In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, the wise mind skill is taught to help people who are conditioned to invalidating their experience, to instead relearn to find and listen to their inner wisdom, or intuition. Wise Mind is about using both emotion and intellect to inform decisions in the service of better judgment and balanced decision making.
States of Mind
Usually people with emotion regulation problems flip-flop between emotional reasoning and overly rational thinking. These polar opposite thinking strategies are described in DBT as emotional mind and reasonable mind, respectively. These states of mind are extremes, and as extremes they are generally only effective in extreme situations. Over-applying them to most situations leads to a lot of poor decision making and a lot of emotional suffering.
Learning to identify what is emotional reasoning, rational reasoning, and intuition can help people realize where their urges, impulses, and problems with decision making and judgment come from. With an understanding of what state of mind is informing your thoughts, you can make better decisions about what state of mind you should be relying on in a particular situation.
Emotional Mind is the part of our mind that is dominated by emotions. We have an emotion, and that emotion tells us to act. We’re afraid, so we hide. We’re happy, and we sing. We’re angry, we hit something. Emotional mind is a state of mind we all have, and as with all of the states of mind, there is a time and a place for using it.
For people who have intense, and easily triggered emotions, emotional mind is a very familiar territory. And for anyone with a nervous system, the bigger the emotions get, the more prone we are to emotional mind decisions. This is what’s known as impulsive behavior. A big emotion arises, and along with it comes an urge to act. If the emotion is big enough we act without thinking. It is not hard to imagine all the ways relying on emotional mind can cause very real problems. It is largely because of emotional mind that people with emotion dysregulation feel their lives are unlivable. It is difficult to sustain a relationship, hold down a job, or otherwise function if you are frequently relying on impulse rather than reason.
The disarray that ensues as a result of camping out in emotional mind can be a trigger to take a hard left turn into reasonable mind. If having emotions consistently results in big mistakes and unrelenting chaos due to impulsiveness, people often try to shut that part of their minds off, and function like robots. This temporarily leads to a reduction in impulsive behavior, but causes its own problems. Completely expunging or disregarding emotion when making decisions leads to us ignoring our preferences and our limits. We may be able to come up with a plan that looks good on paper, but would be miserable to execute. It’s kind of like what doctor’s do when people are overweight. They offer a simple solution: just reduce your caloric intake by X %, engage in aerobic exercise for 30 minutes three times a week, and cut out carbohydrates. It’s a simple solution. On paper. But going from no exercise to three times a week is difficult, and often unpleasant. This kind of a weight reduction plan requires a great deal of planning and skill building for anyone to keep it up for longer than a few days. And that’s how reasonable mind makes decisions. Reasonable mind naively disregards what the decision would feel like to execute, not paying attention to any emotional pain it would cause, as though this were not a factor worth considering. In a way it is a kind of self-invalidation – invalidating one’s preference and experience as though these are unimportant.
Stick to your reasonable mind long enough, and it will feel so unbearable that emotional mind will drown everything else out. At that point, you flop back to emotional mind, engage in impulsive behavior that leaves a mess in its aftermath. Once again after the dust has settled, you reaffirm that you will no longer consider emotions, and the bounce to reasonable mind is not far away.
Wise mind is often described as the meeting of emotional mind and reasonable mind. It is the synthesis of considering both emotions and rationality. The more we reflect on what wise mind has to say, the more likely we are to do what works, and be willing to tolerate any difficulties that arise along the way. Consequently, integrating wise mind into our decision making can reduce painful emotional states, thus lessening emotion dysregulation overall.
This is a description of what wise mind is, but it is not by any means a description of how to find it. It is not as analytical as the equation emotions + reasoning would have us believe. In fact, it may be completely devoid of that kind of analytical process altogether. When people describe wise mind, they describe a place of knowing that has always been there. It is an experiential place of wisdom – place that knows what’s best for us.
If you’ve ever gotten into an argument about something that is very insignificant, there was probably a part of you that knew arguing about it was ineffective, and that you should probably just let it go. That’s wise mind. As this example illustrates, there is a part of you bent on winning the argument (probably emotional mind), and a part of you that deems the argument unproductive (wise mind). You may not like what wise mind has to say sometimes, as may be the case in the example above, but you are still aware of what wise mind is telling you. It’s always there, sometimes it just takes some work to find it and listen to what it’s saying.
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