The Problem: “Who Am I?”
A life spent in emotion mind is not conducive to developing a stable relationship with yourself. Emotionally vulnerable children who grow up in invalidating environments do not learn to trust their own perceptions, because they have been taught to view them as inaccurate; when you are repeatedly told that your feelings, preferences, and perceptions are wrong, you tend to turn to others to tell you the right way to feel and think. Unfortunately, no one can really tell us how to feel and think, at least not if we are to have our own identity. If we are going to develop and maintain a sense of who we are, we have to learn to recognize our true feelings and perceptions for ourselves. We have to find our inner wisdom.
Let’s look at three different factors—identity, self-image, and sense of self. Identity is related to factors such as age, class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, work or school performance, marital status, and whether one has children. And it is affected by both predictable and unpredictable events in life. An example of a predictable change is aging, which alters our functioning and employment identity in ways we can anticipate. Examples of unpredictable changes include getting a serious illness, going through divorce, losing a job, failing a class, inheriting a lot of money, or finding your sexual or gender identity changing. Identity disturbances are hard for anyone, even people with stable self-images and a strong sense of self.
Self-image is constructed from our thoughts about ourselves through time. Self-image can be affected by many of the same factors that affect identity. Our stability of self-image is related to the narratives we tell ourselves and others about who we are. These narratives can either have or lack the characteristics of consistency and agency. When consistency is lacking, for example, our stories do not help us decide whether we are a good and worthy person. When agency is lacking, we tend to believe we have no control over what happens to us, perhaps even over our own behavior. A consistent, positive self-image is correlated with good mental health. The sense of agency has been correlated with improved mental health among people with BPD.
Then there is the elusive term sense of self. What is a sense of self and where does it come from? Linehan (1993) hypothesizes that the sense of self arises out of observing oneself over time, especially in a calm and secure environment. Thus people who grow up with an emotionally vulnerable temperament in invalidating environments are definitely at risk for lacking a strong sense of self. Instead of knowing that you can trust your perceptions about your experience, you might feel confused about what you feel and whether it is what you should feel. You might find that you are too easily influenced by others, or that your feelings and beliefs swing between polar opposites. When you try to go inside and figure out who you are, you might feel profoundly empty and confused.
The Solution: Wise Mind
Wise people have been talking about something like wise mind for millennia. Some of its aliases are the soul, the in-dwelling of the holy spirit, the conscience, Buddha nature, gnosis, the atman, the heart of hearts, the true self. According to countless sources, it lives inside of everyone. And just as inner wisdom is called by many names, it also can be reached by many different methods. The genius of the DBT skill of wise mind is that it demystifies the process into a discrete skill to be practiced and, eventually, mastered. The skill of wise mind can be used for decisions as elementary as “Should I have a glass of wine?” to those as complex as “How can I live serenely in a world where there is so much suffering?” To use this skill, ask your wise mind a question and listen carefully for the answer. Asking is the easy part. The hard part is heeding the answer when it comes.
Accessing Wise Mind: The Process
When we attempt to access wise mind, we become more calmly alert. We don’t exactly know what to do and are aware that we could make a mistake, especially by acting on urges. I like to call this state “being in wise mind’s waiting room.” Here we consider our options. We may not be completely ready to give up engaging in impulsive behaviors that relieve us in the short run, but we are willing to consider options other than leaping headlong into action urges that have gotten us into trouble in the past. We don’t yet have the clarity we need, but at least we have arrived in the right frame of mind. We are willing to take our time to consult wise mind. Eventually, if we sit tight, the answer about what to do will emerge from within us. Eventually, wise mind will show up. In the meantime we are calmer and wiser just sitting in wise mind’s waiting room. This checklist will help you recognize whether you are there.
Am I in Wise Mind’s Waiting Room?
I am aware I am vulnerable to emotion mind.
I care about using a skillful approach, at least a little.
Even though I am very emotional I am not acting on my urges.
I can remember feeling this way and making big mistakes I don’t want to repeat.
I am asking for help.
Check all that apply. If you checked one or two, you are approaching the waiting room; three to five, your appointment time with wise mind has nearly arrived—be patient! After you have answered all these questions in the affirmative, write a paragraph about what you think wise mind might have to say and read it slowly, aloud to yourself. This process will bring you closer to wise mind.
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Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from The Mindfulness Solution for Intense Emotions by Cedar Koons, MSW, LCSW.