There are many roads that lead to Rome when mindfulness is concerned. Numerous techniques and instructions have been developed to help people contact their present experience. There is no one right way of teaching or developing mindfulness. Any approach that helps us move out of our heads and into our lives is valid. DBT has traditionally focused on three skills to this end: observe, describe and participate. These are referred to as the “what skills,” as these skills are what you do when you are practicing mindfulness.
The Observe Skill
The observe skill is about developing awareness of the present. It is just noticing what is happening. Noticing external events, thoughts, sensations, whatever arises in your awareness, you watch it. Developing this skill helps with regulating emotions in a number of important ways. First of all, to observe your experience rather than get caught up in it, requires a sort of mental distancing. When people describe their experience of observing, they talk about it as though they were a third party or watching it like a movie. This distance is helpful in giving people space to step back and think rather than impulsively act. It slows down the process of impulsive behavior, by providing space between the urge to act and the action.
Using the observe skill also helps us to face whatever is happening in the present moment, no matter how distressing it may be. People who have problems regulating their emotions tend to avoid even the smallest negative emotions. This usually results in poor decision making, and paradoxically, more intense emotion. Practicing observe with painful feelings can be a tool to break the cycle of emotional avoidance that fuels emotion dysregulation. By willingly experiencing emotional pain, we learn that although it is unpleasant, it passes, and we survive it. It is similar to the exposure treatment for phobias. If you fear spiders, the most powerful way to get over your fear it to spend time with spiders. In time you learn the anticipation was more problematic than the actual experience. Observe allows us to accept whatever we feel in the present moment.
The Describe Skill
The describe skill is a tool designed to bring us to the present by putting words to our experience. Powerful associations to emotions or negative life events can be created over time. Some people believe that it would be the end of the world if we experienced intense shame. Others think they could not bear to be rejected by someone. The more we believe this to be the case, the more catastrophic negative experiences feel. As a result, we get caught up in the meaning we make of unpleasant events, rather than being able to access the event itself. An example of this is being nervous giving a presentation in class. Feeling the anticipatory anxiety and taking it to mean you are a failure, or because you are nervous you will be rejected, and that you would “fall apart” were that to happen, has you pretty far removed from the reality of the situation. But that’s hard to see when you’re spending most of your mental energy on the stories you’re telling rather than the actual experience.
So what would the describe skill look like as applied to this example? You might begin by describing in your mind the sensations in your body: “I notice warmth in my face. I feel discomfort in my abdomen. Tight chest. Heart pounding.” Although a simple intervention, it functions to help you contact what is actually happening rather than the worst case scenario you’ve created. You might go on to describe your thoughts about the situation: “Noticing thoughts about failure. I notice I’m having thoughts of running out of the room. I notice that I’m merely thinking about worst case scenarios.” Again, you’re naming what is happening in the present moment in a way that is free of hyperbole or mental constructs that are not really present. Such an exercise won’t necessarily eliminate anxiety, but it can help make the experience tolerable by helping you recognize what is actually happening rather than putting you face to face with the worst possible scenario, which is really just a fiction that exists nowhere but in your own mind.
The Participate Skill
The final skill is participate. Participating is being fully engaged in whatever you are doing, in the moment, without second-guessing or over-thinking. We all engage in participating from time to time. There are certain behaviors that require it, such as learning to play a musical instrument. Take for example the guitar. When you’re playing a song, you may find that you can do it well if you are just engaging in the behavior in a fluid, natural way. However, the moment you begin thinking about how to get your fingers from one chord to the other, the song falls apart. Participating is sometimes referred to as the slipstream. It is that mode of behavior and mental activity when we are only doing what we are doing.
So how do you get here? Well, it’s easier to explain than to practice. Imagine dancing alone in your room in a way that is free of self-consciousness. Do you think you might naturally do this without over-thinking it or free of negative judgment? Now imagine that you’ve gotten feedback in the past that you’re a terrible dancer. Probably harder to participate now. How about if you’re no longer in your room but a crowded dance hall? How about on stage? Lots of factors can make it difficult to keep our mind on what we’re doing, fully engaged, diving in. However, although we may not have total control over our minds, we have more influence over our own minds than we usually give ourselves credit for. Participating requires acknowledging that you have the power to bring your mind back to what you’re doing, and to do so once you notice it’s wandered. Again and again and again… To participate is to repeatedly make the decision to throw yourself into whatever it is you’re doing, with focus and commitment. When you do this, there is little room for the internal critic or the storyteller in your mind to ruin your experience.
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