Finding Your Wise Mind: Mindfulness and the Three States of Mind

by | Oct 20, 2021 | Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Adolescents, Anxiety, Children, Young Adults

Written by Rebecca Herzog

A person’s mindset is closely connected to perception of the self and perception of life experiences. As a result, state of mind largely influences the way we feel, act, and react to any given situation. At times these behaviors may feel motivated by intense emotion, or at others as being governed by reason, so it can be challenging to maintain a level head and find the balance between these states. In DBT there is the concept of three states of mind: Emotion Mind, Reasonable Mind and Wise Mind. Each of these states impacts our thoughts and behaviors, so it is important to practice mindfulness to help yourself find your Wise Mind.  Accessing and responding to your Wise Mind can make it feel easier to attain a more well-balanced, happier life by increasing positive experiences for ourselves and our loved ones.


The Three States of Mind

Emotion Mind is motivated by intense emotions. In this state, logic, reason, and facts are not easily acknowledged or accessed. This mindset can be volatile, enabling us to say or do things that make us feel better in the moment without recognizing the potential long-term negative consequences. If you have ever acted in the heat of the moment or made an impulsive decision, you were responding to your Emotion Mind. Maybe this looked like ending a relationship that was important to you in response to an argument, or jumping into a situation you were not ready for and regretting it later. Split-second decisions like these are often made when we are in a state of vulnerability and unable to reason with ourselves. This can be exacerbated by not receiving enough rest, having an untreated medical or mental illness, substance use, poor nutrition, stress, and even low self-confidence.

Reasonable Mind is ruled by extreme reason, logic, and facts. This is the part of our mind that plans and evaluates, helping us complete tasks such as following a recipe, making a budget, or assembling furniture. Acting from an extreme state of Reasonable Mind can, however, have a negative impact on our relationships because it dismisses the emotional needs of ourselves and others. For example, if after a long day of work you come home and immediately walk the dog, throw in a load of laundry, and then start to prepare dinner without even saying hello to your family, you are in Reasonable Mind. Dwelling in this state of mind can also mean a disregard for personal values, clouding your perception of what is important to you and what you want out of life.

Wise Mind is the state of mind that we strive to be in. It integrates both Emotion Mind and Reasonable Mind so that we can enable ourselves to think, feel, and act from a balanced place. Wise Mind has a calm and peaceful quality to it, and it is where truth and wisdom lies within each of us. Wise Mind is similar to intuition, and accessing may be described in a physical sense, such as a “gut feeling” or “third eye.” Consider a time when you might have dedicated your entire night to completing a project for work or school. Despite desperately wanting to just relax and watch more Netflix, you persevered so that you could achieve the satisfaction of a job well done and recognition for your hard work. Wise Mind assists us in making effective decisions in our life by helping us reach our goals and feel good about our choices.


Finding Your Wise Mind

Accessing your Wise Mind may feel difficult, especially if you are accustomed to residing within your Emotion or Reasonable Mind, and can take practice. Marsha Linehan, the founder of DBT, states that everyone has a Wise Mind, because everyone has the capacity for wisdom. “Wise Mind is getting to the heart of the matter. It is seeing and knowing something directly and clearly. It is grasping the whole picture when before only parts were understood. It is ‘feeling’ the right choice in a dilemma, when the feeling comes from deep within rather than from a current emotional state” as Dr. Linehan writes in the DBT Skills Training Manual. Practicing mindfulness regularly will lead you to your Wise Mind. DBT suggests that engaging in the practices below can also be helpful in finding this state of mind:

  1. Breathe in ‘wise’ breathe out ‘mind.’ Put yourself in a mindful position (this may be a meditative state while lying down, or sitting in a quiet space) As you breathe in, say the word wise silently to yourself, and as you breathe out say mind. Continue this pattern for as long as you want. Any practice will be helpful.
  2. Ask your Wise Mind a question and listen for the answer. As you inhale, ask yourself a question, like “Should I move across the country?” or “What positive qualities do I have?” As you exhale, make sure to listen for the answer in your mind— don’t or speak it. Continue asking with each breath in, and listen each time you breathe out. For more guidance on this practice, check out this video from DBT-RU.
  3. Practice core mindfulness skills. The What and How skills from DBT can also help synthesize Emotion and Reasonable Mind, allowing you to access Wise Mind. Each of these skills is actually a group of skills that focus on understanding our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in response to our lives and the world around us.
  4. Consider your current state of mind. Before making a major decision or reacting to someone or something, ask yourself “What state of mind am I in?” If you are feeling extremely strong emotions, that is a sign, you are probably in Emotion Mind. Waiting to decide or respond until you are in Wise Mind could lead to more positive interactions with others and an improved sense of self.

A key point to remember while practicing mindfulness is that life is challenging, and because of this we cannot always be in or act from our Wise Mind.  After all, we are only human and trying to do the best we can— even when it comes to learning and engaging in DBT skills! It is normal to fluctuate between states of mind, but practicing mindfulness in any form will make it easier to find a sense of wisdom within yourself and channel your “inner owl.”


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