There are three stages to a lot of people’s unhappiness.
First, we feel unhappy. Sad, lonely, depressed, anxious, angry, annoyed, overwhelmed, whatever you like. These emotions are part of the normal human condition. We cannot get rid of them (nor would it necessarily be desirable to do so). In the natural course of things, we will be sad for a period of time, and then we would feel something else.
Second, we have thoughts about our emotions.
This is one of the ways chronically depressed people work differently from people who aren’t chronically depressed: when nondepressed people are sad, they tend to think “I feel sad”; when chronically depressed people are sad, we tend to think “I feel useless” or “I feel bad” or “I feel unlovable”. Of course, thinking “I feel unlovable” would make anyone feel depressed. This is true even if you know intellectually that you aren’t unlovable: feeling unlovable still makes you feel like shit.
This applies to a lot of people who aren’t depressed. Anxious people tend to respond to fear by thinking “oh no! I’ll never make it! I’m a failure at everything I try!” People with guilt issues think “I knew I was a horrible person, why do I hurt people so much?” Angry people can wind up thinking about the wrongs others have done them, making them angrier (in my case, I’ve occasionally wound up feeling guilty for my anger, and then blaming the other person for making me feel guilty!).
Some people are (naturally) very afraid of feeling shame or guilt or anger or depression. Even if they’re in a situation where they’d naturally feel sad– for instance, if their dog died or they got yelled at at work– they might fear their sadness means the depression is coming back. So they try to avoid feeling sad at all, which leads to a lot of really fucking terrible coping mechanisms.
Third, we try to deal with our emotions. This is where we get into “doing mind” and “being mind”.
Doing mind specializes in thinking, planning, goal-setting, ideas, and busyness. It is focused on problem-solving and achieving goals. Doing mind is very useful. Every time you go “I want coffee. How can I obtain coffee?” doing mind is there in the background making sure you can reach your coffee-related goals.
Now, sometimes doing mind is necessary in order to deal with your moods. If you’re like “I feel like shit”, you might think “I am going to listen to Hamilton under my weighted blanket and that will improve my mood.” However, sometimes when dealing with emotions, doing mind can run into problems.
In order to achieve its goals, doing mind has to think about your current state (“I’m at home and out of coffee”), your desired state (“I would like to have coffee”), and where you don’t want to be (“I don’t want to spill coffee on myself walking home from Starbucks”.) Unfortunately, in order to problem-solve moods, doing mind still has to think about your current state (“I feel sad”), your desired state (“I wish I were happy, even though I am not right now”), and your undesired states (“I want to stop feeling these horrible things”). And just like thinking “I’m a failure at everything I try!” makes you feel more anxious, thinking “I am sad! I want to stop being sad!” makes you sadder.
The opposite of doing mind is being mind. Being mind specializes in curiosity about your mood, acceptance of what’s going on right now, and being here in the present moment. It is noticing your experience without an agenda: “welp, I’m sad now. Wonder why?” It is lower-intensity. You are focused on the uniqueness of each moment and just letting things happen.
It is important to note that being mind is not the same as suppressing your emotions, and it is certainly not the same as invalidating your emotions. Being mind is acknowledging your emotions and committing to feeling them, not thinking that you shouldn’t be feeling emotions. If you feel exhausted and overwhelmed, you’re not accepting your emotions– you’re just invalidating yourself.
Doing mind is characterized by living on automatic pilot, doing things without even noticing that we’re doing them. Often, we focus so heavily on our goals that we miss life, postponing everything until life is less hectic and we’ll have time to notice things again. Being mind is characterized by intentionality, choosing what to do next, and being fully conscious of the present moment.
Doing mind involves thought– thinking about the world, our feelings, who we are. Being mind involves feelings, experiences, and direct sensation. Doing mind tends to treat thoughts as if they were the same as the things themselves: doing mind doesn’t see the difference between thinking “I am a failure” and actually having failed. Being mind steps away from thoughts, seeing them as mental events that enter and leave and that don’t necessarily reflect reality or require us to do anything about them.
Doing mind often involves mental time travel– going forward to the future, to our ideas of what we want everything to be, or back to the past, ruminating about memories of similar situations. Being mind is fully in the present moment; even when we have thoughts about the past or future, we notice them as part of our present experience.
Doing mind responds to unpleasant experiences by avoiding them, getting rid of them, or destroying them. Being mind approaches unpleasant experiences with interest, curiosity, and respect. Doing mind wants things to change, to be different, to stop falling short in all the ways that they fall short; it is acutely conscious of all the flaws in reality and it wants them to be fixed RIGHT NOW. Being mind doesn’t demand that experience fits with our ideas of what it should be: people in being mind are content with reality, even if it is unpleasant, and content with themselves, even if they are flawed; it is kind and good-willed.
Doing mind is wrapped up in pursuing goals and plans, sometimes at the expense of little pleasures, things that nurture us, or consequences to other people; people who are too much in doing mind often wind up burned out and exhausted. Being mind values the quality of the moment, even if it won’t help the person reach the goal, and is compassionately concerned for the happiness of itself and others.
Mentally, I imagine being mind as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and doing mind as the schlub she saves from his dreary, boring life. You may have a different way of imagining it. That is fine.
Now, you obviously cannot live 100% in doing mind or being mind. Instead, you should try to synthesize the two minds together into Wise Mind– a balance of doing and being. Wise mind engages in activities, but also is aware of itself. Wise mind has let go of having to achieve its goals, but also throws itself into working towards goals. Most of all, wise mind uses skillful means– doing what works even when it goes against our urges to do so.
This is actually an example of something DBT calls “walking the middle path”. There are a lot of examples of this! For instance, there’s reasonable mind (which balances the checkbook) and emotion mind (which says “I want that”, “help her”, or “aaaaaa run away”). In wise mind, we regulate emotions and make decisions based on reason, but also experience our emotions fully and allow them to motivate us to action. There’s intense desire for change and radical acceptance; in wise mind, we want things to be different and take steps to bring it about, and also are willing to accept what is going on right now. There’s self-denial and self-indulgence; in wise mind, we practice moderation and satisfy the senses.
Note that this isn’t a compromise between two opposites, but a synthesis. You don’t halfway feel your emotions and halfway think rationally; you fully think rationally and fully feel your emotions. It’s both/and. And also notice that “wise mind” is a deeply personal experience: the ideal synthesis of emotion/reason, self-denial/self-indulgence, being/doing, or change/acceptance is different for you than it is for anybody else, because your circumstances are unique. In your own wise mind, you need to find a synthesis that works for you, not for your parents, your friends, your girlfriend, wider society, or anybody else. It’s very easy to say “well, clearly wise mind is doing what my husband wants, he is right and I am wrong about everything”; however, you cannot abdicate your wisdom or your decision-making to other people. (I am terrified by this fact too. But it’s also sort of exhilarating!)
How can you develop wise mind? Here are some things that help people:
- Strategically posting readings, inspirational quotations, or even just “stay in wise mind!” in places you’ll see them, such as your bathroom mirror or the microwave.
- Setting an alarm to go off at a certain time or randomly to remind you to be mindful of your current activities.
- Selecting a particular thing you do every day (making tea, brushing teeth, getting dressed) and trying to bring moment-to-moment awareness to that activity.
- When overwhelmed, reminding yourself that you just have to do one thing at a time– take one step, write one sentence, wash one dish, do one pushup. Let the next moment go until you get there.
- Noticing events in your everyday life, even if they’re small (the taste of food, the feeling of exhaustion, the sensation of wind on your face when you walk outside).
- Staying aware of what needs to be done even when on a break or relaxing.
- Practicing willingness to do what is needed when you notice it is needed, even if you really don’t want to.
- Pausing during the day to ask yourself “what am I thinking? what am I feeling? what sensations are in my body?”, then saying “this is how it is right now”; focusing for a minute on the sensations of breathing, then expanding to the sensations throughout your body, from your posture to your face to your hands; then moving on with your day.
- Stopping during unpleasant experiences to notice what you’re feeling in your body, what you’re thinking, what your mood is, and what is objectively happening in the world.
- And, of course, having a regular meditation practice.
Martha O'Keeffe said:
Of course, thinking “I feel unlovable” would make anyone feel depressed. This is true even if you know intellectually that you aren’t unlovable: feeling unlovable still makes you feel like shit.
Trouble with this is that being depressed and having valid intellectual reasons (not just “oh I feel down that’s why I think this way”) for your feelings is really a bad combination.
That’s why CBT didn’t really work for me; helped in sorting out “Ah, that’s what that type of over-thinking is called” but when it came to the “Now you only feel like you’re no good because of the depression, think of all the successes/achievements you’ve had!” part, there were no successes and achievements, hence objective reasons for indeed thinking “Well, I’m crap”.
I don’t mean to single you out, Ozy, but speaking for the really pathetic sub-group of us losers, I hate with a passion all those chirpy “You’re not really unloveable, that’s just the badbrains making you think that” parts of help posts.
Because I don’t want to give my age, but I’m a long way past thirty and I can say that nobody does love me. There is no-one who finds me loveable. I am not loved and I am not loveable, and this is my reason, not my feelings, talking.
Family loves you? Mostly dead by this point and that was always debatable in the first instance, but that’s not the point.
It isn’t any help to get salt rubbed into the wounds of “You’re not unlovable, think of the people who like and love you!” when there aren’t any people like that for you.
Though your posts are good advice and do contain useful help, so again, this is not a criticism aimed at you 🙂
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Ugh, I know that feel. It can almost get gaslighty. When I went to CBT for social phobia, I was supposed to come up with evidence that my friends wanted me around, except in retrospect, as someone who is now friends with people who like them and want them around, they clearly didn’t.
And then you get into problems like, yeah, I have irrational guilt issues, but I’m also a really shitty effective altruist and angry at myself about that, and I don’t actually wish to CBT myself out of caring about Africa.
(This is one of the things I like about radical acceptance. At least it accepts that your life can suck for a reason other than distorted thoughts.)
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Martha O'Keeffe said:
Or the “tips to cope with depression” which include “Talk to friends when something is bothering you”.
The problem with that approach, dear self-help site, is that it requires friends as part of the process. No friends, solution not much fecking help, now is it?
I don’t know, with all the niche marketing nowadays, is there really nothing like “Mental Health Self-Help for Friendless Weirdo Losers Who Really Are Friendless Weirdo Losers, It’s Not The Depression Making Them Feel That Way” out there? 🙂
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“Be less depressed by having sex with people.” Actual therapeutic advice to awkward 17 year old virginal me.
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When I hear advice like that I think the target audience must be temporarily embarrassed normals. It’s good to hear acknowledgement that it’s actually bad.
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