Assumptions, Certainty and Fear: How non-Mentalizing can contribute to social injustices

We all make assumptions about race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity and sexual orientation…which can harden into certainties…then fear.

How can Mentalization prevent or undo that process?
On July 15th, a webinar entitled “Assumptions, Certainty and Fear: How non-Mentalizing can contribute to social injustices” was presented jointly by Shelly Simpson, LICSW, Lead Clinician at Ellenhorn and Matt Estey, LCSW, Program Director of Menninger 360.
Mentalizing is the mental act of trying to understand your mind or the minds of others by thinking about and interpreting behavior with curiosity. To mentalize, we hold in mind the needs, desires, feelings, beliefs, goals, purposes of someone else and the reasons why they (or we) might be acting or responding a certain way.

When we feel fearful, anxious, certain or act based on assumptions, our ability to mentalize is compromised. We move into a non-mentalizing mode where there’s little room for perspective and curiosity. This non-mentalizing stance makes way for historical and current social injustices.
Today, we see non-Mentalization happening in abundance — the murder of George Floyd clarifying the horrors that occur when we are blind to the experience and humanity of others, and how oppression runs its course through dehumanization. Making assumptions first, without considering another’s experience, is a common event in all our lives, but it can become monstrous when combined with power and force. In many ways, the slogan and movement of Black Lives Matter is a call to hold in mind the particular struggle and often danger of being black. 

A non-Mentalizing stance is not only happening in the world at large — it’s happening in our offices. As mental health providers, we have blind spots and enter this work with our own assumptions and certainties. To address this in the workplace we must encourage curiosity and the practice of circling back to understand our missteps. We need to accept and not deny the reality of others when they express how our blind spots have impacted them. The rewards can be transformative: We enter into conversations in which we learn, change, and become better at understanding the minds and experiences of others.
Ellenhorn uses Mentalization in clinical work and on treatment teams. We offer Adaptive Mentalization-Based Integrative Treatment (AMBIT) to help clients who experience epistemic mistrust, disorders of self, or attachment-related issues. Ellenhorn also offers Mentalization-based family and individual therapy. In addition, Ellenhorn clinicians and leadership encourage using Mentalization in team meetings, supervision, and interactions among co-workers. In these situations, Mentalization brings to awareness and helps us correct missteps and microaggressions with a curious and open mind.

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