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Dialectical behavior therapy: states of mind

In dialectical behavior therapy, mindfulness is of absolute importance. It’s a core skill that needs to be learned before all other DBT skills. 

When practicing DBT, there are three states of mind: rational mind, emotion mind and wise mind. For the purposes of creating a visual, picture rational mind as a circle to the left, with emotion mind as a circle to the right. When those two minds merge, it creates the wise mind.

 Learn more about mindfulness  here.

What is rational mind?

The rational mind is one that suppresses all emotion. It just thinks. It tries to be rational, logical, and lucid about everything. Do you know anyone in your own life who’s like this? Someone who seems to be devoid of most emotion and just proceeds based on intelligent thought. This person plans, evaluates, thinks things through, and moves forward without a lot of feeling.

Whether or not you realize it, you have this person in you too. Some experts call this our “inner professor,” the part of us who rationalizes situations and circumstances. It’s the part of us that is able to remain cool, calm and collected. No matter how emotional you think you may be, and that there’s no chance at all you have any kind of rational side to you, it’s not true – the rational mind exists for all of us. We just have to know when to use it.

We use our rational mind when working on projects and following instructions. Think about it this way: if you were responsible for building a bridge, or getting out of a mess, or organizing a fundraiser, you utilize your rational mind. We use our rational mind best when we’re not emotional or when we don’t feel as if we’re in turmoil, but that said, when we are in distress, it’s a good time to pull out our rational mind.

Case study: Renee

Renee has been with her company for two and a half years. Because the business started off so small, with only five employees, she was called upon to complete many important tasks and was used a sounding board by the owner and his business partner. As the company grew and expanded, new employees began joining the business, including some department heads. The larger the company grew, the less important she began to feel.

Her colleagues tried to advise her that she was no less important, but that the company was starting to take on a corporate form. They told her she was a great benefit to the company, but all she could focus on was that she was no longer invited to meetings with the boss. Someone else was empowered with hiring and firing employees. Someone else was tasked with overseeing sales. Someone else was given a key to the building.

Renee’s job performance began plummeting because all she could think about was how small and insignificant she felt. Her closest confidante said to her, “Renee, this isn’t about you. It’s business. if you could just get your head on straight, you could think clearly.” 

Read tips to help with work place related anxiety  here

Using her rational mind, Renee would be able to identify that she was distorting or exaggerating circumstances.

What is emotion mind?

Emotion mind can also be considered as instinct. Think of like this: don’t we all sometimes have impulsive reactions to things that have occurred? To people we’ve met? To events that have come up?

These kinds of responses, or reactions, are said to be formed early in our lives. They’re a result of the experiences we’ve had throughout our childhood and onward.

When we’re in emotion mind, we’re typically vulnerable to things that feel as though we’re being invalidated. We end up not thinking – we end up reacting.

When our emotions are in control, our thoughts and our behaviors end up getting controlled too. It’s not always bad – after all, musicals and movies and books are written due to that intense and passionate memory of great emotion. Those powerful feelings are drivers for success, for accomplishing things our rational mind would never ever consider possible.

Some people have more emotion mind than others; they’re considered dramatic or sensitive. These people are typically those who are driven to fight for causes, to write impassioned pieces of poetry, to love “harder” than others.

Sometimes, the emotion mind gets overwhelming. It can hurt. It can lead us to pain, angst and fear. When we’re sick, sleep deprived, overworked or even hungry, it can drive us further into emotion mind. When we’re addicted to drugs or other substances, emotion mind can be overly present then as well.

Case study: Claire

Claire’s father is a police officer. When she was a little girl, she remembers her mother crying many evenings as her father left for work. Her mother worried for her father, causing Claire to worry too. They began to imagine the worst: that her father would get shot when trying to stop a break and enter, that he’d be assaulted by a drug addict, that he’d end up in an accident when chasing a criminal at high speed.

Claire’s father worked long hours, and he was gone often. Even though he doted on Claire, what she experienced as a child was that the most important man in her life may be taken away from her at any time.

As an adult, Claire clung to the men with whom she was in relationships. She found herself begging them to always let her know where they were. She needed to hear they loved her. She felt as though her heart would break every time they left.

The way Claire learned to love, and be loved, was with fear. The men in her life, because she was so insecure, couldn’t handle her neediness, and eventually left. This validated Claire’s belief that men leave.

Wise mind

When we combine rational mind and emotion mind, we get wise mind. It’s impossible to pit one of these minds against the other – rational mind will never “win” over emotion mind, or vice versa. What we have to do is blend the two together.

If you think this is tough to do, it can be. It’s a challenge to get here. Your emotion mind is likely thinking, “It hurts! How can I be rational when it hurts?” while your rational mind is probably thinking, “This makes no sense. Emotion mind and rational mind are total opposites. How on earth can we expect them to blend?”

But here’s the thing. We can certainly be rational (which is when we look at the facts and logically get through our circumstances) and emotional (which is when we validate our feelings) at the same time.

Case study: Marta

Marta has suffered from IBS all her life. When she was a little girl, her parents rushed to her assistance to help her feel better when she was doubled over in pain. In school, her peers started off supportive, but as her IBS grew worse, her friends started either making fun of her, or accusing her of using her illness as an excuse to get out of activities. Regardless of anyone’s reactions, Marta experienced some very painful physical symptoms. However, when her pain was dismissed, it made her feel even worse.

As an adult, Marta’s reasonable mind tells her, “Okay, I’m in pain. I’m going to drink warm water and make sure I’m near a bathroom. The pain will pass. It always does.”

But her emotional mind screams, “Why is this happening to me? It’s so embarrassing. It’s so inconvenient. There’s no cure for this. No matter what I do, it just keeps happening!”

In DBT, Marta realizes she can think this way. “Oh, no. There goes my stomach again. I’m going to drink my water and take my pain medication. I’m so upset, but I know it’s okay to feel like this. I’m in pain. When I feel better physically, I won’t be so discouraged.”

Wise mind, continued.

When we experience wise mind, we feel at peace. We feel centered. We feel like we can observe, and we know what to do next. We accept that we’re feeling all kinds of emotions, but can also pay attention to logic and all the rational thoughts that are present for us to examine.

We can become very aware of wise mind because it feels peaceful. It’s not an ache in the belly; it’s that calm and grounded feeling. It’s knowing we’ve reached the heart of what we’re exploring, and we can see the answers clearly. It’s making a decision and knowing in our gut it’s right, that we didn’t respond to a circumstance out of a knee-jerk reaction, but rather after exploration, examination, and clear thought.

Some people think wise mind is like becoming a Jedi – that it’s a fairy tale for them, that it’s impossible to reach. It may just be because they’ve never been conscious about getting there.

Do wise mind and emotion mind sometimes feel the same?

They can. It’s because both have a quality of feeling. But the difference is that emotion mind feels very heated, intense and dramatic, while wise mind feels stable, secure and safe. 

Find reasons to seek DBT therapy  here.

For more information on dialectical behavior therapy, visit us at  www.hopetherapyandwellness.com

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