Mindfulness skills are the foundation of all Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) skills training. The problems addressed by core mindfulness skills are knowing who you are, where you are going in your life, and the inability to control what goes on in your mind. Mindfulness encourages you to live in the moment by focusing on the present. The “What” skills refer to ways of practicing thinking or “what” you do to take control of your mind. Observing and Describing are most useful when new behavior is being learned, there is some sort of problem, or a change is necessary. Participating helps you live in the moment.
Observing is sensing or experiencing without describing or labeling the experience. This is difficult at first but the benefit of this practice is that the mind becomes quiet. Eventually, you will be able to observe things without a running commentary of a talkative mind.
It can be hard to just watch thoughts go by. The temptation is to get caught in the experience. Getting caught takes many forms like rumination, preoccupation and obsession. Step back a little, but stay within yourself – the goal is to be slightly detached, not to shut down completely.
It is also tempting to react to the thoughts you have when you’re observing. Unpleasant emotions motivate you to terminate the experience or leave the situation. We also react to pleasant events by wanting to prolong them. The challenge of observing is just to experience the moment without judging it good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, just letting those thoughts go by.
DBT describes the goal of observe as having a “Teflon Mind.” Teflon is a substance which creates a non-stick surface when applied to various materials like cookware. Teflon Mind is letting experiences, feelings, and thoughts come into your mind and slip right out. Many have found that this is a way to cope with intense feelings. Distressing events and emotions easily become stuck in consciousness. Teflon Mind is a way to attend to painful thoughts without getting stuck. Let thoughts slide off your mind like a fried egg off a non-stick frying pan.
Observing Painful Thoughts
You may encounter thoughts that lead to painful emotions when you practice Observe. Thoughts can easily bring up guilt, shame, anxiety, and sadness. This is natural. Practicing this skill can actually help you overcome those emotions.
Mindfulness is an example of the psychological technique of exposure. Exposure is a way for people who have fears or phobias to overcome their aversion. By exposing yourself gradually to what you fear, you overcome your fear little by little. Mindfulness to naturally arising thoughts, feelings, and sensations works like exposure gradually helping you overcome the grip of certain thoughts, feelings, and sensations. By observing thoughts, feelings, and sensations come and go, one learns that thoughts, feelings, and sensations do, indeed, come and go. This experience reduces the intensity of emotions.
- Imagine you’re a palace guard at the gate, watching everyone who comes and goes. The people are your thoughts. You don’t stop each person, you just watch.
- Imagine your thoughts are like clouds going by in the sky. Lie in the grass and watch them come and go.
- Imagine your thoughts are like leaves on a river. Sit on the bank and watch them float by but don’t reach in and grab them.
- Observe what you can feel through your five senses.
- Do the dishes, noticing how the hot water and suds feel on your hands. Feel each dish as you wash and rinse it.
- Place one hand on a cool surface and one hand on a warm surface (not hot, maybe a part of a table warmed by the sun). Notice the difference.
- Note how long you can observe for. It is common to have to start and restart the clock many times.
The next skill in the group of What Mindfulness skills is Describing. Describing is simply putting words on what you observe. It is labeling the experience without judgment. For instance, take an experience such as washing the dishes and say to yourself statements about what you observe. “The water is gray. The soap feels slippery in my hands. The dish is hot.”
Describing events and personal responses with words develops the ability to label environmental events and behaviors. The ability to describe what you feel and do when you are nervous, anxious, upset, impatient, fearful, excited, or tired helps you observe more clearly the connections between yourself and your environment. Using observe and describe together can help you stay in the present moment and focus on doing what you can now to make your situation better.
We can also use Describe to apply labels to feelings. “I feel disappointed about missing the party. I feel happy to see my friend. I feel sad.” Being able to verbally describe feelings like disappointment is necessary so that we can communicate our thoughts and feelings to others and so that we can manage our feelings.
It’s important to learn not to take your thoughts and emotions as fact. For example, feeling afraid does not necessarily mean that something is dangerous or threatening us. Our fear may come from some past experience, or from something that has some connection to the current situation. Having a feeling or a thought about something does not mean that that thought or feeling is fact. Thinking “No one likes me” or “I am unlovable” does not mean that these statements are true. They are just thoughts, or just feelings. These thoughts and feelings are real and valid but that doesn’t mean they are facts.
- Pick one experience that you have everyday- cooking a meal, going for a walk, walking your dog. Observe the experience, without judging or evaluating it. Describe what you are doing or seeing. What do you see, hear, feel?
- Keep a journal for a day or several days recording what you do and feel on paper.
- Imagine your mind is like a conveyor belt with thoughts and feelings cruising along on the belt. Your job is to sort the thoughts and feelings into boxes labeled with categories. For example, you might have a box for sensations in your body and another for urges.
- Do one of the exercises listed for Observe but add labels and descriptions to the experience.
Participating is entering wholly into an activity. It is throwing yourself into something completely. Let yourself get involved in the moment, letting go of ruminating and self-consciousness. Be totally present when engaging in an activity. By participating with awareness, we can be in the moment, which allows us to step back from our lives and our thoughts and be aware that we are alive in this moment and we are okay right now. This is a great tool to use when you’re in distress.
To participate, do just what is needed in each situation like a skillful dancer on the dance floor, one with the music and your partner, neither willful nor sitting on your hands. Actively practice your DBT skills as you learn them until they become part of you, where you use them without self-consciousness.
Have you ever driven home only to realize you have no memory of the trip? You got in the car and then you were home, with no memory of the drive itself. This means you weren’t participating. You were on auto-pilot, not paying attention to your actions. This is dissociation, the opposite of participation. If you work on participating in every action, you will feel more in control of your life.
- Try participating at something you do frequently (the dishes, driving, mowing the lawn, eating, etc.). Really pay attention to your activity. Concentrate. Notice everything about what you’re doing and try to do it really well. What does it feel like for you?
- Get out an egg and try to balance it on the small side on a flat surface. It’s possible, but it takes quite a bit of focus. Let yourself get lost in the activity.
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