How to Use WHAT Skills Core Mindfulness from DBT Observe Describe Participate

From DBT: “What” Mindfulness Skills?

This article includes information from DBT Skills Training Manual 2nd Edition pages 153-154 by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D.

The “what” mindfulness skills are the three core mindfulness skills from DBT that help you with what to do when your mind is out of control. They help you be skillful enough to be productive or stop being destructive.

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“Core” Mindfulness Skills? What are They?

The “What” skills are “core mindfulness skills”. Core mindfulness skills in DBT teach us to:

Mindfulness practices from DBTParticipate: wiggle your feet in the sand, wade in the water and gather shells, build a sand castle, fly the kite.Observe: the kites, the clouds, the wind, the warmth, the salt air, the sand, your heartbeat, your joy.Describe: the colors of the kite and sky and cloud, the sound and sight of the wind and sand and water, the feeling of peace and joy and even frustration.Image of several groups of people on a beach, one person flying a rainbow colored kite.
  1. Accept reality.
  2. Reduce judgment of ourselves, other people, and the world, and
  3. Live in and be effective in the moment

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What Should I Do With These “What” Skills?

  1. DBT teaches you to practice the WHAT skills one at a time, not two or three at the same time.
  2. Engage in mindfulness practice every day with the goal of being aware of while participating in life.
  3. Develop a lifestyle of observing, describing, and participating in life as you live it. 

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When you observe, you give attention to events, sensations, and feelings without necessarily trying to stop them when they become uncomfortable. Generally, you’re going to want to “step back” from what is happening in order to observe it.

Observing being angry is a different activity from being angry.

Observing a scent is different from simply smelling a scent.

One thing that observing can do for you is to help you learn to stop automatically blocking or avoiding negative feelings and thoughts. It can also help you to get to know yourself on a much deeper level.

  • Pay attention to your senses
  • Notice body sensations (hot, cold, hard, soft, comfortable, uncomfortable)
  • Let these go past you like clouds or waves without trying to stop them or catch them.

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Some “Observe” exercises to get you started:

You might want to start your “What” skills practice with about a week or so of just observation exercises. Here are some ideas:

  • Sit or lie in a comfortable position, set a timer for 3-5 minutes and simply pay attention to everything you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste. Your brain will try to wander. That’s okay. Just come back to observing when you notice that. You may feel strong feelings. That’s fine. Just silently acknowledge them, something like “wow, that was a lot of anger” and watch them go by, continuing to observe.
  • Pick something that you either really like doing, or really don’t like doing (but has to get done). Again, set a timer for 3-5 minutes. do the thing, and observe everything you can about doing the thing for 3-5 minutes. 
  • Sit or walk somewhere public and observe the people and traffic and other activity for 3-5 minutes. Observe your own movements and your own reactions to those events. 

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When you describe you put words to the things that you have observed. You’re going to work to recognize that the thoughts “I struggle with this kind of math” are not the same as facts. “I will fail this math test”. You will be describing thoughts, feelings, and actions, without turning them into judgments of you or others or the world around you. You will again use your five senses, your body feelings, and your thoughts and emotions as you describe.

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“Describe, not judge” examples:

“I feel unloved”, not “I am unloved.”

“She raised her voice when she answered me,” not “She is angry at me.”

“The bus is late,” not “the bus will never get here.”

  • Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings through words. “I’m feeling sad.” “I am hungry”.
  • Call a thought a thought and call a feeling a feeling. Let go of whether or not the thought or feeling is true. For right now, it just is.

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Some “describe” exercises to get you started:

After you’ve had a bit of practice with “observe” spend some time “getting to know” how to “describe”. For example:

  • Do that same exercise of sitting or lying comfortably for 3-5 minutes, but this time instead of just letting things float by, name them. “That’s anger.” “That’s resistance.” “I feel warm.” “I smell coffee.” “This feels odd to me”, for example. 
  • Pick something you do pretty much every day — a chore, a hobby, perhaps even your commute to work — and as you’re doing it, describe it to yourself. Notice as much as you can, including your senses, body sensations, thoughts, emotions, and anything else. Notice if you’re having trouble avoiding judgment, too.
  • Now do a writing exercise or talking exercise. Spend 3-5 minutes writing down everything that your senses observe, describing them in detail. Describe how it feels to do this exercise. Describe how your body feels. 


PARTICIPATE:  When you participate, you enter completely into an activity without being self-conscious. You enter into the task with attention and smoothly. This means that you try to make it feel natural and normal. You are trying to enter into the event rather than keeping separate from it. You can “participate” in things you’re very familiar with doing, in things you’ve never done, and anything in-between.

  • “Jump in” to the experience and lose yourself in it.
  • Let your intuition lead as you participate. Just “be” in the moment.

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Some “participate” skills to get you started:

  • Pick a task you do regularly, like doing the dishes. While you’re doing it, put your full attention on it. Spend 3-5 minutes attempting to focus completely on that task and all the tiny little things that are part of it. You will probably notice yourself observing and describing things as you do it. That’s okay. In fact, that’s great. 
  • Challenge yourself to try something new. Pick a time, decide whether you want to be alone as you try, or with someone else, and when the time comes, “just do it”. Give it a few minutes. Allow yourself to feel any anxiety and worry, and keep going for at least 3-5 minutes. 
  • Find an educational video or podcast or article on something you’re interested in and give it your full attention. Wherever you’re getting stuck, slow down and review, or find more information somewhere else until you understand. This can be something as simple or complex as you want. 

Living with the “what” core mindfulness skills:

Practice the WHAT skills every day. Spend a little time (3-5 minutes) Observing, Describing, or Participating. Incorporate your WHAT skills into your daily routine. Observe yourself, others, and your environment during your day. Describe how you feel at key points during your day. Participate in the activities of your day that are a routine part of your life. Perhaps you might want to keep a journal to keep track of how often you’re using your WHAT skills. 

  • Observe your ride or drive to work or school
  • Observe the people and situation during a meeting or class
  • Describe your feeling after eating a meal
  • Describe your feeling after a pleasant or unpleasant interaction with someone
  • Participate in doing the dishes, or homework, or a routine work task.
  • Participate in doing something that is difficult or new to you.

Get in the habit of looking for things to Observe, Describe, and Participate in.

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How regular mindfulness affects you:

Over time, you will

  • Get better at distinguishing what you feel from what is a fact.
  • Find more enjoyment in everyday things.
  • Have less anxiety trying more difficult or new things.
  • Develop a habit of “pausing” before making judgments or decisions.
  • Discover that much of your life is enjoyable “as is”. 

You will have to work on your WHAT skills. It is not automatic, and it will be difficult and frustrating some days, while other days it will be easy. That is perfectly normal. Sometimes you’re going to let your practice lapse. That’s normal, too. Do the best you can, and when you can, do better. 

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