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Mentalization as a Safeguard Against Burnout




A couple of decades back, I had a little run in with a condition known as burnout. I was working for a Dutch IT company that was managed by a young CEO who was losing the battle to maintain a healthy work environment in the face of too many large projects and insufficient human resources. This had two major consequences: first, work on a project always felt like drinking from a firehose; and second, we were regularly met with hostility from dissatisfied clients.


The atmosphere in the office was a mixture of agitation and franticness, punctuated by occasional spontaneous laughter, not the healthy kind, but more akin to “paradoxical” laughter, an exaggerated expression of humor which is unwarranted by external events. I think we were all being driven a little “crazy.”

 

I can’t remember what exactly happened, but at some point, I went home feeling so frustrated that I decided to call in sick the next day. A couple of days later, a colleague contacted me and advised to stay home longer, as the office was starting to feel like a war zone. After a couple of days, my feelings of frustration started to subside, and I was sleeping better.


Still, I noticed that something strange was happening with my body. I started to have all kinds of aches and pains. Doing even simple chores became exhausting. For instance, after reorganizing some books on my bookshelf, I had to lie down and sleep for a couple of hours.


Slowly, it dawned on me that my symptoms might be due to a burnout.

 

After a couple of weeks of convalescing, I decided to leave the company. Luckily, I had built up enough resources to take a one-year sabbatical and finish a thesis that I was writing for my degree in business administration. Yes, besides fighting fires at the workplace, I had been studying for another degree in my “free” time. This educational undertaking was very important to me, as it gave me a sense of accomplishment and control that my work environment didn’t supply.

 

After leaving the company, I often wondered how I could have missed the signs of burnout. The fact that I had been able to study for a degree in business administration alongside my job responsibilities indicated that I didn’t lack energy. Actually, I was very active. In my recollection, I felt totally fine, except for the feelings of frustration and agitation in my work environment. Retrospectively, I had probably gotten so accustomed to the physical strain I was under that I didn’t recognize it as being a warning sign of burnout. 


I had become “blind” to my interoceptive sensations, the signals coming from within my body, that would have warned me that something was amiss.


Thankfully, this was the only time I experienced a burnout. It was, however, an important lesson that helped me to make better decisions for my future career path.

 

Presently, as an organizational psychologist specializing in mentalization, I am learning that mentalization theory is shifting toward employing mentalization as a way to avoid burnout. Mentalization is the act of examining mental states (desires, beliefs, knowledge, etc.) to reflect on the mental states of yourself and others. Mentalizing helps you to predict future behavior. It also supports you to make meaningful inferences about past behavior on the basis of what was going on in your own mind and in the minds of others.

 

Recent studies propose that self-mentalization turns out to be critical in the decision-making process to choose the optimal self-regulation strategies in the face of adverse stimuli. Schwarzer et al. (2021), mention that


adaptive as well as maladaptive emotion regulation, independent of age, gender, and native language, could be predicted only by self-focused mentalizing.

These researchers found that self-mentalizing leads to higher levels of adaptive strategies and a decrease in the use of maladaptive emotion regulation strategies. They link the ability to employ self-focused mentalizing for the regulation of emotional states to early childhood attachment relationships. This is not surprising when one looks at the ability to mentalize in relation to attachment theory and affect regulation, as described in my book Mastering Mentalization (2022):

 

Attachment theory, first developed by John Bowlby and further extended by Mary Ainsworth (Bretherton, 1992), provides a particularly useful model for explaining differences in mentalization in general, but especially in regard to affective mentalizing and affect regulation.

Attachment theory addresses a specific aspect of the way human beings respond to others during social interactions. These social responses often follow a consistent cognitive, affective and behavioral pattern based on an internal working model.

An “internal working model” is a cognitive framework that is influenced by the early childhood experiences we have with our primary caregivers, and is used to interpret and guide our relationships later in life (e.g., Bretherton, 1997; Bretherton & Munholland, 1999).

 

Looking back at my childhood, the consistent care and support from my parents enabled me to develop a secure attachment style. This promoted well-balanced mentalization abilities and healthy affect regulation strategies.


There was, however, one aspect within our family dynamics that might have had something to do with working myself into a burnout without realizing it …

 

When people ask me to describe the family I grew up in, I liken it to an Italian family. Italians love verbal “fights” that can come across as aggressive to anyone who is unfamiliar with this way of expressing yourself. It was not only my immediate family who interacted this way. The description applies to the entire extended family on my mother’s side. When these family members got together at birthday parties or holidays there was never a dull moment. They perceived these verbal skirmishes as a form of innocent pretend play with a high value of entertainment. The people who married into our extended family didn’t always see it that way.

 

When I project these early childhood experiences onto my experience as an IT consultant, I start to understand why I didn’t see my burnout coming. Verbal expressions of anger and frustration were not sufficiently addressed during my childhood; on the contrary they were normalized. Back in my old work environment, expression of anger and frustration were similarly normalized.


Because of the normalization of these feelings, I did not sense the need to engage in affective self-mentalization, at least not until I had left the organization and was able to see things from a distance. The importance of affective self-mentalization is described in Mastering Mentalization as follows:


Mentalizing about our own affective mental states entails the ability to recognize our own emotions, moods and feelings, coupled with the ability to associate those affects with their root causes. Improving our affective self-knowledge and understanding provides us with a greater sense of self-determination and a positive attitude toward affective experiences, leading to the enhancement of our affective mentalizing motivation and skill.

People differ widely in how they reflect on their own feelings. To illustrate, people generally use two distinct kinds of information to diagnose their own affective states: self-produced signals and situational cues. When using self-produced signals, people rely on their own affect indicators, which are influenced by their own perceptions and emotional expressions. In contrast, when using situational cues, people rely on contextual factors to assess what they “must" be feeling, as judged by what they think other people in general would feel in a similar situation.

People who associate emotions with their own affective “sensations,” as opposed to situational cues, will be more likely to reflect on their own affective disposition, putting them in a better position to discover healthy ways of regulating their affective states.

 

In my old work environment, I diagnosed my affective states by using situational cues. I knew what my colleagues were feeling and concluded that is how I should be feeling too. It had not occurred to me that I could take a look at my own interoceptive signals and reflect on my own affective disposition to find healthy ways of regulating my affective state. As previously mentioned, I had become insensitive to my interoceptive sensations.


My interoceptive awareness never came “online” to pay attention to the visceral and other bodily signals that would have warned me in time to avoid the impending burnout.


Interoceptive information is important to answer the question “How do I feel?” It constitutes an important component of self-representation and emotional experience, as it provides the basis for how we feel and express our emotions in order to achieve “homeostasis,” an optimal internal balance.

 

Interoceptive sensations, including the anticipation of those sensations, prompt us to action. If I had been in touch with my interoceptive sensations, affective self-mentalizing would have been triggered. This is where basic mentalizing comes into play. The following descriptions from Mastering Mentalization are instructive:

 

Basic mentalizing includes the sensing of nonsocial exteroceptive and interoceptive stimuli – such as noise or fatigue - that do not transmit social information.

From an intrapersonal perspective, research shows that the right level of sensorial acuity and awareness enables us to pay the right level of attention and devote the right attentional focus to the nonsocial data provided by our own senses and experiences.

This helps us to recognize those sensations that have the capacity to influence our own mental states and behavior, and understand how these sensations impact our perceptions of others. These are critical aspects of mentalization.

Moreover, becoming aware of these dynamics is the first step in honing our ability to control and regulate many of these intero- and exteroceptive sensations.

 

While it is true that detecting self-produced signals is important to trigger self-mentalizing, associating these interoceptive sensations correctly with their true causes is equally critical. Some of the frustration and anger that I experienced in my old workplace could have been induced by the stress that my coworkers were experiencing. As another excerpt from Mastering Mentalization explains,

 

basic mentalizing encompasses the most elementary aspects of mentalization. It concerns our ability to detect social indicators as a result of changes we sense within ourselves due to our primitive tendency to share in affect and to synchronize our behavior with people around us through mimicry, affective contagion and behavioral contagion.

When we suffer from a “diffused self-other distinction,” we assume that the affect we feel or the way we behave has originated within ourselves. We do not realize how much we are influenced by the affect and behavior of people around us.

 

Due to the normalization of the feelings and expressions of frustration and anger, I was definitely “infected” by the affect and behavior of my colleagues, and vice versa.


My self-other distinction was diffused. 


I couldn’t readily distinguish whether these feelings and expressions were caused by my own experiences, or whether they originated in other people in my work environment. In other words, I was not only impacted by my own struggles as an IT consultant, I was equally impacted by the struggles of colleagues and clients.

 

There is much more to basic and affective mentalizing, but the excerpts cited above help to illustrate the role of basic and affective mentalizing in this particular situation. Through basic mentalizing we are able to detect signals that alert us to pay attention. When these signals pertain to affective sensations, we move to affective mentalizing. Therefore, in order for affective mentalizing to be fully informed, we need to employ basic mentalizing.

 

Nowadays, I can honestly say that I am acutely aware of my interceptive sensations. I understand when it is time to step back, examine where these sensations come from, and choose the most suitable emotion regulation strategy to address them.


Nevertheless, I wished I had known about mentalization back then…….

 

Can you remember a time in your life when you were not aware of your own interoceptive sensations? What were the consequences? What would you do differently if you found yourself in the same situation?

 

_________

References:


Schwarzer, N. H. Nolte, T., Fonagy, P. & Gingelmaier, S (2021). Mentalizing and Emotion Regulation: Evidence From a Nonclinical Sample. International Forum of Psychoanalysis, 30(1), 34–45. doi: 10.1080/0803706X.2021.1873418

 

van der Putten, A. A. J. T. (2022). Mastering Mentalization. ToM PRESS.

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