Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) has a lot of useful concepts, but one of my favourites is wise mind. Wise mind is the area of overlap between our emotional mind and our reasonable/rational/logical mind. Emotional mind deals in feelings, while reasonable mind deals in facts and evidence. Neither emotion mind nor reasonable mind is wrong or invalid, but we tend to function best when both sides are engaged. Our emotions and our reasoning both have insights to offer us, and drawing on the insights of both serves us better than only using one source.
To put it another way, wise mind is like being able to draw on our left and right brain at the same time. Or to get neuroscience-y with it, reasonable mind lives in your prefrontal cortex, an advanced (in an evolutionary sense) part of the brain that handles complex thinking, decision-making, and problem-solving. Emotion mind lives in your limbic system, a more primitive part of your brain that includes the amygdala. It responds quickly to situations (particularly threatening situations) with a rush of emotion and activates your fight/flight/freeze system when it deems it necessary. Your prefrontal cortex takes an extra couple of seconds to come up with a reasoned response to potentially override what your limbic system is pushing for.
That means that your immediate urge to react in a difficult situation is coming from emotion mind, not wise mind, because reasonable mind isn’t online yet when those immediate urges are formulated.
Wise mind involves an element of mindfulness. It’s easy to get naturally pulled towards rational mind or emotional mind depending on the situation, and mental illness can make those pulls more extreme. To be in wise mind requires being in touch with what’s presently going in both of those mind states and then integrating them. This process is hard to do without mindful awareness, but once that balance is found, rational mind can help pull you back when emotion mind starts to get worked up, and vice versa.
Letting go of judgments
Engaging wise mind involves three key steps: observe, describe, and participate.
Observing should be as impartial as you can manage, without judgment. If you were a journalist or a scientist looking at a particular situation from the outside, what would you see?
Describe is about labelling your reaction, and in giving it a label, recognizing that it is what it is and nothing more than that. We tend to be very subjective in our internal descriptions, judging things like their rightness and wrongness. Try to detach those judgments and limit your description to a neutral point of view—think Wikipedia style rather than opinion piece style.
Participating is about interacting with the environment in a way that’s consistent with a balanced state of mind.
Wise mind ACCEPTS
Wise mind ACCEPTS is a set of distress tolerance skills that you can use to take a break from a distressing situation and pull yourself into wise mind. The ACCEPTS skills are:
- Activities: find an activity to immerse yourself in
- Contributing: distract from your own pain by focusing on doing something for someone else
- Comparisons: compare your ability to cope now to a time when you were struggling more in the past, and consider the gains you’ve made since then
- Emotions: cultivate an emotion opposite to what you’re feeling to loosen the difficult emotion’s grip
- Pushing away: unlike avoiding problems that are solvable, pushing away is about taking a mental break from ongoing issues that there’s nothing you can do about
- Thoughts: this skill is about occupying your mind with something detail-oriented, like counting, to shift your thoughts away from focusing on something distressing
- Sensations: find a source of strong sensory input, like holding an ice cube or taking a cold shower
Our upbringing can have a lot do to with our natural inclinations around emotional and rational mind. I think my mom was pretty in touch with wise mind, and maybe sometimes leaned toward rational mind. My dad would have swings into emotion mind every so often and become quite angry, clearly losing touch with the rational mind side.
I’m a pretty logical, science-minded kind of person, so rational mind tends to be fairly active during non-stressful times. During stressful periods, though, I swing sharply into emotional mind, and it usually takes the passage of some time before I find balance again.
The value of wise mind
DBT skills are useful for getting in touch with wise mind, but wise mind is something that anyone can practice. Like any mental skill, it works best when practiced during times of low stress rather than high stress. Try to tap into what each aspect is telling you, and then try to integrate the two.
Personally, wise and has helped with conceptualizing my reactions in order to understand what was behind them. Having the recognition of rational and emotional mind helps me to be a little more self-forgiving when the balance goes out of whack.
Is wise mind a concept that you’re familiar with or have utilized? How has it been helpful for you?
- DBT Self-Help
- Kaiser Permanente emotions and wise mind handout
- Lived Experience Telephone Support Service wise mind worksheet
- PositivePsychology.com: 20 DBT Worksheets and Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills
- Applying DBT Skills (Guest Post)
- Book Review: The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook
- Wise Words on Mental Health from DBT Creator Marsha Linehan
There’s more on DBT in the Therapy Basics Toolbox mini-ebook, available on the Resources page.