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Getting Unstuck: Embeddedness, Mentalizing and Mindfulness

Wallin, David J., Attachment in Psychotherapy, New York, NY 10001, The Guilford Press, 2007.

Have you ever felt stuck before, struggling to find your way out of a rut?

No matter what you did, it was hard to find relief from painful or unhelpful thought patterns and emotional states.

At first you found distractions and ways to suppress the pain. Maybe you tried every self-care tip you could find. Maybe you decided it was okay to pretend until it got better. Time passes, and nothing changes. You are still faced with the same thoughts and emotions, fears and hurts, only they have grown stronger and louder. They demand you to notice them, but you don't want to look.

Hopeless, you wonder...

Why? What am I doing to deserve this? Why can't I get it together? Everyone else looks happy... What is wrong with me?

You don't understand yourself.

Shouldn't I be happy?, you ask.

What is happiness, anyway?

Unable to move out of your deeply ingrained beliefs about yourself and your life, you are stagnant, completely trapped by the prison of your conditioned perception and therefore fixed in past ideas or feelings.

In Attachment in Psychotherapy, this state is called "embeddedness".

"...Without being aware of it, many are too embedded in problematic experience--too identified with what they believe and feel--to be able to envision alternative views of that experience. (p.134)

When embedded in experience, it's as if we are the experience as long as the experience lasts. Whatever we sense, feel and believe at any given moment, we simply take at face value. In many circumstances, of course, such a stance may be just what is called for -- say, when we're immersed in the pleasures of music, or skiing or making love. In others, anything but such a stance puts us at a critical disadvantage: Second-guessing our sense of danger can be hazardous when, for example, we find ourselves in the path of an onrushing truck. If, however, a stance of embeddedness is our only option, our experience of ourselves and others is likely to be very problematic.

Within such an unreflective frame of mind, somatic sensations, feelings, and mental representations that might provide information about reality are felt instead to be reality. Here -- and this is the crucial point--there is only a single perspective on experience, a single view, as if there were no interpretations and only perceptions, no beliefs that are not also facts.

Unavoidably, this complicates the task of regulating emotions and making good use of them. For if every feeling is a pipeline to the truth, we have neither the rationale nor the capacity to put the brakes on what we feel--and, as a rule, unmodulated feelings serve poorly as appraisals of reality and guides to action." (p.135)

Luckily, there are ways we can emerge from states of embeddedness and psychic equivalence (where our subjective experiences of the internal world and external reality are simply equated; mind and outer world are conflated - p.136, 140). This process assists one in reclaiming their sense of being an "initiating and interpreting subject instead of the object of experience." (p.136)

The anti-dotes to embeddedness are mentalizing and mindfulness.

To recap:

"When embeddedness is our default option, we are on automatic pilot, and as such, all too constrained by outdated working models and habitually structured patterns of thinking, feeling and doing." (p.136)

Getting unstuck begins with mentalizing which is defined as a "stance that creates the potential for affective, cognitive, and behavioural flexibility, in large part because it allows us to envision multiple perspectives on any given experience, enhancing the likelihood that pre-existing models can be updated and habitual patterns "deautomatized." Mentalization makes possible both our conscious efforts to make meaningful sense of our experience and our non conscious responsiveness to experience on the basis of feelings, desires, and beliefs that underpin it. The mentalizing stance enhances our ability to identify and modulate our affects, so that they do indeed serve their primary function--namely, to help us evaluate our experience of the world and, on the basis of such evaluation, to guide our actions in an adaptive fashion." (p.136)

"A mentalizing or reflective stance emphasizes the capacity for meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) which is grounded in the recognition of an appearance/reality distinction (things may be other than they seem), representational diversity (different people may have different perspectives on the same reality), and representational change (one's views of reality may well shift at different times and in different contexts)." (p.137)

Now what is mindfulness?

"To be mindful is to be right here, right now- capable of being fully present in the moment, receptive to whatever experience should arise, yet caught up in no particular aspect of experience. To be mindful is also to be aware of experience without judging or evaluating it. This state of open, alert presence and non-judgemental awareness is ordinarily cultivated through meditation." (p.137)

Combining a mentalizing or reflective stance with mindfulness as a daily practice is what will begin to loosen the grip of self-defeating states of mind and emotion.

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