and one’s one mental states can seem impossible or even destructive. I think I ended up in therapy which discouraged mentalization. I and the therapist lived in worlds where attempts to understand motives, especially the motives of others, felt destructive. The only way to stop the spiral of trying to grapple with real or imagined malignancy was to suppress one’s natural attempt to make sense of the world.

My therapy became action-oriented, rather than reflective. “How do you take care of yourself?” stopped me from attempting to make sense of my partner’s motives and encouraged me to stay in a concrete mode, where I could at least act in ways I understood.

The end result of this, however, was to increase my sense of loneliness. Without engaging in the imaginative process of trying to understand other people or find ways to communicate my own inner states to others, the loneliness was unbearable.

In one article I read, it warned clinicians of this: that people form systems, and clinicians can become part of systems along with their clients in which mentalization is no longer engaged in and curiosity about mental states is discouraged.


I read some things yesterday and the day before about borderline personality disorder and also about mentalizing which were very explanatory, both about what’s going on with me and what was in my mother’s mind when she interacted with me. Some of it explains C to me.

It’s still kicking around in my head.

The newer idea is that borderlines hypermentalize. They are hypervigilant about social interactions and ascribe motives and feelings to people beyond what’s really observable and most of the time these motives and feelings are very negative, so the borderline lives in a hostile world of their own making. They may even begin to ascribe motives and feelings to objects which do not have motives or feelings.

This is not meant in as critical way as it sounds. They aren’t doing this on purpose. That is just what their brains do. I think there are times when I do this, even when I do not verbalize to myself what I am responding to and do not know. I can tell you it’s not fun.

But you can see that if you start making up ulterior motives with a crying baby, it would not go well. You can also see if my mother did this, the image of the parent that would emerge in my mind would be of a very malignant caretaker, and if it happened enough, I would internalize an image of myself as being malignant, because that is what my mother saw when she saw me.

There is more to say, but it’s six am now. Time to get the kids up and make breakfast.


I had a birthday on Sunday. I went with The Girl and The Boy’s two siblings to the riverbank and they played in the water. The Boy himself would not come. When he did come home at 7:30 or so, he brought his younger brother with him.

The Boy likes to do this. If he is gone for any length of time, he will do it in such a way that will, he hopes, force me to accept more children in my house. He will come home late, after dark, so that it might seem impossible for me to send them home.

I think he is frightened to approach me, so he brings the other child for support. I don’t think he understands the sense of entitlement and disrespect it communicates to me. I don’t think he can grasp that I may have thoughts and feelings he didn’t intend me to have.

I reminded him that he needed to ask permission to bring someone home. He said sorry. He forgot. He then asked if he could bring his sister instead the following night. I said no.

He then went and tore up the shirt he had been wearing, one of 3 decent shirts he owns. When I asked him why it wasn’t hanging on the line after being washed, he feigned surprise.

I looked around for a bit, and finally told him that if he was going to throw away his clothes and then lie about it, he needed to go home. He began to cry and broke down with the truth.

He has since gone home.

There is more to say about this, but since it was my birthday, I wanted to talk to C. I finally sent her a text that it was my birthday and I missed her. I got a call right away. She was more talkative than I think she has ever been and in the course of our talk, she said a few things that struck me as being unexpected.

One of them was that The Boy was very concerning to her. She had some idea his parents would hurt me somehow. She told me to send him home. When I explained I thought this would actually be damaging to him, she said wait until she and the fourth child come, and we will decide.

She had slipped into a parent mode. It felt very odd. I am not sure how to explain the depth of that strangeness. It might be only somewhat endearing, but it’s much more than that.

The other thing she talked about was a new boyfriend. She said he cares about her, but less than I do. She said no one cares about her like I do. This felt odd too. It may be I have different categories of care in my own mind, and I expect her to have the same ones when she doesn’t. But it felt strange to be a yardstick–and yet I know young people do that. The parent becomes the yardstick for measuring other people. I am not sure why it felt strange to me. One piece of it, I know, is that I have spent three years trying to convince her that I do care, and have felt all along that whatever I do, she does not really receive that sense of care.


I had a terrible day and lost it completely in the evening. I have in my head one particular therapist’s repeated advice as I struggle with hurt feelings.

“How do you take care of yourself?”

To me, this means stop expecting care or help from anyone. Do it yourself. I did this, when I was in therapy with her. It used to drive me crazy that my then-partner never cleaned anything. Well, she liked to wait until it felt to me the health department ought to be called in, do a big clear-up, feel good about what a wonderful clear-up she had done, and then let things devolve for another month or three. It was not actually never.

So, how did I take care of myself? I began to do it all myself instead of fighting with her over it. I didn’t like having a dirty house, and my choices were really to clean it or not. You can’t control other people.

I still do this quite a lot. I have accepted that no one particularly cares about me or is obligated to care about me. If I cannot do something, I ask for help and if they agree I consider that to be a lovely thing, and otherwise I just do what needs to be done. I also do not share that much in the way of my own struggles and frustrations, because talking usually makes me feel worse rather than better.

Since I have been single now for many years, it’s been my mess in the house and not the mess of two people’s. I remember how much free time I began to have when I broke up with her. I had so much less work to do and no longer wasted time having arguments I couldn’t understand.

But it seems much easier not to have relationships if they exist solely to make it harder to clean the house.

At the time, it seemed there was something wrong with this construct for how to have relationships, that there be no expectation of self-responsibility or fairness or consideration for other people.

Looking back now, I think there really was something wrong with this. It’s not that you shouldn’t take responsibility for your own emotional well-being nor that you shouldn’t make compromises. (This was someone who had grown up having a maid–I hadn’t.)

The other thing about this, though, is that this was all a very long time ago, and as I struggled with too many feelings last night, this therapist from 15 years ago lingered in my mind. I think I was trying to regulate an impulse to reach out and try to be understood by someone.

At bedtime, I finally lost it with my kids and I gave them a long lecture on how I was (mentally) doing their work for them, because I continually had to tell them things they already knew (like don’t just sweep the middle of the room), that I am tired and I can’t do it all for them. I didn’t feel proud of this later. I didn’t feel proud of it even 30 seconds later. It was just so tempting to let the flow of words go, and I felt asleep both angry at them and ashamed of myself.

The thing is in the morning, still struggling, I didn’t wake them up. I didn’t tell them to study. I didn’t tell them to get dressed. I didn’t do anything, beyond making breakfast for them. They got up, studied, put their clothes on, and came cheerfully into the kitchen. So I suppose they understood something.

But what was in my mind all morning was this former therapist and how do I take care of myself, rather than ask for others to care for me, and I think it was some attempt on my part to regulate this desire to reach out and ask for some degree of care.

I wonder now why she has stayed on my mind for all these years…

Small abuses

I see my children interact and sometimes VP Ma’am and I start to have an idea of the low-level conflict in my home growing up–the part I don’t remember. I remember the truly traumatic parts, the life-or-death moments, but not the parts that wore away at my small soul.

I see criticism and judgment in moments of stress in order to gain a sense of power, I see competition for no reason other than control, I see smashing someone else’s happiness out of jealousy.

My birthday is on Sunday, and lately I feel particularly sad and also less reasonable than usual. I began to think it’s those small abuses that are likely making me sensitive now. I have trouble reconstructing my mother’s mindset, but I see how my children are often prone to disrupting the other child’s attention, and I think a day when your child has a birthday may be a day you both want and don’t want that child to be the center of attention, and like my children, my mother may have seen me as a rival.

A processing problem

I am still contemplating this spiral that seems to go on in my mind. Shame, worthlessness, need and also a kind of loss of reasonableness. It’s especially intense these days, and all I can really do is wonder about it. I don’ t know how to make it go away or even why it is happening.

This morning I had a thought about it which seemed helpful. I thought one attachment strategy is to take the perspective of your caretakers or your group. During abusive moments, my mother was so enraged, she wanted to destroy me.

If I took her perspective at these times, then I would be caught in a loop of contradiction between her malignancy and my need for support: I want to destroy me, please, I need help, someone is trying to destroy me. That loop is playing out in my head, but I was too young to be able to process or understand this when it began.