If someone can answer this, my mental health issues will be solved.
July 19, 2021 12:47 AM   Subscribe

This to me is the most fundamental question about the human mind and emotions. As I see it, there are two "minds" or ways of being, and psychologists seem divided (at least it seems that way to me) about the correct way to use these "minds". I will illustrate the two minds through a scenario and then clarify my question.

Mind #1: The "controller". The scenario: You go to an event. Everyone is dancing and laughing. You feel relatively good. Then you go home and start feeling sad - multiple reasons why, including you feel down about certain things in your life. Thoughts also start coming up about things you did wrong that day. You start feeling tired and depressed.

The controller mind notices and directs focus. It notices that you are succombing to sadness so it tries to rationalize. "Hey, I shouldn't think of all the bad things. I had a pretty good day. What can I think about that was good?" You then force yourself to think about something else.

The issue with the controller mind: You then become very mind focused. You are focused on your thoughts and not really in your body. It also takes effort.

The positive: You are no longer feeling despair. You are more engaging in social situations because you are controlling your energy. You distract yourself from the sadness.

Mind #2: The "flow" Same scenario, but you don't try to change your thoughts. The flow mind allows all. You stay in your body, you allow all the thoughts and feel them, you start thinking about the shitty things in your life and that you need to make a change because you realize you are not happy with who you are/where you're at in life and that's the real reason you feel sad even after a fun event. You go to sleep because you are exhausted. You lay in bed for a long time the next morning because you are sad.

The issue: You feel like you aren't in control. Bad moods persist. You withdraw in social situations.
The positive: You don't feel like you need to control. There's no "resistance" so to speak. It also feels honest. You also feel more in your body.

Some psychologists say that you need to allow thoughts and feelings (ACT therapy, for instance), which to me is "The Flow" mind. However, I also hear a lot of advice that your unchecked thoughts can cause you distress, which sounds like opposite advice to go with "The Controller" (fits in with CBT approach, or Law of Attraction for instance). So which is the healthier approach? Why does there seem to be so much conflicting advice from psychologists, or people who give advice? I think many people with mental health issues feel conflicted about the above, and this impairs how to trust themselves and have agency over their inner world.
posted by oracleia to Religion & Philosophy (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: That's kind of a misunderstanding of ACT and flow. It isn't about acting on the feelings, it's about accepting them. Yes I am sad, or tired. That doesn't require then thinking about shitty things, or then judging myself for not doing something I feel I should do.

So as an example, as someone with Issues who did ACT. In that situation I have several choices: recognising that I feel sad or uncomfortable or tired after a party doesn't mean that I am a failure. It is just...what happens. So I can respect that and understand that after a party I often feel tired or sad - I am over stimulated, and need to to recharge. The acceptance is BEFORE that feeling gets attached to something it is unrelated to. From there it makes sense to recognise and change how I act and choose - only do those things when I want to. Accept that it is fun during the event, and afterwards I should be kind to my overtired self.

If I am unhappy about my life, I investigate if it's because I think I 'should' be a certain way or do a certain thing. If I actually want it.

It's less about forcing yourself to think of good things, although that can be a part of it, but recognising that a feeling doesn't need to launch a whole spiral into existential dread.

The side effect is that after very social times I am kinder to myself about being sad or tired. I enjoy the event more and feel it less because I have acknowledged and respected that I don't have to be a certain way. I used to feel like not only I should enjoy social stuff that feeling sad was stupid and I was a failure - as opposed to realising I don't need to believe the 'should' and can respect how I feel about a thing. And choose kindness.

The awareness/acceptance is about realising our thoughts often follow our specific patterns feeling sad doesn't mean something is wrong in your life. You don't have to follow that depressive thought spiral. You can just accept that you're sad, go home, have good sleep, and do good things for yourself to recharge.
posted by geek anachronism at 1:24 AM on July 19, 2021 [23 favorites]

Completely agree with geek anachronism re: ACT. Also, to add, using an ACT approach I would also say to myself, "Well one of my values is to build social relationships, and going to this event is inline with those values, so I won't let the fact that I sometimes feel sad/tired after these kinds of events stop me from going to them."

From an ACT perspective, it would probably say that the issue with the "controller" isn't that you become mind focused per se. It's that avoidance of thoughts and feelings doesn't actually work. Maybe in the short term it does, but in the long term, it makes those thoughts and feelings more overwhelming.

That's why "defusion" in ACT is so important. Because defusion is acknowledging that thoughts and feelings don't give us information about reality. So feeling sad after an event or having thoughts about being a failure or whatever doesn't mean you need to make changes in your life, and so from an ACT perspective, I would label those as thoughts and/or feelings, and then I would let them just sort of be there. But I wouldn't follow the train of thoughts anywhere.

Of course, IANAD/IANAMental health professional. Just someone whose spent a lot of time in therapy, including ACT.
posted by litera scripta manet at 4:10 AM on July 19, 2021 [4 favorites]

This is my opinion, you ask ten people this question in a room full of professionals you will get ten different answers.

So when people are studying methods of working with distress like ACT or CBT or whatever, first they take a baseline distress level, then there is this formatted intervention (we educate all people in the study to do this type of relaxation/redirection/coping skill etc) in this particular way. Then the people in the study do it for a particular amount of time, and then the study asks questions about their distress to determined if it worked. It's not quite as comprehensive as one would think it would be. This is a super, super simplified version of what happens in standardized treatment approach studies, and not all studies do things in the same way and things like that. Anyway the point is that much of the intervention stuff isn't necessarily based on some unifying theory of the mind, as much as it is based off of, well when we told a bunch of people who reported symptoms to do this thing and it turns out that a statistically significant portion of them reported they felt better, in whichever way they measured distress.

So now that I've said the above, There are tons of theories of mind . Tons of them all with positive and negatives. Sometimes the information is conflicting and confusing, because ultimately no one really knows how or why brains do the things they do, or why there's is so so much variation. There is a bunch of intresting perspectives, but ultimately they are all perspectives. Many people find lots of value in these perspectives. But , there is no one right way to describe how humans think and feel.

When professionals talk about approaches, there are professional discussions about measuring is any particular approach is working for an individual and changing things up if it just doesn't. There is constant monitoring and reassessing. There is no cure all psychology or best way or anything. There is just a bunch of things that we've studied that seem to work enough at the time to teach others.
posted by AlexiaSky at 4:17 AM on July 19, 2021 [6 favorites]

I suggest you read a book called “The Master and His Emissary.” It is dense and difficult but worth it. It changed my life.
posted by Merricat Blackwood at 5:26 AM on July 19, 2021 [4 favorites]

To me, this sounds like a false dichotomy. The answers above already explain this well, but I’ll add an analogy that occurred to me once and stuck: avoiding emotions is like hitting the snooze button on the alarm clock. Instant but short-lived relief and then the alarm clock rings again, as often as you hit that snooze button. In the end, you still have to get up (or feel the emotions), avoidance and distractions only make it so that you have to deal with the metaphorical alarm-clock sound much more often. (Same analogy for procrastination or any other avoidance attempts of inevitable things. Knowing this still doesn’t make doing much easier, though, YMMV.)
posted by meijusa at 5:28 AM on July 19, 2021 [7 favorites]

There are two types of people in the world: those that divide everything and everybody into two kinds and those that don't. Why do you feel the need to divide the mind into two kinds? It is far more complex and far more varied than that.
posted by TheRaven at 5:28 AM on July 19, 2021 [8 favorites]

Mind #3: The "Observer". This is the one that can watch "Controllers" stack themselves up under their tall overcoat and start trying to throw their weight around, having apparently convinced themselves that they are somehow more than and essentially different from mere further instances of the "Flow".

I don't think that mental health problems get solved by being told answers to questions. I think mental health problems get solved by doing the work required to build constructive and helpful mental habits that eventually displace the dysfunctional ones, much of which work consists of systematically discarding beliefs that are demonstrably wrong or not ever tested or not even testable and then adjusting to life without them.

The issue: You feel like you aren't in control.

What is the nature of the entity that would prefer to be "in control" in this scenario, and what does "control" even mean to that entity?

Who am I, and what kind of thing is that? I think that ongoing personal inquiry into those questions is much more useful than attempting to reduce some or other huge system of practice to some or other oversimplified precis and then declaring the system "essentially" understood without actually doing any of the practice.
posted by flabdablet at 7:21 AM on July 19, 2021 [7 favorites]

I think others have done a good job of offering perspectives, but I will chime in. I have been doing therapy for the first time in my life (I'm firmly middle aged) over the last two years or so. It has been very helpful for me. I have been working on dealing with anxiety after the loss of multiple family members, a near death experience for my spouse and a long illness that, thankfully, my child recovered from.

My therapist hasn't really given a specific name to our treatment approach, but basically I combined a basic SSRI (which I just started tapering off of) with mindfulness and talking through things with her. I have found it helpful to think of my mind as being composed of multiple different points of view that can each (or all) come to the foreground in different situations. This morning, I am going through exactly what your scenario describes - we had a visitor yesterday, it was a lot of fun, and when they left I felt nervous and melancholy. What my mindfulness practice is (hopefully) allowing me to do is to have two minds at once. Tchozz-1 says "Did I say the right thing to so-and-so? Are they happy with me? What will so-and-so think of such-and-such?" Tchozz-2 says "This is natural to feel this way. You haven't had many visitors at all during the pandemic. Yesterday's visitor is a new friend and it's always a lot when you are first getting to know someone. Remember that people mostly don't remember what you say, anyway, and friendships are marathons, not sprints." Tchozz-2 is the consoling mind for Tchozz-1 and helps Tchozz-1 respect his feelings, but also be calm enough to let them pass. What I try to model in my mind is that Tchozz-2 is the best friend I try to be to others, only Tchozz-2 is the best friend for myself.

To be sure, I'm talking about fairly ordinary social anxiety stuff like "Will so-and-so be okay that I said I prefer the book to the movie" and so on. But when my anxiety gets the best of me, even small disagreements make me very nervous.

I think, to try to answer your question, another way - ultimately I sought out therapy because I didn't like feeling so drained all the time and knew that I was not being as present as I wanted to be for my family because I was trying to be perfect, and instead was being anxious. So, I have been working on finding a place where I can experience my feelings of sadness, anger, anxiousness, and so on, but not be overwhelmed by them. So, I guess I am looking for a middle ground between controlling them and flowing with(in) them. Maybe rather than flowing in them, I am flowing beside them. Bad thoughts are there and are part of me, but they don't have to be all of me.

I would maybe suggest investigating your description of the "flow" state - I am pretty sure my therapist would gently redirect your description and encourage a reframing around the idea of mindfulness. Mindfulness for me respects feelings, but helps you practice a healthy distance when they become overwhelming. They key for me was to practice mindfulness when I felt good, so that the mental "muscles" were there to use when I felt overwhelmed. My mindfulness practice was partly just conditioning myself to experience the fact that I could move in and out of calm-feeling even when I am feeling very overwhelmed. I had some agency in that, basically.

It's really tough stuff, but I want to encourage you that there can be help and better times ahead. Good luck!

On preview: I could also reword everything I have written to be what flabdablet wrote. I never thought I would be into Buddhism, or anything that smacked of "hippies" but now I realized that I had a silly bias against a thought pattern that could be helpful. So I also agree that it can be helpful to loosen up your construct of who you are.
posted by Tchozz at 7:35 AM on July 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

No, these two things do not represent a significant line of division among psychologists. These are two common pop culture frameworks that broadly appeal to a lot of personality types.

Actual psychology is significantly more multidisciplinary than this. Any one practitioner might pull together half a dozen methodologies as a treatment plan for a specific person who has specific challenges and specific things they have to and/or want to accomplish in their days/lives. Most therapists are not adherents to a single methodology, they do not fight in the streets*. These are tools in a toolbox, so that I might go to a therapist who uses components of CBT, DBT, Somatic Experiencing, and EMDR - not necessarily all at once, but over a course of treatment.

This is like saying doctors are divided between germ theory and orthopedic theory. No, doctors use various drugs/wound care for infections and immobilization/stabilization techniques/equipment for broken bones and wouldn't really use the one treatment for the other condition. If you go to a GP with a rash, they may refer you to a dermatologist but not because they don't personally believe in diseases of the skin, they're just pointing you at someone with more specific expertise than themself.

*I mean academics can be pissy/territorial as hell and they do fight, but it's mostly over drinks or in papers, but that's literally part of the job of being an academic: pushing one's peers to back up their theories with evidence. Yes, you will find the occasional Emphasis A person who insists Emphasis B is wrong-headed and maybe even dangerous but this is never going to be on a level so broad as mindfulness vs redirection, this is about stuff on the level of conversion therapy or theories of memory retention/retrieval.

I know a lot of people with mental health and neuropsych challenges and I don't think any of them are confused by the existence of differing treatment modalities. Much like in medical treatment, you may try one thing - like a cast for a broken leg - and then have to try another, like surgery because the break won't fully heal with just the cast. I do know people who were frustrated or dissatisfied with one methodology of treatment, but even that is useful information about what might work better. And the thing that works very well for my friend may not work very well for me, because I am made up of a different set of challenges and a different set of life experiences and a different set of priorities.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:05 AM on July 19, 2021 [11 favorites]

Best answer: So which is the healthier approach?

I think if you were to get an answer that satisfied you within the framing you used for this question, it would still not satisfy you for long. Either-or framing is not spacious enough to fit all the details and experiences that you'll find in life, which is another way of reiterating the point that so many others have already made about dichotomous thinking. But the appeal is understandable, because such thinking eliminates the anxiety of being uncertain or ambivalent, which is connected to what you said here:

I think many people with mental health issues feel conflicted about the above, and this impairs how to trust themselves and have agency over their inner world.

I would flip this around and suggest that the total elimination of this sort of conflict neither improves mental health nor inner agency, but rather hinders both. Learning how to tolerate this sort of ambivalence and uncertainty is exactly what builds agency, because only by not reacting reflexively to this kind of anxious discomfort are we able to make a wise choice about how to act (or not act).

This is also congruent with ACT, which does not suggest that people become passively resigned to any impulses and urges that happen to be flowing through in a given moment. It instead suggests acting to change things that one can effectively change, and not acting to change things that one cannot effectively change. The thing about this stance is that it too has uncertainty built in, because aside from some broad generalities, it becomes high individual-specific which things fall into which category for each person. This can only be learned through direct experience, and learning that for yourself requires trying and doing, which will sooner or later put you in contact with the very anxiety, ambivalence, and uncertainty that you're hoping to eliminate. The first step is always the hardest, but the good news is that the more you do it, the less anxiety-provoking it will become.
posted by obliterati at 8:58 AM on July 19, 2021 [6 favorites]

One of my friends has had a lot of training in Sikh meditation. They have an interesting technique that I think is quite similar to some other kind of meditation techniques.

You sit quietly and watch your thoughts as they pass by, sort of the observer mode. But you don't stop there. You start noticing the emotion or feeling behind what you're thinking. That leads you to other thoughts and you notice the emotion, feelings, sensations that those thoughts evoke. And you continue sort of diving into the center of the onion like that, peeling back layer after layer.

And all at once, all the thoughts will stop. You'll have a feeling of stillness that is hard to describe.

And what is amazing is: It works every time once you are onto it.

Point is, just sitting back and observing your thoughts doesn't have to lead down into the cesspool every time. The same technique can lead elsewhere, if you know how.

Along those lines, I am a firm believer in the idea that your thoughts can be trained much as you train a dog or a horse or train yourself to do gymnastics, skateboard skills, play a musical instrument, and so on.

If a certain train of thought habitually leads you to a certain emotional place, say, then that is a habit. You can train yourself to go a different direction when you start having those same thoughts. After a while the new (hopefully healthier) train of thought becomes the habit.

Just for example, I performed music for many years and taught some hundreds of music students. When it came time for a performance, some students would have spent the prior weeks and even months anticipating the performance and particularly how everything was going to go wrong and it was going to be a disaster.

Guess what? More often than not, they were right.

But you could take those same students and show them how to practice molding their thoughts in a different way. (Typical example: Imagine yourself entering the concert hall, walking across the stage, as you do that you imagine yourself focusing on the music, focusing on the musical communication you are preparing, focus on what you want to communicate and the confidence that many hours of practicing have given you, focus on how excited and thrilled you are to share your music with the audience, and so on. Now doing this once isn't enough but say you do this visualization exercise for 5 minutes twice a day for a week or two or even a month. Now when you walk onto the concert stage your thoughts have a positive direction they have practiced going and more often than not, they will follow it.)

The difference was often night and day.

Thoughts can be trained--sometimes only with great difficulty, however.
posted by flug at 9:14 AM on July 19, 2021 [10 favorites]

Best answer: That's like asking which is better, meat or potatoes. The answer is, what the hell? You need both, plus vegetables, fruit, company at meals, water and more.

You can't go through life ignoring how you feel. Repression is dumb. It is a tool that can be used temporarily and sparingly. It's a hammer. It's not the ideal tool for solving every problem such as painting a masterpiece or cooking a meal or raising a child. But wallowing in your emotions and living in them and not steering them is like having an ATV. Yes, you can coast and see where it goes, and sooner or later where it goes will lead you to a very zen ditch and a very zen collar bone fracture.

One of the big pieces of the puzzle here might be misattributed feelings. You go dancing, you see delightful people, it is exciting. You come home. You are tired. You feel sad. You start to feel social anxiety and feel shame and think you said stupid things... This is where your controller may be screwing up by directing you to hide from the bad feelings. So you turn on a show and binge on it, or you dive into something to distract you. That ain't right. You aren't dealing with the situation, you are running away with it, and like leaving an dirty cat box, you are likely creating a much worse problem down the line.

Alternatively you call in the flow and you lie there and dwell on all the stupid things you said and how bad you feel and you wallow in it and you get used to feeling like this and you build deep, deep habitual grooves so that you get used to feeling like this and get into the habit of feeling like this and remember feeling like this - which is a crap place to go. That ain't right either.

What works a hell of a lot better is that you listen to your flow and use your controller effectively. So you come home and feel suddenly awful - pay attention to that, and then figure out why. The chances are there is a PHYSIOLOGICAL reason. The reason is going to be it is 11 PM, you are dehydrated, you are over stimulated, your feet hurt, you had too many hot wings to eat and you are not as elated as you were an hour ago. So instead of hiding in binge watching shows, or lying on the couch thinking about how that person you danced with probably thought you were an idiot until you convince yourself it is true, get some warm milk to settle your stomach, run some hot water in the tub and sit soaking your feet, and deliberately write down all the reasons why you are going to go dancing again next week and the types of partners you are going to look for, including the one you already danced with who is on your list of good prospects. Brush your teeth and listen to calming music. And then go to bed when you have been soothed and comforted. Look after the physiological needs to support the psychological needs.

Your controller is supposed to be looking after you, not encouraging you to be anxious and avoid things and repress them. Your flow is supposed to be detached enough to allow you to analyze your feelings rather than to allow you to spiral into rumination.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:43 AM on July 19, 2021 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: THIS is why I love this site so much. Thank you to everyone who has responded so far, I don't think you know how much I appreciate this.

I also posted on reddit and got vague, short and cryptic answers about buddhism that didn't really answer my question. On Meta Filter, everyone takes the time to actually give a full answer. You all are amazing.

Still taking in all the answers, will respond more in depth later.
posted by oracleia at 9:45 AM on July 19, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Nicely analyzed! I wanted to add that what you describe seems pretty similar to the Jungian concepts of the judgement and perception functions.

Your "controller" idea sounds just like the Jungian idea of judgment. Judgment also has branches. For example it would be associated with either executive thinking or feeling, based on "cold" logic in the case of thinking (if A + B = C then B + A = C...in the extreme case like the guy who won the game show Press Your Luck through sheer analytical logic for example) or internal-relational logic (I ought to; they should, because...in the extreme case like well, song lyrics or verse or a Jane Austen book).

I'd say your judgment functionality is really keen, reading your post. I'd also say there are not so many people who are this good at working their internal executive processes and also being able to go meta and talk about those processes.

But another way of saying this "keen" and "good job; you are good at this" thing is that you give internal judgment a lot of attention. That's important to consider. Sometimes a gift is a gift, it's wonderful. Your psychology shows you all these gifts that you have, over time. But then sometimes it keeps offering the same gift again and again, and later on you realize that it's basically a tie rack (especially in specific circumstances where it may be overused).

(Which is also a conundrum in a way as I think about writing this; it's rare for someone who is this talented of a subjective-analytical thinker to also be really happy to integrate third-party comments and observations, and personally when I get this analytical sometimes it's like I'm sharing my analyses because it's fun to really develop a new idea, and I do want feedback but TBH I might also just stay on my current track and not integrate any of the feedback at all...plus there's that lame feeling of "someone already invented that" but I hope you'll accept this in the creative spirit with which it is offered, not so much as a wheel-reinvention comment)

Perception functions, opposed to the executive, would be focused on taking in information/sensations/inspiration/other contents. Your flow idea. Going with it. Seeing what happens. Sometimes foreseeing what happens. Or seeing possibilities. Or being rooted in the now. Or seeing the past, recalling it, and feeling an urge to apply it to the now. Or forward, into future work (this becomes stabilization).

> However, I also hear a lot of advice that your unchecked thoughts can cause you distress

Based on my training as a Jungian-oriented coach, not a therapist, but trained in this kind of thinking at a philosophical level and integrating that into my practice: I'd offer that using an analytical process to describe a less-than-analytical process as "unchecked" sounds a bit like--or maybe suspiciously like--someone who has difficulty letting go of their inner executive processes. Like they feel they need to sort everything out using their usual executive control program, instead of figuring out a way to go with the flow.

But I don't know you--this is just sharing impressions that came to mind as I read.

I would suggest that there may be other processes to consult about this, and the meta-perceptive one you've got going on here is probably a good place to start that exploration. Maybe sometimes you go with the flow, maybe sometimes you analyze, but maybe also sometimes you consult a separate kind of flow, and you determine that there are 64 different types of flow, borrowing a bit of time from your analytical function, and it turns out your favorite, the one that works well for you, is this one over here, and from that flow you build bridges to all other flows, with time...or who knows.


> I think many people with mental health issues feel conflicted about the above, and this impairs how to trust themselves and have agency over their inner world.

Yes, I agree, AND they also have a subjective journey ahead of them. It has to be about them. That's the hard part. What's working for you and what even heals you might cause another person extreme discomfort or psychological damage. As I underwent ethics training by mental health professionals, this was hammered into my brain again and again--it's part of what makes recommending even simple "worked for me's" really risky, especially in professional practice that intersects with issues of mental health.

I was going to mention something else...Oh yeah. In addition to these Jungian labels for things, which may or may not be helpful, let me just share that in Jungian thinking, one key goal is to take any given dichotomy, yours or someone else's, and build it into a new, transcendental function.

This transcending is like saying porque no los dos to both ends of the dichotomy in some ways, but also it's not--it's creating a new you, thus the transcendental angle. It's where you find this new way of maybe doing both, but also something completely new. Even working with these perspectives in a way you haven't used them before, maybe.

There are also other models that really help with this, and it gets pretty darn cool and goes really deep, but I won't go into that...not sure if this is even helpful. But sometimes references can point to a lot of new inspiration from the outside world.

Wishing you a great outcome on this journey, really nice job here.
posted by circular at 11:19 PM on July 20, 2021

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