DBT Mindfulness: the three states of mind

The concept of mindfulness is core to learning all the other DBT skills. Throughout the series we will be referring back to this page. Using this concept, we will be discussing three states of mind: Rational Mind, Emotion Mind and Wise Mind.

Observe the image below of two overlapping circles. The one on the left represents Rational Mind. The circle on the right represents Emotion Mind and the overlapping portion in the center represents Wise Mind.


Rational mind

The best way to imagine this state of mind is to think of the most rational nerd you know. Many people think of Spock, the Star Trek Vulcan who has learned to suppress all emotion in favor of reason. We all have an inner “professor”, that part of our mind that tries to rationalize and explain everything. We can also enter Rational Mind when we become overwhelmed in Emotion Mind. We just want to “feel numb”. Rational Mind gives us this relief.

This is your rational, thinking, logical mind. It is that part of you that plans and evaluates things logically. It is your “cool” part.

  • Rational Mind can be very beneficial. Without it, people could not build homes, roads, or cities; they could not follow instructions; they could not solve logical problems, do science, or run meetings.
  • Rational Mind is easier when people feel well and much harder when they don’t.
  • When other people say, “If you could just think straight you would be all right,” they may as well be saying “If you could be in Rational Mind you would be able to think clearly.”
  • Think of times other people have said or implied that if you would just not distort, exaggerate, or misperceive things, you would have far fewer problems.
  • How many times have you said the same thing to yourself?
  • Isn’t there some truth to these positions?

Emotion mind

Think of this as instinct. We all have instinctive, impulsive reactions to circumstances, events, and people. These reactions are formed early in life as a result of our life experiences. We are particularly vulnerable to any experience that is interpreted as “invalidating”.

  • Think back to the first time you experienced a migraine.
  • How did others respond to you?
  • Were they supportive and helpful?
  • If not, what did happen?

Many of us have memories of invalidating experiences related to migraines. These experiences form our instinctive emotional and behavioral responses whenever a migraine appears. We don’t think; we react.

You are in Emotion Mind when your emotions are in control, when emotions influence and control your thinking and your behavior.

  • Emotion Mind can be very beneficial. Intense love fills history books as motivation for relationships. Intense love (or intense hate) has fueled wars. Intense devotion or desire motivates staying with very hard tasks, sacrificing self for others (e.g., mothers running through fires for their children).
  • A certain amount of Emotion Mind is desirable. Some individuals have more than most; they are the “dramatic” folks of the world and will always be so. People high in Emotion Mind are often passionate about people, causes, beliefs, etc.
  • Problems with Emotion Mind occur when the results are positive in the short term but negative in the long term, or when the experience itself is very painful, or leads to other painful states and events (e.g., anxiety and depression can be painful in themselves).
  • Emotion Mind is exacerbated by:
    1. Illness
    2. Sleep deprivation, tiredness
    3. Drugs and alcohol
    4. Hunger, bloating, overeating, poor nutrition
    5. Environmental stress (too many demands)
    6. Environmental threats
    7. Think of some other factors
  • Consider pros and cons of both types of mind. Think of your experiences of Reasonable Mind and Emotion Mind.

Wise mind

Wise mind is the integration of Emotion Mind and Reasonable Mind. You cannot overcome Emotion Mind with Reasonable Mind. Nor can you create emotions with reasonableness. You must go within and integrate the two.

This is the most difficult state of mind to accomplish. It is a blend of both Emotional and Rational Minds. How is it possible to be both rational and emotional at the same time? Aren’t they polar opposites? That’s the key to understanding and embracing Wise Mind. It is possible to be both rational (recognizing the facts) and emotional (validating any feelings experienced) at exactly the same time.

Let’s put this in the perspective of migraines.

  • “I’m getting a migraine again…time to take my meds.” (Reasonable Mind)
  • “Why does this always happen whenever …? It’s not fair!” (Emotion Mind)
  • “Just relax. Crying only makes it worse.” (Reasonable Mind)
  • “There’s no hope. I’m doomed to live a life of pain.“ (Emotion Mind)

But what if we tried it this way?

“Here it comes.
Take those meds, get a drink, turn off the lights, and get some rest.
This is the third one this week.
I’m feeling so discouraged.
It’s okay to feel this way.
It’s going to be a slow day for me.
I need to take care of myself today.” (Wise Mind)

Features of Wise Mind

  • It is that part of each person that can know and experience truth. It is where the person knows something to be true or valid. It is almost always quiet; it has a certain peace. It is where the person knows something in a centered way.
  • Wisdom, Wise Mind, or Wise Knowing depends upon integration of all ways of knowing something: knowing by observing, knowing by analyzing logically, knowing by what we experience in our bodies (kinetic and sensory experience), knowing by what we do, and knowing by intuition.
  • It is similar to intuition. (Or, perhaps, intuition is part of Wise Mind.) It has qualities of direct experience; immediate knowing; understanding the meaning, significance, and or truth of an event without having to analyze it intellectually and “feelings of deepening coherence”.

Experiencing Wise Mind

Wise Mind is sometimes experienced as a sensation in the center of the body (the belly), or in the center of the head, or between the eyes. Sometimes a person can find it by following the breath in and out. It is something you find within yourself. Wise Mind is like riding a bike; you can only learn it by experience.

Wise Mind may be the calm that follows the storm — an experience immediately following a crisis or enormous chaos. It is suddenly getting to the heart of a matter, seeing or knowing something directly and clearly. It is grasping the whole picture when before only parts were understood. It is “feeling” the right choice in a dilemma, when the feeling comes from deep within rather from a current emotional state.

Sometimes students will say that they don’t have a “wise mind.” Everyone has Wise Mind; some simply have never experienced it. Also, no one is in Wise Mind all the time. We all move between Rational, Emotion, and Wise minds. Some of us are just more comfortable with one rather than all three.

Think of it this way…

Wise Mind is like a deep well in the ground. The water at the bottom of the well, the entire underground ocean is Wise Mind. But on the way down there are often trap doors that impede progress. Sometimes the trap doors are so cleverly built that you actually believe that there is no water at the bottom of the well. The trap door may look like the bottom of the well. Perhaps it is locked and you need a key. Perhaps it is nailed shut and you need a hammer, or it is glued shut and you need a chisel. Think of examples of what might unlock Wise Mind. For example, sometimes a person may reach wisdom only when suddenly confronted by another person. Or someone else may say something insightful that unlocks an inner door.

Exercises to help you experience Wise Mind

  1. Wash your hands for at least 2 minutes. Focus only on your 5 senses: smell, hear, taste, see, and touch. Push away any thoughts of the past or future. Fill your mind only with the current sensations.
  2. Wash the dishes (or load the dishwasher). Focus only on your 5 senses: smell, hear, taste, see, and touch. Push away any thoughts of the past or future. Fill your mind only with the current sensations.
  3. Take a bath or shower. Focus only on your 5 senses: smell, hear, taste, see, and touch. Push away any thoughts of the past or future. Fill your mind only with the current sensations.
  4. Follow your breath (attend to your breath coming in and out) as you breathe naturally and deeply, and after some time, try to let your attention settle into your center, at the bottom of your inhalation. That centered point is Wise Mind.
  5. Share your experiences with someone else.

Distinguishing between Emotion Mind and Wise Mind

Emotion Mind and Wise Mind both have a quality of “feeling” something to be the case. The intensity of emotions can generate experiences of certainty that mimic the stable, cool certainty of wisdom.

To continue the “well” analogy from above…

“After a heavy rain, water can collect on a trap door within the well. You may then confuse the still water on the trap door with the deep ocean at the bottom of the well.”

There is no simple solution here. If intense emotion is obvious, suspect Emotion Mind. Give it time; if certainty remains, especially when you are feeling calm and secure, suspect Wise Mind.

Suggestions for practicing Wise Mind:

  1. Identify at least one time this week when you have experienced each of these states of mind.
  2. Practice at least one exercise each day for 1-5 minutes.
  3. Think of other ideas on how to tell the difference between each state of Mind.
  4. Describe a situation where you were in Reasonable Mind, or Emotion Mind and you reacted.
  5. How would this reaction be different if you were in Wise Mind?

What to expect in the next installment:

We will be taking a bit more time with this concept of Mindfulness by examining our Core Emotions and exploring what happens to Rational Mind and Emotion Mind when you are faced with a crisis. We will also discuss how to engage Wise Mind when the others threaten to take over.

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