MBT seems to have value, then, in helping people known to have specific difficulties in gaining insight into the emotional lives of others.  This raises the question, then, of whether it’s possible to put a number on how well anyone is able to mentalize. If you’re number is too low, it would then make sense that your own mental health could benefit from applying some of the principles of MBT to your own understanding of other people. After all, if you erroneously conclude that someone is trying to take advantage of you, wouldn't it be beneficial if you refined your ability to tell whether you're coming to the wrong conclusion?

The test of mentalizing that the European developed involved having the participants complete a cartoon test (developed by Brüne et al., 2016) in which two or more characters interact in a complex emotional scenario involving such emotions as jealousy, envy, “schadenfreude” (taking pleasure in other people’s pain).  First, participants had to judge the correct order of events for each cartoon scenario.  Next, they had to pick out an appropriate cartoon from a set of choices that would represent the emotional state of the characters. In the example cited in the paper by Brüne and associates uses as the “prosocial” condition, one person comforts another. In the “antisocial,” a character is excluded. In the “avoidant” condition, a character leaves an emotional issue unresolved, and in the “disorganized,” the character shows behavior that doesn’t really make any sense.

For you to imagine this task, consider separating the squares in a comic strip and then having to put them back together in order, with no captioning to guide you. Then, imagine what final square you would construct (or choose) depending on the emotions or interpersonal relationships you’re being asked to represent. 

In reality, you’re constantly practicing this skill, even if you don't realize it. Consider what might happen when you’re at your health provider’s waiting room. You see a group of people coming in together and, out of sheer boredom, try to figure out what their relationship is and how they’re feeling. Are they siblings, friends, romantic partners, or roommates who don’t know each other that well? Which one, or ones, of them are seeking treatment? Is it a serious or relatively minor illness that brings them in? If your wait is long enough, and you feel brave enough, you might try to find out what’s really going on with them. Then you can see how close you came to guessing their actual emotional state and relationships among each other.

If you’re not that brave or aren’t into speculating on the relationships of strangers, consider what happens when you’re watching a movie or TV show in which the situations aren’t particularly clear. This certainly happens at the beginning of almost any piece of drama, especially mysteries. The scene is set and it’s up to you to form hypotheses about how these people feel about themselves, each other, and the situation. Eventually, you can test these hypotheses against the actual unfolding of the action.

Playing such emotional charade games can provide more than just idle amusement. As the Edel and colleagues study on people with BPD shows, it can help you refine interpersonal and intrapersonal skills that might help your mental health. Being able to sense, accurately,  the feelings of others can help you, in Lemonsky’s words, allow “destructive coping” to turn into the ability “to smile and laugh.”

 

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