Thursday, August 20, 2015

Where is my mind? Dialectical Behavior Therapy skill building for everyday life--week 1

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) has a long history of being the treatment of choice for Borderline Personality Disorder, a highly stigmatized diagnosis characterized by frequent suicide attempts and chaotic relationships.  But DBT skills can help anyone engage more mindfully in daily life, as well as communicate and manage stress more effectively.  For the next few weeks, I'll present a different DBT skill and discuss how these skills can be applied to everyday problems.

Types of Mind: Emotion, Rational, Wise

We've all had moments when something that we absolutely, unequivocally believed to be true, turned out to be less than true.  I like to call this the Santa Claus Effect (feel free to substitute your mythical figure of choice here), and I use it to describe situations in which we mistake feelings for facts or vice versa.  This phenomenon can show up when we firmly believe that someone intended us harm by cutting us off in traffic, when we evaluate our abilities based on isolated and typically negative examples, or when we ignore our gut feelings about a taking a job because it was the practical thing to do.  When we are impacted by the Santa Claus Effect, we are unable to identify the difference between our thoughts and our experience, but it's possible to learn the difference.  Here's where the DBT principle of types of mind comes in handy.

DBT theory suggests that there are three types of mind: Emotion, Rational, and Wise.  Emotion mind includes feelings like anger, compassion, and fear, but it also encompasses judgments ("this room is too cold", "I'm not good at math", "the clouds are beautiful", etc).  Rational mind describes objective perception after you strip away all the layers of judgment (this room is 67 degrees Farenheit, I got a 40 on the last math test, the clouds are cumulus).  From these examples, it's apparent that both of these types of mind are important; without rational mind, we would have difficulty interacting with the world in concrete, practical ways, but without emotion mind, we would be devoid of the experiences of beauty and love.  Wise mind offers a combination of both rational and emotion mind.  Through wise mind, we acknowledge that both facts and feelings have valid information about our experience, which allows us to hold seemingly opposing realities in the same mental space (I feel like I'm not good at math, and one test is not representative of my overall ability).  When we combine facts with feelings, we let go of the struggle for one side of our brain to be right and the other to be wrong.

So how do we engage wise mind? We build awareness.  When we practice noticing our thinking and asking ourselves what sort of mind we're using, we hone our abilities to accurately label our thoughts as rational, emotional, or wise.  This awareness allows us to make choices about which thoughts we buy in to, and which thoughts we put back on the shelf.  When the familiar thought "I'm not smart enough to apply for this job" shows up, we ask ourselves if this is truly a representation of objective fact, or if this is a judgment that is so familiar it feels true.  We then ask "what would wise mind say?", which allows me to make room for negative judgments without acting on them compulsively.  "I'm not smart enough" may feel true, and I can't get the job I don't apply for.  This quick step of thinking about my thinking introduces the space to break out of patterns of behavior build on negative judgment and emotional invalidation. 

If you use DBT's three types of mind, please leave me a comment about how it's worked for you.  If you're having trouble applying this skill, mention that too!

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