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Thinking about Thinking

By Lyn French, Director, A Space

In her current blog, Lyn highlights how important it is to reflect on how we use our mind and how we can become more ‘mind-minded’in general. Examples given feature images from our Emotional Learning Cards.

We all take for granted that we have a mind but rarely do most of us stop and think what, exactly, the mind ‘is’ and how best to use it. We are increasingly aware of our physical self, including what we put into our bodies and how to look after them in general however we don’t usually pay this kind of attention to our minds. Psychotherapists remind us to become more conscious of our minds and to learn to engage more creatively with our thoughts and with the scripts or narratives about our lives that we create as well becoming more aware of  the roles that we cast ourselves and others into.

Psychoanalytic theory suggests that thinking first develops in response to absence. In other words, the child gradually develops the capacity to hold his mother in mind so that temporary losses of contact with her will not feel so destabilising. By the time the child starts in reception classes, he is able to imagine mother and usually carries a picture in mind of both parents which helps him to feel securely attached.  As we grow older, we develop different cognitive capacities. For example, young children often behave quite instinctively but over time they start to develop the capacity to mentalise. This term is used to describe the ability to recognise and make use of our mental processes. In everyday language, it means that we become increasingly able to see that we have intentions which direct our thinking and our actions and so do others. For example, over time, children begin to see that they want to learn not only to acquire information and gain skills but to please their teacher and to make their parents feel proud.

We are all driven by a wish to fulfil conscious and unconscious agendas, agendas which will have emotional resonances, just as those around us are similarly driven. Being able to observe ourselves, to understand our intentions and their roots in emotional needs or wishes and to be able to de-code how we relate to others as well as how they relate to us is key to mentalising. Implicit in this is the understanding that ‘reality’ is multi-faceted and that there is no one, defining truth as Cubist painters tried to capture. We need to understand our experiences and our interactions with others in context. An example of being able to think from a mentalising perspective is being able to say to oneself, ‘I’m feeling full of anger towards my friend right now but I know that doesn’t mean that I don’t value our relationship. I’ve had other feelings towards her in the past. I need to find a way to discuss my reaction so that it doesn’t damage our relationship irreparably.’

Being able to apply self-analysis like this depends on being able to think even when feeling strong feelings. We all have varying capacities to think in  the midst of feeling powerful emotions. Sometimes creating a space in mind to step back and reflect comes quite naturally. No one can do it all the time but the more we understand our ‘hot spots’ and ‘trigger points’, the more likely we’ll be able to recognise when they’ve been touched which increases our chances of being able to hold onto our emotions giving us time to reflect instead of getting caught up in a cycle of acting and reacting.

This is not so easy to achieve for the simple reason that more developed thinking can be painful as it puts us in touch with ambivalence, ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity. Falling back on ‘black and white thinking’ or ‘all or nothing thinking’ is tempting – it is hard to tolerate the kind of confusion that may need to be experienced if we try to think things through and it can be difficult to navigate strong feelings effectively enough to be able to open up conversation rather than close it down. Deeper thinking also involves looking at ourselves objectively and being able to see our role in situations even when it is highly uncomfortable to do so. Emotional intelligence doesn’t only involve deciphering our own feelings, thoughts and perceptions but also being able to begin to see our relationship patterns including the roles we take up with others and how we impact on, and are shaped by, relational dynamics.

Thinking isn’t something that simply takes place in silence in the private realm of our mind. Paul Gordon, a psychotherapist writing in the February issue of Therapy Today talks about how the philosopher Merleau-Ponty describes the relationship between language and thinking.  He says that ‘speech does not translate thought – it accomplishes it’. When we talk to someone else we are describing our thoughts and our experiences to ourselves in the process and we are engaged in thinking out loud, not simply delivering a piece of information that resides in our mind. Sometimes the only way we truly discover what we think or feel about something is when we articulate it to another. Language is a tool that we use to facilitate thinking. Authentic communication depends on feeling confident and trusting enough to expose our thinking not just to another person or a group of people but to ourselves.To take the therapeutic setting as an example, often the client arrives with a prepared story in mind that they’ve composed in order to make sense of their life experiences. However, as a working alliance is established, thinking, and the language used to articulate thought, are both harnessed to uncover and disclose potent moments from the past and present rather than being used to distort, bury, deny or diminish the emotional impact of our experiences especially those echoing backwards in time.

Juan Pablo Echeverri’s work entitled ‘miss fotojapan 1992 to present’ can be understood to capture some of the ideas already discussed around how we perceive ourselves both in the privacy of our thoughts and in the context of our relationships with others.

Juan Echeverri 1 grandeThe 15 photographic portraits comprising Echeverri’s piece are all pictures of the artist although this isn’t readily apparent at first glance.  It can be seen as a visual representation of the fact that we have many different sides to ourselves, some of which we’ll be aware of and some will be hidden from our view but visible to others. Our self-perception can change depending on the context we’re in and how we imagine others are seeing us. As well, our identity is not static or fixed in time. We continue to think about ourselves, re-define what we want from our lives and our relationships and re-construct how we present ourselves to the world. We’re all ‘a work in progress’. We can evolve our relational skills including our self-analysis, our dialogue with others, our capacity to think while in the grip of feelings and our ability to put ourselves ‘in the other’s shoes’  so that we become increasingly skilled at being fully conscious and in authentic engagement with the world around us.

Written by Paddy Chatterton