Therapy Tuesday: DBT – Part 4A – Mindfulness Skills

Now that I’ve given a bit of an overview of DBT, I’m going to dig into the four core skill sets it teaches and strengthens. These sets are:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Interpersonal Effectiveness
  3. Distress Tolerance
  4. Emotional Regulation

I mentioned in a previous post that mindfulness in DBT is NOT what has been pushed on the pop psych pages. Today I’m going to explain what the real deal is.

When practicing mindfulness there is a component of what you’re doing, and also how you do it. The how part is actually the most important part, in my opinion.

The what is that you observe, describe, and participate. What’s hard about looking at a situation, describing it to yourself, and then participating?

Well, nothing. And that’s how we get drawn into arguments and drama and things get stupid in a hurry when there are no breaks or other means to inject a moment of objective consideration. The how part tells us to do each of these things without judging, with one mind, and with effectiveness, and these are the skills that break that other cycle that causes nothing but difficulty and pain.

The best way I know to explain how these things work together is through example. The concepts are not obscenely complex, but they do tend to defy description in such a condensed format as a blog post.

So, suppose someone you care about is standing just far enough away that you can hear voices but not words. The person with them is gesturing wildly and shouting. If you’re like me, your instinctive response is “must run to aid friend!”

1a Observe Non-Judgmentally

Hold up there, tex.

What’s happening? Is the person behaving aggressively? Is your friend looking like they need to fight or defend themselves? Take that two seconds to look at what is happening. Set aside the instant idea that your friend is threatened. Hold judgement for just that long.

1b Observe One-Mindfully

While you observe, don’t be thinking about what you need to do next or who is looking. All you do in that couple of seconds is observe. Focus all your awareness on that one item.

1c Observe Effectively

This one is a little harder to explain, but the idea is that you’ll be doing the first two things and so you will notice things. Perhaps you notice the person has a crutch or a cane?

Okay, now you’ve viewed the situation. It took probably a second or two, just because our brains are awesome that way. What next?

2a Describe Non-Judgmentally

This one is one of my favorites because it’s very simple. A non-judgemental statement about this situation might be:

My friend is standing near someone who is shouting. Neither person is moving. The stranger is leaning on a crutch.

See? No judgement about anyone acting aggressively, nothing but straight facts. There is also NO PLAN TO ACT at this point. This is the absolute essence of doing something without judgment.

2b Describe One-Mindfully

They are standing near my friend’s car. There is no one else present. There is a grey car on the far side of my friend’s car.

(Again, see how there’s no emotion or judgement there?)

2c Describe Effectively

Well, you’ve just been doing that.

Now you’re prepared to take the third step. Now you can participate. You can do so non-judgmentally, one-mindfully, and effectively.

3a Participate Non-judgmentally

You approach your friend and call out their name. You wave to be sure they see you and to express that you’re not showing up to instantly launch into shouting at this stranger who dares speak to “one of your own.” You’re not going in with ideas about what happened, you’re waiting to find out.

3b Participate One-Mindfully

You don’t try to think about your plans to hang out with your friend tomorrow while you’re joining them. You pay attention to the situation and to what your friend and the other party are telling you.

3c Participate Effectively

Because you did all the other steps, you’re already at the point where you’re ready for this one. You find out that your friend was on the way to their car and saw the stranger with the crutch trip and smash their head into the rear of the car. The stranger was waving arms because he was upset about needing a crutch, but he’s broken his foot and has to use it. Unfortunately, it’s his second day and he didn’t have anyone to help him with his shopping.

You can offer to help the stranger, either with their shopping or with finding a seat and an ice pack. You can ask if they need an ambulance or if you should call someone. These are effective methods of participating in this situation. Equally effective (and depending on the area and setting, perhaps prudent) is to simply ask if they will manage from here and then let them do so. To make that decision, go back to step 1.

It sounds like a lot, right? It’s about 10 seconds of mental processing from start to finish once the skills are in place. It sounds simple, but it’s not simple for those who have developed maladaptive behaviors or who have always seen people acting on their first emotional response.

How different this scenario would have been if you saw your friend, rushed over and started getting aggressive with the person on the crutch? You could end up in a fight, or even have charges pressed if you swing first before finding out what’s going on. Neither is a good outcome.

DBT’s mindfulness skills teach individuals how to quickly evaluate situations and respond appropriately. They work on interpersonal interactions and on internal talk. They’re useful when making plans for life, as well. These skills can make almost any decision process easier, and deliver results with greater clarity, on any situation you may find yourself in, even when it’s just you deciding what to eat for dinner.

Next week we’ll look at the second group, interpersonal effectiveness.



All information, content, and material of this website is for informational purposes only and are not intended to serve as a substitute for the consultation, diagnosis, and/or medical treatment of a qualified physician or healthcare provider.

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