Patience, Meta-Conversation, Mental Illness

One of the skills that is most commonly cited in DBT is the use of what’s called “wise mind.” I really dislike the name because it sounds incredibly woo woo, but the concept of wise mind is actually a very simple, incredibly practical idea.

Wise mind is the part of your mind that incorporates both emotion and rationality. Most people can rely on either one of these individually, and they tend to cause problems for themselves when they do that, but when you’re in the middle, validating and recognizing emotions while also trying to incorporate facts into your perspective, you are typically better at reaching goals and behaving kindly to yourself and others.

I only recently started to actually try using wise mind. It’s actually one of the hardest skills because it requires a kind of meta-awareness of how you’re thinking and behaving. That’s why it relies pretty heavily on mindfulness, because it requires the ability to take a moment and actually look at your situation before acting. It also requires simply being aware of what you’re feeling and what’s happening around you, two important elements of mindfulness.

In many past situations I haven’t quite understood how wise mind is a skill of its own. But recently I’ve had a few rough conversations with people I’m close to, conversations that quickly pushed all my buttons and got me riled up into angry and defensive states of mind. These were the times that I started to notice I needed to use something like wise mind: I needed to take stock of what parts of my brain were giving me which thoughts and whether those parts were really helpful at a given moment.  It took a great deal of effort, but thanks to a lot of the other skills I’ve been working on I was able to take the time to shut my mouth and think without just running through all the things I wanted to say next. I was aware of how sorting through information and feeling confused about what was reasonable actually was the push and pull of emotions vs. the desire to be “good” vs. actual facts about the situation, which made me more capable of accurately assessing the situation.

So I’m incredibly glad that I’m starting to incorporate this skill into my wheelhouse, especially since it looks like there’s going to be a need for some communication and negotiation in relationships in my future (just like there are in basically all relationships). Unfortunately, the skill didn’t function quite the way I wanted it to. All of this skill is internal. Taking time to sit and think can often look like the silent treatment or disengagement. Extended silence are often interpreted as rude by other people. It’s confusing when your partner just stops talking in the middle of a serious conversation.

There are two pieces to how I think this needs to be addressed. First, I am not the only person in the world who needs to take more quiet time in the middle of hard conversations. Lots of people are trying to learn how to wait and think before talking. But there seems to be a partner skill to that skill, which is patience. Especially if you’re a support person for someone who is recovering or in recovery from a mental illness (or simply working on skills to deal with a mental illness), give them some time. Big conversations require a lot of emotional work, which is further complicated when you have a mental illness. If you’re worried or think you’re being ignored, a simple “do you need some time?” or “do you want to let me in on what’s going on in your head right now?” can help bring both people to the same place.

However if your partner hasn’t quite gotten that skill down pat, someone who’s recovering and working on skills can use a partner skill to their wise mind/checking the facts. For those in the DBT know, it’s something like GIVE. One of the most important elements of being validating and gentle is giving the other person some idea of what your’e thinking. You have to let the other person in on the skills that you’re using.

Now obviously not every relationship is going to be well suited to in the moment updates about what skills are being used. Your boss? Not the right person to be this open with. But your spouse? Your family? Your closest friends? The people you trust and rely on are ones that you can work on this with. It might be scary to tell someone what’s happening in the moment, but it’s also incredibly practical if everyone needs to know what’s happening in a given conversation.

When I say “if you’re using skills, give your partner an update” I don’t mean spew all the thoughts and feelings that you have without censoring anything. This is actually a meta endeavor. If you can identify the ways that you’re interacting with your emotions and the information you have, you should tell the other person what you’re doing. So step one is figuring out what you’re actually doing: are you getting defensive and coming up with reasons the other person sucks? Are you comparing this experience to times when other people got defensive with you to see if you’re being unreasonable? Are you trying to connect the current situation to past experiences that left you sore? All of those are separate facets of thinking something out, and once you figure out which ones you’re doing you can share that.

A script might look something like “I feel x, but I’m not sure if it makes sense to feel that way. I’m also trying to consider y and z from your perspective and remember that bad experience a might be coming back and making me feel worse about this. I also think that I’m being distracted by behavior b that you engaged in.”

This gives both participants space to feel their feelings but also discuss the actual situation.

Of course this is an incredibly difficult thing to do because it requires linking together quite a few skills, including wise mind and mindfulness, GIVE, and FAST (for those who don’t know the acronyms, check out my series at Teen Skepchick giving a DBT overview). Since it involves lots of hard things put together, it can take longer to learn and require more emotional energy.

This kind of linking together of skills is something that only seems to make sense once I’m in a situation that calls for them, and doesn’t tend to be covered in classes. I hope that individuals who use DBT skills (or any therapy skills) can communicate with each other enough to get feedback about different ways to actually use skills in the real world and find out which ones pair together well. This one was somewhat revelatory for me.

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