A look at why taking the time to understand others better can really improve your own mental health.

Jason Brien.

Theory of mind (ToM) is the capacity to think about the how’s and why’s of other people’s minds. ToM is the capacity to think about the thoughts, beliefs and intentions of other people and how those thoughts, beliefs and intentions shape the other persons personality and behaviours. Theory of mind is typically researched in relation to people who are diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental disorder (such as autism spectrum disorders) as researchers believe that these people have a reduced capacity for theory of mind. Researchers speculate that the reduced capacity to understand the minds of others may lead to some of the common symptoms associated with neurodevelopmental disorders (social awkwardness, rigidness & inflexible thinking, dislike of change & surprises, etc).

Reduced theory of mind however is something that affects all of us to some degree especially when we are traumatised, stressed, depressed, anxious, etc. When we are in such states, we can enter survival mode and so it is in our best interest, at that particular point in time, to remain firmly within our own minds. It is in our best interest to be solely focused on assessing and protecting ourselves from the perceived threats around us rather than spending vital cognitive resources wandering around inside the minds of others. This is the reason why we can sometimes obliviously call our best friend a hundred times to talk about our problems without ever really thinking about the impact that our constant calls and talks are having on our friend and their life. Our inability at that time to enter our friends mind and understand that maybe our constant calls are distracting them while they are at work, in the shower, with family, etc, causes us to misunderstand and misinterpret our friends’ true intentions and so we may jump to unnecessary conclusions such as “It’s because they don’t like me that they don’t answer”. 

If you have read any of my previous articles/post related to stress, you will by now understand that we as humans create our own stress by imbuing arbitrary life events with ‘negative’ significance. Sometimes we do this necessarily and appropriately (as in the case of rape for example, we don’t want to imbue the act of rape with neutral or positive significance as doing so would impact our ability to feel the pain of being violated, deceived, etc) and other times we do it unnecessarily and inappropriately. Let us look at the example of calling our best friend a hundred times. When we misinterpret our best friends’ reasons for not answering our calls, because of our temporary reduction in ToM, we imbued the arbitrary event with ‘negative’ significance (“It’s because they don’t like me that they don’t answer”) which of course will make us feel worse about ourselves and our best friend. If our ToM was increased, we could expand into our best friend’s mind and conclude that maybe they were legitimately in the shower, at work, etc, and so we can then imbue the act of them not answering our repeated calls with either neutral or ‘positive’ significance (and so we don’t experience stress).

It is of course possible that our best friend was being somewhat deceptive and didn’t answer our calls because they truly don’t like us but again, exercising our theory of mind can help us to understand that our friend not liking us is their choice based upon their beliefs, intentions, motivations, etc, and not necessarily a reflection of us and/or our personality. After all, we don’t always like every single person that we meet and we don’t always find it easy to tell people that we no longer like them and so other people struggle with the same problems. I strongly agree with the old saying “A lack of understanding breeds resentment” and I strongly believe that people’s inability to expand into the minds of others in order to contemplate a perspective other than their own truly exacerbates their resentment, anger, etc.

It is also when we are traumatised, stressed, depressed, anxious, etc, that we become more susceptible to manipulation, deceit, etc, because, again, our ToM is reduced and we are not adequately exploring or checking the minds of those with whom we are interacting with (and so we run the risk of ‘missing’ their true intentions). This is not to say that paranoia is the answer. We certainly don’t want to become overly preoccupied with the minds of others to the extent that we don’t spend any time within our own. We just want to be ever mindful that other people have their own unique beliefs, intentions and motivations and those beliefs, intentions and motivations may not align with our own or those of society. So how can we increase our theory of mind and so improve our mental health?

Cognitive restructuring/reframing is one of the best ways to increase cognitive flexibility. Cognitive restructuring/reframing involves looking at events and situations from a variety of angles including from the perspectives of others. When we limit our conclusions to just one possibility only (“It’s because they don’t like me that they don’t answer”) we are severely limiting our chances of being ‘right’. Just like our best friend could have been in the shower, at work or with family they also could have been sleeping, gardening, watching a movie or maybe their phone was accidently on silent or even broken. The point is, until you know for sure, or can make a reasonable and fairly accurate assumption, there is no point jumping to the worse possible conclusion and sticking firmly and resolutely with that conclusion. Cognitive restructuring/reframing is NOT the same as distorting reality. You are not creating fanciful predictions/conclusions out of thin air and making those predictions/conclusions your truth you are simply acknowledging that in most situations/events multiple possibilities exist regardless of whether those possibilities later become fact/truth.

Mentalization-based therapy can also help people improve their theory of mind. Mentalization-based therapy is used in the treatment of a wide variety of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety but it has also been extremely effective in the treatment and management of borderline personality disorder. If you are familiar with borderline personality disorder you may well know that some of its core features involve instability within personal relationships (abandonment anxiety, extreme sensitivity to criticism/rejection, etc). Mentalization-based therapy can help people diagnosed with BPD better understand and interpret the beliefs, intentions and motivations of others. For example, rather than the person with BPD interpreting their friend not wanting to go to lunch because they are sick as evidence that their friend no longer wants to be friends with them and is about to reject or abandon them, mentalization based therapy helps the BPD patient explore what the other persons true intentions, beliefs, motivations, etc, really are.