Your two minds

Several years ago, while I was working as a staff therapist at a psychiatric hospital here in Dallas, Texas, I happened to see a diagram on a dry-erase board that both puzzled and intrigued me. I was walking through the main group therapy room of one of the adult psych units, where another therapist was in charge of a group. As I walked by, I glanced at the board, and took a mental snapshot of what I saw there. The therapist had drawn a simple Venn diagram, consisting of two circles that overlapped one another, like the MasterCard symbol. An arrow pointing to the circle on the left was labeled, “Emotional mind.” An arrow pointing to the circle on the right was labeled, “Logical mind.” An arrow pointing to the common area in the middle was labeled, “Wise mind.”

Being a busy worker bee, I didn’t have time to stop and listen to what the therapist was saying about the diagram, but it stuck with me, and I thought about it for the next few days. Eventually, I was able to learn more about what the diagram represented, and through the magic of Google, I was easily able to find it on the web. As it turns out, the diagram comes from a particular school of therapy called dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT. However, the concept of two distinct but overlapping “minds” is common to a number of therapies and philosophies, and one that I have found extremely useful in helping people to understand and accept their thoughts and feelings.

Consider this: we all possess these two minds, our emotional mind and our logical mind. Our emotional mind is just that: feelings-based, sometimes impulsive, and not necessarily concerned with things like logic and evidence. Our logical mind, on the other hand, is thoughtful, reasonable, intellectual. (Some people find the concept of two minds to be off-putting; if so, it is best thought of as a metaphor for different areas of our brain.) Now, an interesting question arises: What is the relationship between these two minds?

It would be nice to say that the relationship between our emotional and logical minds was always harmonious, but that isn’t the case. In fact, there is often considerable conflict between the two. To help us understand this, let’s take the metaphor of the two minds a step further: the emotional mind is the child, and the logical mind is the adult (or, more specifically, the parent). Now, just because one of them is a child, and therefore child-like, that doesn’t mean it is stupid. In fact, the emotional mind possesses an intelligence all its own, something I touched on in a previous blog, “Paying attention to warning signs.” An example of this is the situation of meeting a new person who, despite any “good reason,” is setting off warning signs within us. Who notices the warning signs? The emotional mind, the child. It responds by saying, “I’m scared, we need to get away from this person.” And how does the logical mind respond to this? Often by saying, “Now, now, there’s no reason to be afraid, and besides, we don’t want to offend this person. He hasn’t done anything to cause alarm.” We may be only dimly aware of the conflict within ourselves, and we will tell ourselves we are “being stupid” for having feelings of fear.

As I have said previously, we ignore such warning signs at our peril. In the case above, the child was right, but by the time we realize it, it might be too late. This is only one of many ways we experience conflict between our inner child and inner parent. (Again – it’s a metaphor.) Another common example is an experience that makes us feel suddenly very sad. All too often, instead of acknowledging the feeling and accepting it, we tell ourselves we are “stupid” for feeling that way. In essence, the rational adult is scolding the child for feeling sad, and insulting it with terms like “stupid” and “weak.”

Of course, most of us are not used to thinking about our thoughts and feelings in terms of an emotional/rational or child/parent relationship, but this can be a very useful way of understanding what’s going on inside of us. It is worth examining this relationship and asking ourselves if we are satisfied with it. If we are not satisfied, because of the conflict between the two, there is good news: it can change. Something I often tell clients is that we had no choice over the way in which we were parented, but we do have a choice in how we parent ourselves.

Now, let’s take this parent/child metaphor a step further. Imagine the two of them are traveling together in a car, which represents you. Here’s a question: Who is driving? The emotional child, or the logical parent? We have all met people whose emotional, child-like mind seems to be running the show. They can be quite exhausting. On the other hand, there are those who are so far up in their logical mind that they are completely out of touch with their feelings, which is not necessarily a healthy place to be, either. In the Venn diagram described above, if you remember, the overlap between the two minds is labeled, “Wise mind.” This would suggest that there is a happy medium between the two. I picture this as a car being driven by the adult, but the child is right up there in the passenger seat, and the adult is paying close attention to the child. They are not always in perfect agreement, but their relationship is based on love and mutual respect. When they disagree, the adult might have the final say, but it does not insult or belittle the child. And it knows that occasionally the child is going to pick up on something that the adult didn’t catch, so it needs to be attentive.

Now, even if you happen to operate with an internal relationship something like the ideal one described above, you should know this: there is a good chance that certain situations can “trigger” you and throw you into a child-like state. When that happens, the child is now driving the car, and the logical adult is in the back seat, or a block or two away, running to catch up. One of the most common examples of this is when a person experiences something that feels like an abandonment. Take the case of Larry. Larry is a 35-year-old male who is reasonably smart, who has a decent job and some good friends, but seems to leave a trail of broken, unsuccessful relationships. Whenever he starts dating someone new, he is initially giddy, but inevitably, that feeling fades, only to be replaced by an anxiety-producing thought: This person will leave me, just like all the others. And when something happens that indicates the relationship really is in danger, Larry is overcome with a child-like fear. He is thrown into a state of mind that is governed completely by emotion, and logic has left the building. He might respond by telling himself that there is “no good reason” to feel the way he does, thereby completely invalidating his feelings and adding a sense of guilt to the mix.

If Larry never gets any help, he might repeat that pattern for the rest of his life. That would be unfortunate, because it doesn’t have to end like that. If Larry decides to embark on a journey of growth and discovery, which is made easier by a guide, he stands an excellent chance of breaking out of this pattern. He will likely learn that his tendency to be overwhelmed by raw emotion is the result of something that happened (or failed to happen) when he really was a child, and now, situations that resemble that event have the power to awaken all those old feelings. He can learn to deal with those feelings, to process them and give them a voice in a way that the child he was never could. He can learn to treat that part of himself with love and respect, rather than contempt and hatred. He can learn to say to that part of him, “It’s okay. I know you’re scared, but we’re going to get through this. And I will never leave you.”

I encourage you to think about the relationship between your emotional mind and your logical mind, between your inner child and inner parent. This relationship is often similar to the relationship we had with our parents when we were children. Again – we had very little choice over that relationship, but we do have the power to affect what is going on inside us now. If you would like to improve yours, I would strongly encourage you to enlist the aid of someone who can help.

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