Wise Mind

The skill of the month for this October is called Wise Mind and, as many of our skills, comes from the work of Dr. Marsha Linehan and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.

In my practice, I see a lot of clients that struggle with anxiety. For many of us, we have been taught to answer a question as soon as it is asked. If we don't know the answer right off the bat, we begin to feel extremely anxious, knowing that a decision must be made. I have found, though, that the majority of the time a question has been asked or a decision must be made, it is not life or death. We really do have time (at least a few minutes) to consider before answering or deciding. You might ask the question: is this something I have to answer RIGHT NOW or do I have some time to consider options? Considering that can help to reduce anxiety straight away, as most of the time, answers don't need to be given immediately.

I am not advocating for simply never answering questions nor making decisions, putting them off indefinitely. This is not an excuse to procrastinate.  Sometimes problems can work themselves out without our intervention, thereby no longer requiring us to make a decision about how to handle something, but many times in life, we really DO have to make decisions and answer questions. So how do we go about doing that?

Sometimes, when our anxiety has been heightened by a decision making opportunity, it becomes difficult to see beyond the feeling. We may be worried that we're going to make the wrong choice; concerned that we're going to offend others if we don't do as they seem to want us to; sad that our life has led us to this difficult choice and that we must make it; anger that we're being put in this uncomfortable position... there could be so many emotions. When we're having these kinds of thoughts, Dr. Linehan says we're in "emotion mind". It is very difficult to see beyond these thoughts to the logic or reason of the situation. To make a decision from a place of emotion only, we are likely to not think about consequences and act impulsively. We act on urges and our current mood.

The opposite, if you will, of emotion mind is "reasonable mind" and this is where the logic, facts, and figures reside. If we're completely in reasonable mind, we're ignoring emotions. This is rarely a good place from which to make a decision, either. You might think of reasonable mind like a computer--only adding up sums and coming to the logical conclusion, not taking into account the impact of this decision on others, and coming across as very cold and heartless. 

Clearly, neither state of mind is ideal for most problems. Dr. Linehan has posited our solution: wise mind. With the Venn diagram below, we can see that wise mind resides in the small area where the two circles overlap.


Wise mind brings together both the logic, facts and figures of reasonable mind with the feelings of emotion mind. Sounds perfect, right? The challenge is, HOW do we get ourselves out of emotion mind or out of reasonable mind to that sweet spot--wise mind?

Dr. Linehan gives us help for this as well. First, she describes what to do to get into Wise Mind ("What Skills" is the rather clunky terminology she gives.) These are: observe, describe, and participate. Then, she gives us "How Skills"--how we are when we are in wise mind. These are: non-judgmental, one-mindful, and effective. Let's look at each of these in a bit more detail.

The first three are pretty easy to do. We want to Observe what is going on--just noticing, not putting words to it at the moment. Then, we Describe what is going on (this may be internal as well). Next, we Participate in what is going on--engage in it 100%. So let's take a silly example: roller skating. The decision must be made: will I go roller skating with my friends? Observe: I'm just going to watch the skaters, some of whom are my friends. That's pretty easy. Now I'm going to Describe what I am observing: they're going round and round, some fall, some don't. Some people wear knee pads, elbow pads and helmets. Some hold onto the wall, some are doing fancy stuff like skating backwards. Some are in groups holding hands, some are by themselves. There are young kids, and older folks. There are lights and music and the smell of the concession stand... Now I'm asked to Participate. I need to get out there and actually do the activity. I'm not sure I like it so here's where the HOW skills come into play. Non-judgmental. I need to withhold my judgment of this activity and just engage in it, continuing to observe and describe the activity as I participate in it. Next, I'm going to do One thing at a time. I'm going to give my full attention to the information and the experience, not being distracted by extraneous information. Finally, I need to be Effective. This means I need to focus on what works and meet the needs of the situation. Perhaps I haven't been roller skating in 10 years, I'm rusty. I'm going to hold onto the wall until I get used to the balance required. This would be effective.

You may be thinking, what if its an activity that I perceive as dangerous... or even an activity that I know to be dangerous. Let's look at it from that perspective. If I believe that roller skating is dangerous, that's where my observation and description comes in... I did notice some people falling earlier. Let's pay even more attention to those people. Do they get up and keep going? Are they laughing? Are they crying? Are they being rushed to the hospital? From this, I can decide that roller skating, though it has some risk, is a relatively safe activity. What about an activity I know to be unsafe: drinking and driving. I can go through each of these six points and see how I fair to make a choice about whether I am able to drive or not. I can observe (things look blurry), I can describe (I am seeing double, I can't find my car...) I can participate (I will hopefully determine from the first two that I'm not able to safely drive but perhaps I'll sit in the driver's seat a moment and continue to observe and describe. ) I can be non-judgmental (I'm not a bad person if I have to Uber it), I can be one-mindful (I can focus on what options are available to me since I'm unable to drive), and finally, what is the MOST EFFECTIVE? Not driving myself home, obviously.

Now, lets look at one more example of when wise mind could be used. The Presidential Election.

        Observe. I'm going to watch the debates, the appearances of the candidates, their body language and how they come across. I'm going to Describe this. I'm going to Participate in the process by reading up on their positions on various issues. I'm going to remain Non-judgmental and focus on the facts that have been presented, not opinions of others that are clearly biased or information that has not been verified to be accurate. I'm going to be One-mindful, staying with the issues despite the desire to look away and do something else. I'm going to be Effective. I'm going to look only at reputable sites for my information, I'm going to look at the issues and where each candidate stands on them, analyzing their platform and policy as well as the practicality of implementation of those policies, and from that place make a decision about who has the solutions that most closely align with my values.

I hope that you can see that trying to get and stay in Wise Mind is not the simplest thing to do but it is well worth the effort required. From a place of Wise Mind, we can be confident that we looked fairly at the information, took our time to make informed decisions that were not based purely on our mood at the time, and hopefully we can increase our confidence in the choices that we make--whether it be to roller skate or who to elect to be the next President of the United States.

Give Wise Mind a try this month!