I introduced the technical term “excrementalizing” in our book, Mentalizing in Clinical Practice. We start with the slightly less technical term “mentalizing,” which refers to the natural human ability to interpret behavior in relation to mental states: desires, emotions, beliefs and the like. If you were sitting and talking with a friend, and your friend suddenly leapt out of the chair and ran out of the room, you couldn’t help mentalizing: you’d try to figure out why your friend behaved in such an unexpected way. Panic attack? Forgot something vital and urgent? Had to go to the bathroom?
In short, mentalizing involves paying attention to thoughts and feelings in yourself and others. Mentalizing includes empathy, namely, awareness of others’ mental states. But mentalizing also includes awareness of your own mental states, in effect, empathy for yourself. We use some handy shorthand phrases for mentalizing: holding mind in mind, or being mindful of mind.
Mentalizing and attachment
We learn to mentalize in the first years of life, and we learn best in the context of secure attachment relationships, through which we can express feelings and desires with confidence that they will be well received and understood by those who care for us. Intuitively, infants will seek comfort from caregivers whom they sense have their mind (feelings) in mind.
Throughout life, mentalizing fosters secure attachments, that is, emotionally close relationships that provide a feeling of safety and security. Plainly, mentalizing makes for good communication in relationships. We advocate a mindful, “mentalizing stance,” namely, an inquisitive, curious, and open-minded interest in the experience of others and oneself. Mentalizing in this mindful way makes for a good relationship with oneself as well as with others.
When mentalizing breaks down
Mentalizing can go awry in three basic ways:
- We can fail to do it, for example, ignoring the impact of our actions on others or acting without self-awareness in the midst of an emotionally aroused state—drinking without thinking;
- We can misuse mentalizing to exploit, torment or mislead others; and
- Finally, we have excrementalizing, our technical term for distorted mentalizing. Here’s a definition: mentalizing but doing a crappy job of it.
Mentalizing at the movies
Now to the back story. My wife and I took our daughter, Yvonne, to see the movie Sideways. Yvonne is a speech and language pathologist who works with children with autism, and she has been privy to mentalizing for many years. We were captivated by a scene in Sideways in which a main character, Miles (Paul Giamatti) was lamenting his fate: his agent could not find a publisher for his book and gave up on him.
Sitting under a bridge and looking out toward the water with his cohort, he proclaimed, “Half my life is over and I have nothing to show for it—Nothing!” Then he talked about his insignificance: “I’m a thumbprint on the window of a skyscraper.” Here’s the line that grabbed us:
“I’m a smudge of excrement on a tissue surging out to sea with a million tons of raw sewage!”
Reflecting on this line on our drive home, Yvonne exclaimed: “He was excrementalizing!”
Such self-deprecating depressive rumination is a common example of excrementalizing. Paranoid interpretation of others’ behavior is another. But excrementalizing isn’t a sign of disturbance; we all are inclined to misinterpret or misconstrue our own and others’ behavior sometimes, if not much of the time. We need to check out our perceptions with others and talk through our thoughts and feelings to mentalize with some reasonable degree of accuracy. Excrementalizing is a handy concept that can promote self-awareness: being alert to the possibility that you are excrementalizing is, in fact, good mentalizing. Ironic, isn’t it?