Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that feel a lot like emotional quick sand--it seems no matter what we do, we are unable to alleviate our pain. Painful situations are a natural part of human experience, and are occasionally unavoidable. For these times when we feel stuck in a miserable situation, Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills of distress tolerance can help us to ride the waves of negative experience without added suffering.
Quicksand Survival 101: While I have never personally been so unlucky as to find myself in actual quicksand, it seems like common knowledge that the more we struggle against the quicksand, the faster we go under. Painful experiences such as going through a break up, receiving bad medical news, or financial problems follow this rule as well--the more we fight against the reality of what is, the less likely we are to be effective at managing the situation. DBT offers four ways of addressing a problematic situation to avoid struggling against painful realities:
1. Solve the problem: Struggling against the quicksand is not to be confused with calling for help, grabbing for a branch, or otherwise maneuvering out of the situation. The latter options are all reasonable responses that directly address the problem. When we find out that our spouse is considering leaving, for example, struggling might look like drinking to avoid tough conversations, while problem solving might involve suggesting that our spouse come to couples counseling with us. Which leads us to...
2. Accepting the situation: Some level of acceptance is required to address any distressing situation. We cannot fix that which we do not acknowledge to be real. When no problem solving option is available however, we can call upon the skill of acceptance to reduce the suffering associated with refusing to acknowledge a problem. Sometimes just allowing space for all the feelings that show up with a bad situation helps us to move through the problem more effectively.
3. Change the way you think: This strategy goes beyond deciding that the glass is half full when it seems half empty. When we change our perspective on a problem, we empower ourselves beyond the constraints of the situation. Deciding to see an injury right before a big race as an opportunity for developing self-acceptance may seem superficial, but it can make a tremendous difference in the level of negative emotion we experience. A change of perspective does not mean that we don't acknowledge the painful feelings that might arise from our initial interpretation of a situation, but rather that we choose to water the seeds of thinking that we feel will benefit us most significantly.
4. Stay miserable: The option to keep thrashing against the quicksand is always available to us. It is important to acknowledge that staying miserable is to an extent a choice, and not a direct result of the circumstances. Are some experiences inherently painful? Absolutely! However, the suffering associated with refusing to acknowledge a problem that is already there is avoidable with the three steps above.
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!
Dr. Candice Creasman
Therapist, author, and counselor educator. Articles with tips and tools for living your most authentic and joyful life.