The Wise Mind: Finding Balance Between Reason and Emotion
We are often told that being logical is the best way to think. There is no doubt that logic and reason can help us solve many of life’s problems, but living life this way alone can seem rather cold and heartless. Emotions bring so much color and life into our everyday experiences. However, it can also feel disordered and chaotic to view life from the lens of pure emotion. Striking a balance between the rational mind and the emotional mind is key. We call this the wise mind in DBT.
What is the Wise Mind in DBT?
The wise mind in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is the overlap between the emotional mind and the reasonable mind. It is part emotion and part reason, and it is often referred to as being a sense of intuition. Some people describe experiencing the wise mind as having an “aha!” moment.
According to the founder of DBT, Dr. Marsha Linehan, wise mind 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.”
The 3 States of Mind in DBT
There are three states of mind in DBT: the wise mind, the reasonable mind, and the emotional mind. Let’s go through each of them.
The reasonable mind involves approaching the observable world rationally, focusing especially on facts and phenomena. When you are in reasonable mind, you may notice that you are planning your future behavior according to facts and observable knowledge. You may feel somewhat detached from the situation or more objective.
When we are in emotional mind, we may experience difficulty thinking logically. Here, we often see facts and events as influenced by our emotional state. It can be difficult to remain objective, and your behaviors may be driven by your subjective perceptions more than objective reality.
The wise mind is where we find the balance between the reasonable mind and the emotional mind. Often referred to as the “middle way,” the wise mind involves a deep sense of intuition, which goes beyond what can be perceived by the senses. It is a combination of direct experience, immediate cognition, and grasping an event’s significance, even without analyzing it intellectually.
You may experience wise mind differently from someone you know. For some individuals, wise mind is that small voice in our heads that knows what is best. For others, wise mind is more of a “gut feeling” that guides them on the best course of action to take. Everybody has the capacity to access wise mind; it allows us to take effective action and do what is in our best interest.
Examples of Using the Wise Mind
To better understand how to use the wise mind, let’s look at some examples.
Imagine that your boss criticized you. The rational mind might tell you that the criticism was unfair and that you aren’t a bad employee for having made a mistake. However, the emotional mind might focus on how hurt and angry you are. The wise mind can tie together both the hurt feelings and the logic of the criticism, however unwarranted it was. By accessing wise mind, you can take the best action given the situation and respond constructively.
Another example is one that involves romantic relationships. Your significant other may no longer wish to be with you as they have fallen for someone else. Naturally, the emotional mind will want to react with anger and possibly lash out at your partner for their betrayal of your trust and love. The reasonable mind, on the other hand, may tell you to stay calm and walk away dignified, with your head held high. The wise mind ties these two together and may encourage you to express your anger, heartbreak, and confusion in a healthy way and perhaps making an appointment with a therapist or lawyer (if your partner wants a divorce).
These are just two examples of using the wise mind. It can apply in many other situations as long as you find the overlap between the rational mind and the emotional mind.
Training the Wise Mind
Reaching wise mind can be challenging at first. Like most skills, it improves with practice and training. Here are several wise mind exercises that you can do to train your mind.
Focus on the breath
One mindfulness exercise that helps us access the wise mind is focusing on the breath. Assume a meditative or comfortable position. As you breathe in and out, focus your attention on your breath as it fills and leaves your lungs. Next, allow your attention to move to your center, meeting it at the bottom of each breath. Notice how you can control your attention as you breathe in and out. As you do your breathing, try to use the DBT “How” skill of one-mindfulness to focus on the present moment.
Notice the pauses
As you continue with mindful breathing, focus on the pause after each breath in and out. Notice the stillness with each pause, and allow yourself to find awareness here. Settle into each pause and the stillness within.
Visualization can help you find your center and practice finding the wise mind as well. One way to practice this is to imagine that you are at a clean and clear lake on a beautiful sunny day. Imagine that you are a small stone chipped from a much larger rock that has been thrown into the middle of the lake. You gently float on the surface of the water for a few seconds before gently sinking to the smooth, sandy bottom of the lake. Pay attention to the look and feel of the water surrounding you as you float downward. Notice how serene and peaceful the bottom of the sunny lake is. Allow yourself to settle into this calm and centered place within yourself.
“Wise” In, “Mind” Out
Sometimes, you may feel overwhelmed and confused between the too-rational and too-emotional mind. It can be difficult to focus your attention on the visualization exercise above during these moments. Instead, what you can do is direct your attention to your breath. While breathing in, say the word “wise” in your mind. As you push the air out of your lungs, think “mind.” Doing this breathing grounding technique repeatedly will help you settle back into a place of calmness, centeredness, and wisdom.
Most people know that what they do or say at times is not in their best interest, and yet, for some reason, they do it anyway. This can happen for various reasons, such as choosing self-sabotaging behavior or directing passive aggression toward the self. If you find yourself in a situation where you think that you might do something you later regret, notice this and focus on that pause. Take a deep breath in and ask, “Is this action or thought wise mind?” Wait and listen for the answer, allowing it to naturally rise within. Once you find the answer in wise mind, it is up to you to evaluate the situation and choose your next action.
The Bottom Line
Wise mind can take a while to get the hang of. To some, it may come more naturally. Others will need more time to understand and use wise mind. With more practice and patience, it will be easier to draw on wise mind. Try practicing wise mind and other DBT skills with our DBT worksheets, and you may soon find yourself able to balance between reason and emotion more effectively.