DBT’s “What” Skills of Mindfulness

“Things are not what they appear to be; nor are they otherwise.” – Surangama Sutra

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), created by Dr. Marsha Linehan, incorporates the practice of mindfulness into almost all aspects of treatment.  While mindfulness is technically its own component or module of treatment, aspects of mindfulness are present throughout the other treatment modules: emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness.

At a DBT emotion regulation training this June in Austin, TX, Dr. Linehan reminded all of us that our conscious minds can only attend to one thing at a time. She readily admitted to the audience that she was “distractible” and encouraged all of us to open our soda cans and training binders all at once to get the distracting sounds out of the way.  When people seemed to wander into the conference room a few minutes past the break time, she readily called attention to them, pointing out how we all now needed to wait until that person was settled.

Consider the multitude of ways that you are distracted from being fully present to the current moment in your daily life.  It is often a rare thing to be completely present.  Even when we feel like we are particularly calm or focused, there are often multiple thoughts flitting in and out of our minds or distracting physical sensations (e.g., an itch, a pain, etc.).  All of these distractions remove us from the present moment and scatter our focus.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy: “What” Skills of Mindfulness

Spradlin (2003) adapts DBT’s “what” skills of mindfulness to help us begin the journey of practicing mindful awareness:


  • Start to simply notice your environment, thoughts, feelings, and sensations without reacting to them
  • Observe the emotion you are feeling or the thought you are having
  • Simply see it there before you, without adding anything to it, judging it, or trying to change it
  • Avoid reacting to your emotions – say to yourself,”I notice that I feel love/anger/joy”
  • Allow your thoughts, feelings, and sensations to come and go (as they all do) – control your attention, not what you see
  • Push nothing away (no matter how uncomfortable/painful) and cling to nothing (no matter how enjoyable/pleasant)
  • Be alert to all that enters your experience – every thought, feeling, and sensation
  • Pay close attention to the input you receive from all 5 senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste


  • Now that you have observed, use words to practice describing your internal experience
  • Stay descriptive and simple
  • If you have been taught to ignore/belittle emotions, it can be difficult to be attentive and mindful to your experience
  • If you have difficulty, or if this feels unnatural, simply say to yourself, “I notice that I’m feeling self-conscious right now”
  • If you’re feeling frustrated or anxious, say to yourself, “I notice how my thoughts are coming very quickly right now”


  • With practice, mindfulness will allow you to more fully participate in your own life and experiences
  • Mindfulness will allow you to fully engage in every experience without needing to “love” or “hate” it
  • Practice simply participating in each moment as it comes – be here now
  • If you need to make plans for the future, then fully participate in making those plans
  • Allow yourself to be a part of what is happening without obsessing over every detail or becoming self-conscious
  • Practice letting go of thoughts like “How am I doing?” or “How do I look?”

What thoughts or feelings came up for you as you read through the “what” skills of mindfulness?  Do you perceive it to be an easy task for you to mindfully observe, describe, and participate in your present-moment experience?  It is common for many people to feel “detached” or “checked out.”  Mindfulness allows you to reconnect with yourself, others, and the world around you in a new way.

What is truly “natural” is being present and alive in the moment.  The world that we live in, with all of its technology, work demands, and material distractions, has convinced us that there is another “reality” that is worth living in.  The truth is that we disconnect from ourselves and the present moment when we become lost in an unfocused world of rampant thoughts, intense emotions, and physical discomfort.

Try slowly integrating mindfulness into your daily experience by looking at your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations in a new way. Practice observing without judgment or attachement, describing your internal experience just as it is, and fully participating in the present moment without self-consciousness or hesitation. Embrace the moment.

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Linehan, M.M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Linehan, M. (June 6-7, 2011). Updates to emotion regulation and crisis survival skills in dialectical behavior therapy. Austin, TX: Behavior Tech, LLC.

Spradlin, S.E. (2003). Don’t let your emotions run your life: how dialectical behavior therapy can put you in control. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: View from the bamboo boat by magical-world / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Peter M on October 2, 2019 at 2:43 am

    Thank you for this article.
    I am using Wise Mind to not relapse into my addiction primarily but will use it for other things.
    At this point I am a beginner in Meditation.

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