During a recent counseling session, I sat across from an older woman with a round face and coarse grey hair.
I looked around her small office, noticing an abstract painting on the wall and a box of tissues between us.
I liked how she asked me hard questions in the softest way, a balance I can imagine would be challenging in psychotherapy. These questions felt like they’d unlocked doors in my mind that I didn’t even know were there, leading me to new, unexplored territory.
While I was venting about some issue in my life, she asked me, “In which state of mind are you in when you say that?”
I asked her what she meant, and she went on to explain a technique used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy.
We all have three states of mind: rational, emotional, and wise. Most of us tend to have a default state (e.g. my default state is emotional mind).
The best state of mind to be in to lead a life worth living is where emotional mind and rational mind meet: the wise mind, which is essentially your intuition.
The Rational Mind
Driven by logic and intellect, this state of mind helps us to absorb new information and is based on empirical facts.
You are in the rational mind when you’re learning something new or sitting through a final exam. This intellectual or scientific state of mind defines reality in terms of facts, numbers, equations, or cause and effect. This mind is important for gaining knowledge.
Although the rational mind is critical in dealing with reality, many of life’s problems have an emotional aspect.
The rational mind is helpful for: broadening perspective, planning, learning new things, and organizing.
Downsides of rational mind: robotic, predictable, hard to stay motivated or create goals, and reduced joy.
The Emotional Mind
Passionate, extreme, creative, and intense, this state of mind drives us to fall in love, stay motivated, and create works of art.
You are in the emotional mind when you feel overwhelmed by your emotional experience. You’ll know you are in the emotional mind when you start using words like “always,” “should,” “can’t,” “everyone,” or “never.” The emotional mind is based on opinions, assumptions, and mind reading. Strong emotions can distort facts, magnify excuses, and shrink the perception of consequence.
However, emotions are a normal and important part of life and being human.
The emotional mind is helpful for: motivation, imagination, creativity, spontaneity, empathy, and individuality.
Downsides of emotional mind: exhausting, drowning, nothing to hold on to, out of control, erratic, and unpredictable.
Rational Mind + Emotional Mind = Wise Mind
The wise mind takes into account the whole picture—it is a calm feeling that comes from deep within rather than from a current emotional state.
The wise mind is responsive and reflective. It is the active integration of the rational and emotional mind, mixing cold logic and heated creativity into a balanced state of mind.
The magic of wise mind is intuition. It is understanding the meaning, significance, or truth of an event, without having to analyze it intellectually.
Sometimes emotion can masquerade itself as intuition. However, if this “knowing” is intuitive, it will still hold itself true even when examined without the heat of emotions.
Tuning into the wise mind is developed through mindfulness (being present on purpose), emotional regulation, learning how to be effective in interpersonal relationships, and understanding how to tolerate distress.
The wise mind is like riding a bike; in order to balance, you cannot lean too far to the right (emotions) or too far to the left (thinking).
Maintaining the wise mind as our default state helps with maintaining a sense of calm, coping effectively with change, finding balance, making decisions, increasing confidence, and responding instead of reacting.
Which state of mind do you tend to default toward?
For me, I am very much an emotional person, and I tend to dive down a rabbit hole of mind reading and assuming. Clearly, this is ineffective and creates problems for me.
She explained that, next time I find myself caught in a hailstorm of thoughts, I should just stop and ask myself: what mind am I in right now?
This little trick works wonders, because it forces us to break the current of thoughts running through our head. It is quite similar to any grounding exercise you would do, or a simple body scan in meditation.
For example, if you’re in the rational mind, you may need to balance with questions regarding emotions (how do I actually feel about this?). If you’re in the emotional mind, you may need to balance with questions regarding the facts (Where am I? What can I hear, smell, taste, see, feel right now?).
In the beginning, we may need training wheels to tune into our intuition. But over time, after a few falls, we’ll get the hang of it and learn to live a life worth living.