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Key Takeaways:

  • DBT is anchored on mindfulness to achieve its objectives of accepting life as it is while changing behaviors for better outcomes.
  • DBT What Skills allow us to focus on what can be done to integrate mindfulness into daily life.
  • These skills include Observe, Describe, and Participate.

When we practice skills in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), much of the focus is on mindfulness. This is the very foundation that makes DBT possible, and it is important to understand what you can do to integrate mindfulness into your daily experience. DBT What Skills will help you do exactly that. By practicing different ways of thinking, you can focus on what you do to take control of your mind, including observing, describing, and participating. Let’s go through these skills one by one:

The “What” Skills of Mindfulness

There are three parts to the DBT “What” skills of mindfulness.


In many DBT mindfulness exercises, you will be asked to observe what you are sensing or without describing or labeling the experience. This may be difficult to do initially, but it is extremely helpful as it allows your mind to be quiet (with practice, of course). Eventually, you will be able to observe your environment and experiences without being interrupted by your mind’s usually running commentary.

One must maintain a balance of detachment and awareness when observing. Try not to get too caught up in the experience that you ruminate and obsess. It is also important not to react to the thoughts you have when observing. The challenge lies in experiencing the moment for what it is without judgment on whether it is good or bad and pleasant or unpleasant.

Tips for Practicing Observing

  • Start by observing your environment and surroundings, including the physical sensations you feel by existing in them. Try not to react to the feelings or thoughts you have.
  • Pay attention to your five senses:sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
  • Next, observe your emotions and thoughts themselves without judgment — simply observe what is going on without trying to change it.
  • Have what is called “Teflon Mind” and let your thoughts, feelings, and experiences come into your mind and move right back out again.
  • Allow everything to pass through you, including discomfort (simply acknowledge it).
  • Remain alert to every thought, feeling, and physical sensation that enters your experience.


The next skill you’ll learn in DBT What Mindfulness is describing. Simply put, describing is putting words to what you have already observed. Here, you can label your experience, but remember to do so without judgment. For instance, you can describe an experience such as being at the beach by saying statements to yourself about what you observe. “The sand is rough, the water is wet, the sun is hot.”

Being able to describe our observations with words allows us to accurately label the connections between ourselves and the environment. This makes it easier to label emotions and behaviors, such as feeling nervous, anxious, upset, excited, or tired. You can maintain the present moment and concentrate on what you can do specifically to improve your condition by using both observing and describing.

Tips for Practicing Describing

  • Acknowledge thoughts and feelings that arise. Try to label them accordingly.
  • Use descriptive words to describe your internal experience.
  • Do not get caught up in content. Simply call a thought a thought, and do the same with feelings.
  • Remember to keep judgment out of your descriptions.


Participating is becoming wholly involved in an activity and throwing yourself into something fully. Here, it is important to get caught up in the moment and let go of self-consciousness and rumination. Be totally present in whatever it is you are doing. By having this level of awareness, we can stay engaged in the current moment and take a step back from our lives. This is an excellent tool to use when you are in emotional distress.

To participate, do what is required to stay actively aware and engaged in each situation. For instance, if you are driving home, it may be tempting to switch to auto-pilot mode. Participation encourages us to be more involved in our actions so that we can feel more in control of our lives.

Tips for Practicing Participating

  • Practice staying in the present moment with full awareness.
  • No matter what you do, be totally present, whether that’s taking a shower, working, or simply enjoying your vacation!
  • Stay in the Wise Mind and stay away from the Emotion Mind to steer clear of obsessive thoughts and judgments of self and others.
  • Practice letting go of self-conscious thoughts, such as how you look and how well you are doing in the activity.

The Bottom Line

Observing, describing, and participating helps us to determine what is going on around us and what we can do to take control of our minds as we practice mindfulness in a DBT setting. The next time you are feeling overwhelmed and need to rely on mindfulness, try observing what is going on, describing it, and participating in your activities. These skills can also be supplemented by our DBT worksheets.