DBT Video Text: What Skills

Home > DBT Video Text: What Skills


Observing is the first ‘what’ skill. Now the secret to observing is to focus on just one thing at a time. So the idea isn’t to be observing… you know how sometimes you can say ‘I’m observing – I’m looking over here and I’m looking there and I’m looking here and I’m looking there. Well, I’m just observing everything in the room.’ That’s fabulous.  It’s perfectly fine to do it. I’m not telling you not to do it. I’m only saying that’s not the mindfulness skill of observing. 

Mindfulness skill of observing is when you keep your mind focused on the same thing. So let’s try that. Put your hand right now on the table in front of you or you can put it on your leg. Just pay attention to your hand. All of your attention on the palm. Did you just notice what the palm of your hand felt like? That’s noticing. That’s just observing.

Now let me ask you something. When you were just observing your hand, did you start describing what it felt like? Did you say ‘hot’ ‘cool’ ‘hard’ ‘soft’? It is really hard to notice things without at the same time trying to describe them. However, I guarantee you, it’s an amazing fact of life that if you practice this you’ll find that over time, you’ll get quieter and quieter and quieter. And you’ll actually learn how to observe things without a running commentary. 

You can observe things outside of yourself. Or you could observe things inside yourself. If you want to get mindful, you’ve got to be able to look in and out.

Now, let’s talk about observing inside first. Some people are just downright scared to do that. They’re afraid of what they’ll see if they look inside. Some people say ‘If I have to look inside myself, I’ll be overwhelmed. Feelings will come up that I don’t want. Thoughts will come up that I don’t want. Who knows what will happen, but it’s not going to be anything I want. No, I am not doing it.’

Alright, if that’s you, that’s not where you want to start. You’re going to start practicing observing things outside of yourself. Now that’s not to say that you’re not going to sooner or later look inside. But if it’s too hard to look in to start, look out.

Other people, on the other hand, that’s all they ever do is look inside. They experience themselves all the time. No matter what they’re doing. They’re kind… sort of overwhelmed with thoughts running through their mind; emotions popping up. They can’t get away from themselves. They notice just about everything that goes on inside of themselves. That kind of person is going to have to practice looking outside of themselves. 

So let’s practice. First, just watch the screen. If you watch it, first you’re going to notice I’m going to disappear. Good news is I’m going to reappear. But I want you to just watch it.  Now watch it and try not to describe it. 

Let’s do another one. This time we’re going to try just listening to sound. 

Now the trick to mindfulness is, don’t close your eyes. I mean, what’s the point of learning how to be mindful with your eyes closed. It’s not that useful. You’ll want to learn to be mindful with your eyes open. But if you want to practice with your eyes open, you don’t want to get distracted by everything in the world. So, why don’t you just find a place for your eyes. Find something to look at. You can look down. You can look at anything in front of you. It really doesn’t make any difference what you’re looking at. Most people close their eyes a little bit. I don’t because if I close my eyes even a little bit, I always want to close them all the way. So, find a place for your eyes, but then pay attention to what you hear. Just listen. [music for 8 seconds]

Let’s do one more. We’re going to do the most common mindfulness practice in the world. It’s the one that you find in every culture. And just about every mindfulness group or class on mindfulness that you ever get yourself into is going to focus on this one. What’s the one thing you’re going to have with you your entire life? That no one can ever take away from you? Your breath. 

So how do you practice this one? Well first, sit back. If you’re sitting, just sit back try to make your back sort of straight, mainly because you want to be comfortable. Find a place for your eyes. You’re going to want to keep your mouth slightly open or at least your teeth slightly apart so you want to kind of relax the bottom part of your mouth.

But you’re going to breath through your nose. Now, just notice the breath coming in. Notice the breath as it goes up your nostril and it goes down the back of your throat. And notice your chest coming up. Try to breath really deep and just notice the breath coming in down your… back of your throat. And then notice your chest coming out. 

Breathe out. Breathe out through your nose, kind of slowly, not too fast. Just try that for a couple of breaths. Breathe in. Breathe out. Just notice. Just pay attention. Are you able to do that? That’s observing. That’s all it is. It’s not really complicated.

Most people when they start practicing observing notice right away that they can’t observe anything for very long. That their mind just goes off. That if they’re observing one thing, they start thinking about something else. So there is a trick to this. The minute something else comes into your mind, observe it. You just notice it. You just notice it and then try to take your mind right back to what you were observing in the first place. Kind of like clouds in the sky – just sort of let them go by. You can imagine that your thoughts were just birds flying by. Just let them fly out of your mind.

DBT Mindfulness: Two gulls fly overhead in black and white.

It can take a really long time to learn to keep your attention on one thing. And in fact, almost no one ever really learns it completely. Why do you think that is? Well, it’s because the job of the brain is to generate thoughts. And the job of the brain is to attend to sensations and feelings. So it’s probably never going to happen that you’re going to try to observe one thing that other things aren’t going to come into your mind.

So, you don’t want to start worrying about that or thinking you’re not doing it because if you starting thinking you’re not doing it then what’ll happen? Then an emotion will come, like frustration or anger or fear or worry or hopelessness or despair. And then, you just have to notice that.

So whatever happens, the secret to this practice is notice it. Observe it and try to turn your attention back to what you had started observing in the first place. 

You may be thinking ‘Listen. Give me a break Marsha. I have never focus my mind on one thing in my entire life. I can’t do this. This is not anything I can do. Why would I try if I can’t do it? I’ll get to jittery, I’ll just quit. I know it.’ Take heart. I was exactly that way when I started. In fact, when I started doing mindfulness practice, I used to sit there. I would try to pay attention to my breath, so I would sit there like this paying attention to my breath. I don’t know, maybe a minute into it, I’d get the urge to stop, I’d want to quit. So what did I do? I always quit. Never occurred to me that if an urge to quit came by, I shouldn’t just quit. It took me years to figure out that I could just sit there and wait for the urge to quit to come and then I could just notice the urge to quit.

Let’s move to learning how to notice what’s going on inside you. So how would you do it? Well, the first thing to remember is to keep your eyes open again. This time what I want you to do is sort of sit back, watch your mind and see if a thought comes in. Just notice whether a thought comes in. And if a thought comes in, notice what it is. Did you notice one? Some people do. Some people don’t. You could have just been there waiting for a thought. Or, you could be a person who has a million thoughts go through your mind. You could have had a thought going really slowly through your mind. It really doesn’t make any difference what you notice. The trick to noticing is just to notice. 

Now you may have been thinking ‘I’m not doing that.’ You may be one of those people who figures that whatever you see in your mind, you’re not going to like. You’re going to have thoughts that are scary. So you may be thinking ‘I’m just avoiding that’. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to look at yourself. We all do. It’s just one of those things in life that no one can avoid. So this is a really good way to practice it and a good way to learn it.

Now you may be thinking, ‘Well, if I look at my thoughts, I’m just going to have too many of them. So I’m going to get rid of my thoughts first. I’m going to squish my thoughts down. Then I’m going to look at my mind.’ That is not going to work.

In fact, if you wanted to figure out a way to have a thought stay in your mind, try to squish the thought and it will come back. If you want a thought to go away… this is going to sound like a miraculous event but actually it’s a fact… if you actually look at a thought, just observe, just notice. Don’t do one other thing with it. Just look at it. You’ll be amazed. It’s like a miracle. The thought will go away.

You know thoughts, sensations, feelings, emotions, you can think of them like they’re cars on a train. And mindfulness practice is a little bit like sitting on a hill with a train track down in front of you and you’re just watching the train cars go by. And one car may be a thought. Others may be emotions. Others may be physical sensations. Just watch the train. Watch them go by. They just sort of rumble past.

Now the secret is, don’t get one the train. You know sometimes how if a thought goes by you and then you start thinking about something and a little while later you say ‘What happened? What happened?’ That’s getting on the train. So the idea is don’t get on the train.

The best reason for practicing observing is that it brings you into the present moment.  It’s especially useful if you’re having trouble getting your mind off the past. Or, getting your mind off the future. Thoughts about the past are just driving you nuts. Thoughts about the future are interfering with your life. Try observing. You could observe anything. Observe yourself walking. Let’s imagine your walking.  Just be walking and observe.


Describing really is applying words to what you notice. If you’re looking at a painting of a landscape you may say ‘trees, green, yellow, brushstrokes’. That’s describing.

Or you could describe something inside yourself. ‘A feeling of sadness has just arisen within me.’

Just like in observing, you can describe things outside of yourself or inside of yourself. 

Let’s start with something outside of yourself. So just watch the screen and see what comes by and describe it. Describe it in words.

Alright, so there’s a red line.

A blue circle.

A heart shape.

Yellow spot. Great.

It can be very useful also to try to practice describing your thoughts. In other words, you step back, you observe the thoughts going through your mind, and then you describe them. Now describing thoughts can be hard unless you categorize them. So what you might want to do is try categorizing or sorting your thoughts out into different kinds of thoughts. 

You could be watching your thoughts and thinking ‘worry thoughts, planning thoughts, critical thoughts, thoughts about tomorrow’ on and on and on. Doing this requires one really important skill, which is that you’ve got to know the difference between a thought and a fact. 

I’m going to give you a thought and I want you to let it go through your mind. ‘I’m a green person.’ And are you thinking that’s a fact? Or are you thinking you actually are a green person? No, probably not. Let another thought go through. ‘I’m a jerk.’ Do you know lots of people when they have a thought like that go through their mind, they actually don’t think it’s a thought; they think it’s a fact.

Now I want you to notice that ‘I’m a green person’ and ‘I’m a jerk’ are both thoughts. That’s the secret here. The secret is to be able to tell the difference between thoughts and facts. 

Why is describing such a good idea? The main reason is it helps you to react to what’s really going on in the world instead of reacting to what you think is going on in the world. The most important thing about describing is to try to describe only what you observe. Don’t add to what you see. And don’t subtract from what you see. Sounds really easy, doesn’t it? It’s not. It’s actually really hard. So I’ll give you an example. Now I want you to just watch and watch my face, ok? Now watch my face and as you look at it I want you to describe it.

Ok. What did you say? All right, how many of you said anger? Raise your hand. Anger, irritation, something like that, raise your hand. Most people do you know. Now watch again and tell me what you really see. Lips pursed. Eyebrows together. Staring eyes. That’s what you saw.

Almost everybody says that. That’s why I use that example because just about everybody says anger or irritation or something ‘she’s mad at me’ something like that.

What you’re doing when you do that is you’re making an interpretation. And then you’re treating your interpretation as if it’s a fact. As if you actually saw it. It’s possible to be correct in interpretations. It’s really possible. I could have been feeling anger. But, it’s just as possible that you’re wrong. 

Not being able to tell the difference between facts and interpretations is a source of a lot of the world’s troubles. And it’s a source of a lot of our own troubles also.


The third ‘what’ skill is participating. When you are participating you just throw yourself in to what you are doing. The idea of participating is to try to become one with the activity.  Participating is when you lose self consciousness – you lose consciousness of yourself in an activity. 

Participating is really the goal of observing and describing. I mean, the point of life is to participate in it.

When we’re participating in living in our life, we often run into problems. And then what do you do when you run into a problem? Well you have to step back.  ou have to step back. You have to observe. Then you try to describe – try to figure out and understand what’s going on. You try to explain what the problem is. Then once you’ve figured out what’s wrong, try to correct it. 

Correcting usually takes a lot of practice. So you may really have to describe what you’re doing. Observe and describe; observe and describe; observe and describe. And then, sooner or later, if you keep at it, what happens? You can participate.

Have you ever noticed how musicians become one with the music? Piano players just all over the place; they just become one. Have you ever seen how dramatic they are? Horn players are the same way. That’s participating.

Now imagine that you found out that the way you were playing the music was incorrect. You’d actually gotten the notes wrong. What do you think would happen? Well, you would step back. You would observe what you were doing that was incorrect. You would describe it. In other words you would explain it. You would say ‘no, I’m playing A when I’m supposed to be playing C sharp’. And you’d pay a lot of attention, you’d observe and describe, observe and describe, observe and describe. But what’s the point of all this? The point of all that is to get so you can participate again.

DBT Mindfulness: Headphones lie atop music instructional papers

Participating is really hard. If you’re socially shy or anxious when you’re around people, very nervous when you are performing, it can be really hard to participate. You’re a person then that has to work on it. Ask yourself, do you sort of stand in the corner? Do you stay out of things? Do you spend your whole time just observing what’s going on? If you’re that kind of person, practice participating.

Are you the kind of person that when you go on a vacation never looks at anything, you just take pictures of it all? I’ve done that. That’s the nonparticipating vacationer. If you’re that kind of person, you’re going to some day want to go on a vacation and leave that camera at home. You’re going to just want to look at the mountains. It’s amazing they actually look different when you’re looking at them than they do in a picture.

Those are the three ‘what’ skills. Observe. Describe. Participate.