When we’re lost in our mental health battles, one thing we often wish we had, is a compass to find our way back to ourselves – but how? Where from? Day-to-day becomes the same mundane routine, built to avoid what we’re scared of most – yet we also feel stuck, safe maybe… but deep down, unhappy.
One navigator I’ve found so helpful with this, is ‘wise mind’ (learnt through DBT therapy). It’s the compass naturally inside us that gets silenced and buried by our emotional and mental baggage. I know it sounds wishy-washy by the name, but I promise you in practice – it really makes sense. It’s a real, grounded theory and not some airy-fairy belief that you need to wear hippie earrings and sit cross-legged for!
I’ll explain what it is in a sec, but using this is really helping me take strides in listening to myself, taking action and opening my life up – instead of giving in to the tug-of-war with habitual, unhelpful thoughts. It’s helping me to resist the aching pull to turn back to my eating disorder (both ways – Anorexia and Bulimia), which wants to lock me inside a bubble… instead, I’m daring to poke holes in the bubble and see the other options that lay outside of it for me. Most importantly, I’ve started taking part in what I can see out there, instead of just observing, which I became an expert in over recent years.
So I first heard of ‘wise mind’ during groups at my time on the eating disorder unit – usually once a week. But although I ‘got’ it, the ability to use it felt a million-or-so miles away, maybe because I was resistant to change and what recovery meant – and not helped by the starved state of my brain. Neither did I trust or place value on what the real inside of me really had to say. But now, years on, and undergoing quite intensive DBT therapy (as a group and 1:1 with a psychologist in the community) I feel in a place to actually be able to use it. Because, who doesn’t want to feel more connected to themselves and their decisions in day-to-day life? It’s so hard to know how to be happy and what that means for most people in today’s world, let alone those struggling with their mental health.
Where does this little ‘wise mind’ nugget come from? And what does it mean… ? I’m not going to morph into the beard and blazer of a psychology lecturer and give you a Powerpoint presentation of information (don’t worry), I’ll explain it in a nutshell (peanut size, not walnut). Basically, we are always in one of three states of mind during the day – which drives how we make decisions and interact with people etc. These are those in the diagram below:
‘Emotional mind’ means the mind-set we are in when our behaviour is a reaction to our emotion, more than logic – so, making love, punching something out of anger, cuddling a puppy, running over the road to hug someone you love and didn’t expect to see, smiling at a stranger. There’s less weighing up and pros and cons or gathering any research like ‘reasonable’ mind, because reacting on the emotion overrides anything else – we’re drawn into those moments like a magnet. So ‘reasonable mind’ is pretty much the polar opposite to that… fact-driven, being very logical and acting from a place of what feels ‘needs’ to be done – answering a maths question, planning and doing what you feel is required/expected of you.
What’s often found is that people struggling with their mental health and/or general life satisfaction, spend most of their lives in one of these places – without stepping foot into the other – or when they do take it to the extreme. So people afraid of their emotions or how to manage them or even feel them for example, spend the majority of their lives living in ‘reasonable mind’ – they may go into work, be able to focus on their job, do the housework, cook tea… outwardly they appear to function a normal life, but not never connecting with their ‘emotion mind’ can be harmful and also take away from the quality of their life, the richness of it as well as the potential for better rounded/two-way relationships. It can be a way of avoiding emotion because it feels uncomfortable.
The ideal would be to dip in and out of both camps (states of mind) throughout our days to get the most out of life and reach our potential, but the most special part, the golden piece of that puzzle… is ‘wise mind’. That’s the piece in the middle that overlaps both ‘emotional’ and ‘reasonable’ minds. It’s those moments, the ideas that come to us and we instantly know they are the right thing to do – they make sense and would satisfy both ‘emotional’ and ‘reasonable’ minds at once. Maybe it’s the advice you give to a friend, eating intuitively, or acting on an idea that you know connects with what will satisfy you emotionally, but also feels achievable and is a logical step. It can be many things. Known to most of us as a ‘gut instinct’, it can feel like a neutral bit of guidance from inside of us, that before we get chance to over-analyse feels both internally rewarding and just, without sometimes reason to fully explain – right.
Admittedly, over the 10 years I’ve struggled with my mental health, but also before when I still had low self-esteem and felt suffocated by shyness, most times I’ve felt that ‘wise mind’ moment scattered through my days… but it’s like a door has been slammed in my face. Somehow I haven’t quite been able to access it – after that one or two seconds of ‘wise mind’, it’s like ‘emotional mind’ hijacks and all of those ‘wise mind’ moments get gathered and locked up as part of a terrorist attack. Not having the skills or the confidence I needed to act on that ‘wise mind’ moment has made me feel a victim to my own brain – out of control and very fearful that I’ll never be in charge of my own future.
An example of this internal door-slamming that featured very popularly during my time through school, college… and follows me into today (although I’m now practising taking many more risks) was speaking up in class. You know when there’s a group conversation going on, or the teacher asks a question and you feel the answer or something you want to add in the chat, brewing, coming up your throat and ready to be released… and you put your hand up, or speak when there’s a gap. Sooooooo much of my childhood and teenage years have been spent with this blockage within me – not being able to take any action after ‘thinking’ it – never speaking up, and not just in class. The ‘wise mind’ thing to say when I hear a social conversation going on, or the answer I’m itching to give when either everyone else knows it, or no-one else does. Emotions – the fear, the social anxiety, the low value in myself has slammed that door shut, and kept me muted.
There’s been no drastic changes, but gradually, and with the help of therapy and being able to talk through my emotions, I’ve started trusting my ‘wise mind’ intuitions. And although not quite trusting myself on how that will go and whether I’m good enough to be able to see whatever it is through – what I’ve learnt is that when you try and do that thing you know feels right but makes you scared, is that you can always, always come back learning. And then develop on that. I’m finding it easier to realise that the most ‘successful’/rewarding steps and decisions, are not a direct, plain-sailing route. You literally have to ‘live and learn’ – take that chance, see how it feels afterwards and amend and shape your actions in order to achieve that goal. But maintain that belief in yourself.
I had a big ‘wise mind’ opportunity recently. One that really tested how much I was willing to trust myself and combine emotion with logic. One that I very nearly backed out of, after I’d put myself forward due to the usual sabotage of my mind. So in my local mental health servies, ‘NAViGO’ they had been advertising for the new vacancies of ‘community representatives’, which will last 2 years from October. My mum had been doing it for the past 4 years as her experience as a family member affected by mental health, and found it empowering to make a difference, and attend meetings amongst staff to help make changes for service users and carers in the area. But her time that she’s allowed to stay in the role has now ran out, and I suggested for a laugh really, that I should stand for the elections and carry on the ‘Salt’ power. But then my real, instinctual thought was “as if I’d be able to do that – speak up for myself and other people. There’s no way I’m up to the job, it’s made for other people, not me…”
Now I’m much more insightful and aware of my own thought processes, this was a bit of a red flag moment – I noted it as an automatic thought that was actually holding me back. All it had ever done in the past, was to make me feel safe, but with the consequence of feeling unfulfilled and not in line with my ‘wise mind’. No I may not have had many experiences of talking up and feeling confident in the process, especially during spontaneous conversation (as in not a planned speech)… but this did not mean I wasn’t capable. What I needed to do was actively create new memories of speaking, of feeling capable and confident so that when it came to future opportunities where this old, doubtful automatic thought would usually arise and recognise what it would perceive as a threat… I would have something to draw on that proved the things I’d been wanting to feel all along. Mental evidence.
But… there’s a difference between knowing, and doing. What would make this difficult, is the emotions that will arise through tackling what I’d usually avoid. Fear, anxiety, self-doubt, shame. Now that I am managing emotions better and feeling more ‘centred’ (helps not to have binged and purged for 54 days now!), I’m ready to face the difficult emotions and learn as I go along to shape and improve my skills in talking within a variety of situations. And most importantly, to be able to take part in things that really do matter to me and are in line with my values. Because I know deep down that my voice is as important as anyone else’s, and maybe with it I can help drive some positive changes in the mental health services I’ve been a part of for 8 years.
A few days before the first ‘Meet the Candidates’ event in which those that had put themselves forward for the new roles would have to answer questions and purely chat – a word that instantly fills me with anxiety, I was so close to pulling out. That automatic thought of “I’m not someone that deserves to talk up” was trickling in again good and proper, that I worried if I was to get the role would I be able to even see it through and live up to expectations? And what if I got ill, having to pull out within that 2 years and let everyone down? Yes I’m trying to lose a little weight carefully and sensibly and I know and trust myself finally that it’s not going too far because of the goals I have in place now, but I started projecting future images of having to go back onto an eating disorder unit for the 4th time. No bloody way is that happening, and I am 99% confident that wouldn’t happen – so why am I worrying about what isn’t? It was starting to give me an excuse to back out of this (very scary) fulfilling learning opportunity, so I had to reign it back in, check in with my ‘wise mind’ until I realised that the most important thing to me was to try. To trust myself. I have it all in me to cope with it and see it through… I still need to experience it to believe it. Which is why I did attend that first event and to my relief, had conversations that felt manageable, was able to read my written answers to pre-planned questions in front or an audience without stumbling or mumbling like I convinced myself I would… and actually came away having felt connected with a lot of lovely people. And out of that meeting, came another opportunity to help out with some voluntary groups, which again contradicted my fears.
Times like that, I’m chuffin’ glad I listened to my ‘wise mind’ because I’m excited to take on a new challenge that will help me grow as a person. I may not yet get the role of community rep, but if I don’t – even by signing myself up to this process and taking part in the campaigning has made me more confident in my abilities, so if I am unsuccessful I will seek out other opportunities to keep doing what I fear most but equally want to conquer – talking, and feeling confident at it.
Studying the difference between emotional and reasonable mind, with ‘wise’ in the middle… I also realised how the yo-yo of my eating disorder history fits – both polar opposites. Whilst my repetitive experience of Anorexia has been driven very much from a ‘reasonable’ mind (although you wouldn’t think it rationally-speaking), due to the obsession with planning and things having to be ‘just-so’, spontaneity never an option, as emotion is numbed out… the repetitive Bulimia in-between these periods, has been driven from a place of ‘emotional mind’ – acting on impulse, feeling controlled by my negative emotions (mainly due to my body image) and being addicted to binging-and-purging because it took the sting of all the emotion away (as well as due to the physiological reasons that eating disorders entail).
It may not be as black-and-white as that, and maybe I was just hoping to try and understand my messy experience of never being able to normalise my relationship with food, therefore fitting it with this mind-set theory. But I did realise that I struggle to trust my ‘wise mind’ instincts, which is why I never seem to find a balance. When I stop dieting, that will be the biggest test for me, to see if I don’t get carried away with the ‘reasonable’ mind. But my biggest goal for the end of this year is to be able to live in the grey area when it comes to my relationship with food – neither restricting or binging-and-purging, something I’ve not been able to do for years. However, my world-view seems to have shifted over recent months and I’m pretty optimistic that this time I can get to that happy-medium place and finally (*touch wood*) be at peace with food.
In which mind-set do you feel you live most of your life? If it’s mostly in one and not very much in the other, are there little steps you can take to experience more of life in that other place? What could you be missing out on if you don’t?
More importantly – what do you think you’ll achieve if you do?