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A Trip Through the Skills

Today, we are kicking off a new series that we are calling A Trip Through the Skills. In this series of posts we will be considering 1 DBT skill in each post. There will be some explanation about what the skill is and some personal examples of how the skill can be used. We cannot guarantee that this series will be posted continuously, but we can guarantee that we will get through all of the skills from standard DBT eventually. As always, we would love to hear what you think of the blog and anything you'd like to see us cover.


Wise Mind? I Don’t Think I Have One


If you think you do not have a wise mind, I have great news for you, you actually do have one. Maybe you can’t hear it. Maybe you can’t seem to find it. Well, it’s still there. A metaphor that’s been used forever in DBT is that wise mind is a radio inside you, and over the years the volume has been completely turned down. Well, the volume can be turned up by starting to practice paying attention.



Why, you might ask, is it a skill if it’s just the middle of Emotion Mind and Reasonable Mind? Well, it’s a skill because finding that middle place can be very difficult to do. It takes skill to get there, especially if one is stuck in emotion or reasonable mind. All of us have a hard time finding the middle at times, and some of us cannot seem to make it to the middle very often at all.

Wise Mind is the blending of two other states of mind: Reasonable Mind and Emotion Mind. It might be helpful to start by describing these two states of mind and then move to what they look like blended together.


On one side there is Emotion Mind. Emotion mind is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s when our emotions are in control and dictating what we do, what we think, what our reality is. When I do something I regret (snapping at my wife, cutting someone off in traffic, making a snide comment) emotion mind is in control. This is the state of mind that’s in charge when we do something impulsive. This is the state of mind in control when we do something reckless or dangerous or potentially life threatening. Sometimes this state of mind can trick us into thinking a decision is the “right” one or something that, “I really need to do.” More on that in a minute.


Then there’s Reasonable Mind. That side is all about facts, data, logic. As people learn this skill, it’s not uncommon for someone to say that that’s where they want to live, in reasonable mind. Often, we grow up with a perspective that says that ‘being emotional’ is bad and being ‘logical’ is good. There’s a problem with that way of thinking. Making decisions in a purely logical way ends up hurting us and others just like making purely emotional decisions. A couple of examples. A large company lays off workers as they look at the bottom line. Purely logical, hurts a lot of people. On a more personal note, I’ve made a few decisions regarding my kids (based on the data of uncompleted homework) that did not end well. Logic said that there needed to be consequences and my oldest did not respond well to the way I delivered things. (I have since figured that out and made some wise mind decisions in that area.)


So, if we makes mistakes by making an emotion mind decision and we make mistakes when we make reasonable mind decisions, then there must be a 3rd option.


That brings us to Wise Mind. Wise Mind is the blending of emotion and reason. I like to refer to it as making a complete decision or making a whole decision. This is a skill of allowing both pieces to be present, both the emotion and the reason.


An example from my life, maybe a silly example (I just judged my example, didn’t I?) I suppose you can decide whether you think it’s silly or not. I learned to drive a car on a stick shift, and I’ve always loved that kind of car. I’ve also thought a number of times, ‘I deserve a luxury car.’ I mean, I have a private practice and I’m an ‘expert’ in DBT, etc., etc. The ‘I deserve a luxury car,’ is an example of emotion mind. No matter what you think about the statement, it is rooted in emotion and judgment. It would feel good to have a really nice car. Other people would see my really nice car and, actually I don’t know what people would think about that. I also have 2 children, and a luxury car does not fit with the current financial needs of my family. So, I’ve dreamed of having a luxury car, and I’ve always liked the look of the Mazda3.


When my old car died in March of 2021 (167,000 miles and needing more work than was worth it) I ended up buying a used Mazda3 with a stick shift. See, the emotion part is the stick shift. I love driving and shifting the gears. For me, that is fun. The logic part said, ‘you cannot afford a nicer car at this time.’ I’ve now had the car for almost a year and a half and I still love it. The payment is reasonable and fits the budget. Car is fun to drive and looks good to me. It’s a decision that I feel really good about overall.


If I had gone purely logical, I would have bought an automatic. There are 4 drivers in my family and I’m the only one who knows how to drive a stick. Pure logic would have left me wanting that stick shift car and probably regretting that I did not get it. An emotion mind decision would have bought a nicer car that I really can’t afford, and I would have regretted that every time the monthly payment came around. Paying attention to both emotion and reason allowed me to get a car I love to drive while also being able to pay for it comfortably.


Now, how about an example that's a little more emotionally charged? This has to do with my oldest son and homework. This was hard to learn. My son was around 12 or 13 at the time, and really struggling with the completion of homework. I would rocket in between logic and emotion quite quickly in those situations. I’d look at the list of missing assignments and think, “Something has to be done about him not getting these assignments done,” and then I’d have an emotional reaction. Then I’d walk into his room, with that emotion pretty hot, and have a ‘conversation’ with him about homework. Really I just talked at him and demanded answers about how he was going to change it. So, bouncing between emotion mind and reasonable mind really did not work, and I actually ended up doing damage and making it less likely that he would accomplish the homework.


Eventually, with some help from multiple people in my life, I found a wise mind place. It was true that something needed to happen to get schoolwork done. My approach was completely ineffective with him. A couple of people said that I might want to talk with him instead of talking at him. So, I sat down and ask him what was going on in a curious way and we had a really good discussion. Over the course of the next several years he made decisions that ended up helping him improve. See, my oldest son does not respond to being told what to do. He just doesn’t. He has to learn things his own way. He ended up failing multiple classes in HS and ended up in an alternative schooling program. He did figure things out and graduated from HS. We have a great relationship at this time (he’s now 19 and working and attending college) and we would not have that if I had not gotten into wise mind over and over and over.

When coaching people on using Wise Mind, I often tell them if they have an urge and they cannot tell if it’s wise mind, then just wait. Very few decisions need to be made immediately (even it is ‘feels’ like it’s urgent.) So, if you wait a few hours and the decision still seems solid or you wait overnight and the decision still seems necessary in the light of day, then it’s probably a wise mind decision. It’s great to bring someone else into the decision as well. Maybe ask a trusted person what they think of the decision.


As with all of the DBT skills, a little experimentation is needed along the way to determine whether you are in wise mind or not.


I will never forget very early in my DBT therapy career, consulting with the State Coordinator for DBT in Missouri about a client and her asking me if what I was thinking seemed like wise mind? It was the first time I’d been asked anything like that. I did not really know how to go about figuring that out, so I just sat for a minute and then said, “Yeah, I think so.” Turned out that it wasn’t really wise mind, it was what I wanted my wise mind to say. And that turned out to be okay, that I thought the decision was wise mind and actually wasn’t. I ended up apologizing to the client the following week for making an emotion mind decision. She was gracious and forgiving. And we continued to do good work in therapy.


Maybe you are one of those people who bounce between emotion mind and reasonable mind pretty intensely or maybe quite often. If so, you probably end up doing things you regret out of that emotion. That emotion has an urge that comes with it and you act on it. When you calm down or get on the other side of that emotion, you may jump to the other side and totally logically look back on acting on that urge and think, “I’m an idiot,” or ‘I’m stupid’ or some judgment about someone else. Maybe that produces shame or anger and you pop back over to emotion mind and the vicious cycle just keeps repeating over and over.


If we can pay attention to the urge, “wow, I feel like I need to do X (emotion urge),” and recognize that we don’t actually need to act on an urge (reason) then we might be able to say something like, “I’m feeling this urge to do something I know will end in a way I don’t want. I can tolerate this urge and it will come down. Maybe there is another skill I can use to help tolerate the distress I feel right now.” That’s Wise Mind. Sometimes we cannot get there on our own and reaching out to someone is needed to find Wise Mind. However you end up getting there, it’s a much happier place to be than either emotion or reasonable mind. Consider trying to find your wise mind.

Of course there are countless examples of wise mind. If you have some you’d like to share, I’d love to hear some of them at jbrenneman@lifeworkstl.com.


Would love to hear from you.


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