DBT Skills: Mindfulness

The first set of skills that we’ll take a look at are the mindfulness skills. There are two different types of mindfulness skills: how and what. The what skills are actual activities that you do, while the how skills describe how you aim to carry out those mindfulness activities. The how skills are non-judgmentally, effectively, and one-mindfully, while the what skills are observe, describe and participate.

The what skills might seem extremely easy, but let’s look a little closer. In order to actually accomplish these skills you have to go a little further than simply wandering through your life and sometimes noticing things. Let’s start with observing. Observing is being aware of things without putting words to your observations. This is actually extremely difficult, and more often than not observing and describing go hand in hand, but observing is actually a different skill. It involves some heightened awareness. Observing your breathing is not simply being able to describe your breathing, but also noticing what it feels like, sounds like, if the air has a particular taste, taking a moment to look in the mirror at how your chest rises and falls. It’s the simple process of noticing what’s happening around you.

The important things to remember about observing are that it should not be done with any particular intent. As you observe, you don’t need to make any judgments about what you’re observing, nor do you need to make an effort to change things. Without realizing it, we often do these things. We might describe a song as happy or upbeat, when we could simply break down our description a little further without drawing conclusions. Does it have a fast tempo? Is it in a major key? These are nonjudgmental descriptions.

Describing is very similar to observing, but it simply involves adding words to our observations. Sometimes we may want to describe, other times we may simply want to observe, but in both cases we want to do so without drawing unnecessary conclusions. Describing can be useful out loud, but when describing out loud to another person, it is extremely important to remain nonjudgmental. Often we’ll say things like “you look angry”. Angry is a judgment. In contrast, saying “your eyes are scrunched together, your mouth is pursed, and your fists are clenched” is less emotionally fraught. Practicing these ways of describing is extremely helpful because we often use judgments as shorthand for the way things actually are. However when we make judgments we are often assuming things. Observing and describing can bring us back to the facts that we actually know.

Participating is often contingent on some observing and describing, but is qualitatively different. It is actively being engaged in your life. If you are dancing, then dance. If you are eating, then eat. It can be extremely challenging when you first try it to just be doing what you’re doing and to be fully engaged in it, but it does allow you to enjoy your life a great deal more, and it can reduce the amount of stress you would otherwise have from thinking of past and future problems. It is also something to practice if you have difficulties with feeling awkward at events or if you feel left out.

An important thing to remember about all of these is that they are skills: you learn them by practicing them. If you want to get better at them, you do have to intentionally set goals and give yourself time to engage in them. Spend ten minutes each day observing and describing your surroundings and notice if you feel more present in your situation. Choose one activity a day to participate in. When your mind begins to wander, gently pull it back to the task at hand. You can notice the wandering, but don’t judge or get angry, simply work to bring yourself back.

These are the what skills of mindfulness. Next week we’ll cover how. Please put any suggestions or questions in the comments!

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com


  1. July 13, 2014 at 8:07 pm —

    What do “fully engaged”, “heightened awareness”, and “feel[ing] more present” mean?

    I’m missing the part where it stopped being buddhist spiritualism woo. The topic irks the fuck out of me because it claims it would help some of my problems, but it sets off every alarm in my skeptical toolkit.

    • July 17, 2014 at 3:20 pm —

      It means being aware of your surroundings, noticing what’s happening around you rather than being oblivious. It means not letting your mind wander. Keeping your focus on what you’re doing in the moment. It is actually clearly defined, not some sort of woo woo state. All it means is actually being aware of what you’re doing, your body, and the things around you.

      It’s easy to dismiss as woo but this is actually evidence based treatment. It’s been fairly intensely studied. There’s a lot of info about it here: http://behavioraltech.org/index.cfm, including studies about the efficacy of the treatment.

      No one is suggesting that you have to practice mindfulness, just that it can be useful. I will be talking in one of my future posts about why it’s helpful. I’m not suggesting that it puts you into some meditative calm in which you’re oblivious to all bad things. In reality it just makes you more capable of dealing with what’s happening in the immediate moment because your attention is actually in the here and now (rather than thinking about past or future problems), and can help to diminish some of the stress and unhappiness of reliving bad events or worrying about things ahead of time (as you won’t be doing those things if you focus on something that’s happening right now).

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