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DBT - Mindfulness Skills (part 1)

Before reading this article, you might want to check out my posts on dialectical thinking and liberation psychology. Both of these discuss the limitations of DBT and other psychological theories which rely on medical models of individual wellbeing without addressing the social and political conditions which lead to distress. In light of those limitations, I am always hesitant to recommend psychological tools for affect regulation shorn of any political analysis about the context in which they are to be deployed. That said, psychology is powerful for a reason - it really can bring about big changes in individual subjective experience. And if that leaves us better equipped to pursue collective liberation, then these tools need not necessarily be oppressive.

With that lawyer's disclaimer out of the way, I can talk about the first of two posts which explain the DBT mindfulness skills - this one deals with the “What Skills” and the second one deals with the “How Skills.” These are the foundational skills for all the other DBT skills. I often explain the What Skills as being like verbs (what are you doing?) and the How Skills as being like adverbs (how are you doing it?).

The three What Skills are: Observe, Describe and Participate. They are all explained in this entirely depoliticised but very cute video


This is about paying attention to things in the present moment. This skill requires you to notice things but not put any words to your observations. 

Practice observing things with your senses: 

5 things you can see

4 things you can touch

3 things things you can hear

2 things you can smell

1 thing you can taste

If you get distracted by a thought, simply notice the thought and return your attention to where it was before. Having a practice of regularly checking in with your body to see what sensations you notice is a great way of cultivating somatic awareness. 


Describing is all about putting words to the things you have observed without adding judgments or interpretations. You can only describe things that you have observed with your senses or thoughts that you have noticed yourself having. For example, you wouldn’t be using the describe skill if you were to say, “I noticed that you’re happy.” You would instead have to say, “I noticed that you smiled and I had the thought that you were happy.” This can be really useful because it allows us to communicate without making assumptions about what's going on for another person.

Think about a recent interaction you had with someone. Write out a description of the other person’s behaviour and your own thoughts. We almost all default to judging an interpreting when looking at the world around us. This isn't necessarily a bad thing and it doesn't mean that there isn't truth in our judgments and interpretations. But having a tool to slow down and allow us to discern the difference between facts and interpretations can serve us really well when navigating intensity with ourselves and others.


The final What Skill is participate which is about trying to access a flow state. For some people this can feel really hard! But for people with some kinds of neurodivergence, such as certain presentations of ASD, this will come easy.

To participate, you need to throw yourself into whatever you are doing and become one with the experience. The traditional way of teaching the Participate skill says that you need to be doing just one thing to participate fully in it. But for people with some kinds of neurdivergence such as ADHD, you might find flow state more easily if you are simultaneously doing a self-sooth activity, like playing with a fidget toy. All the DBT skills are about trial and error - if you can adapt the skill and find something that works for you then great; if you can't try a different skill!

With participate, you’re aiming to lose all sense of self-consciousness and be fully present in what you’re doing. As with the other What Skills, if you notice that you're distracted, just bring your attention back to where it was before. According to Marsha Linehan, the creator of DBT, it is in the state of participation that we can most expect to experience peak life events. 

Do you have any activities where participation comes easily to you? Maybe swimming, meditating, sex or reading a good book? Notice what it feels like to be in this state and try to find moments to practise it every day.


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