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Core DBT Skills - Mindfulness

The definition of mindfulness used in DBT is “the act of consciously focusing the mind in the present moment without judgement and without attachment to the moment”. In contrast, mindlessness is automatic, habitual, unaware behaviour and activity. Mindfulness can be contrasted with clinging to the present moment, as if by clinging hard we can stop the present moment from changing, and can also be contrasted with blocking or denying the present moment, as if by trying to act as if the present moment doesn’t exist, then it actually doesn’t!

DBT Mindfulness Skills - "What" and "How" skills

There are two sets of Mindfulness skills in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy - the so-called “What” skills and “How” skills.


In DBT terms, mindfulness involves doing one of three activities, which are called the DBT “What” skills – observing, describing and participating.

Observing. The Observing skill is “wordless watching”. It entails observing external events and internal experiences such as thoughts, emotions and behavioural urges without necessarily trying to end the experience.  Observing is the skill that exemplifies the Eastern philosophy of “experiencing the moment”.  

Describing. The Describing skill involves putting words to what we are observing, whether this is an internal event (thought, emotion, physical sensation) or an external event. It is an extremely important skill because often if we take emotions and thoughts as reflecting the facts of a situation we create unnecessary distress. The key concept in the Describing skill is “just the facts”.

Participating. Participating is a central goal of mindfulness and refers to entering fully into the activities of the present moment without self-consciousness. Of course we can participate mindlessly, but the Participating skill teaches participating with attention.

The DBT “How” skills are concerned with how we practice observing, describing and participating. We need to take a non-judgmental stance, focus on one thing at a time and do what works.

Non-judgementally. The Non-judgmentally skill does not mean trying to go from overly negative to overly positive evaluations or developing a more balanced approach to evaluations but dropping the habit of judging something as good or bad altogether. If we keep judgement something that was judged as worthwhile can always become worthless and visa versa. A non-judgmental approach can observe undesired consequences of a behaviour, and change behaviour correspondingly to alter consequences, but this is not the same as judging the behaviour as “bad”.

One-Mindfully. The One-Mindfully skill is the opposite of multi-tasking, or splitting attention between, for example, our current activity and thoughts about something else. One-Mindfully means focusing on one activity with alertness and awareness.

Effectively. This skill embodies a catch-phrase or goal of DBT, namely “doing what works”. Using the Effectively skill means dropping the desire to be right in favour of achieving goals in a skillful manner. Using the skill will therefore sometimes mean apparently “giving in”, but this is a skillful response if it avoids “cutting off your nose to spite your face”, the opposite of putting being right over being effective.

If you are interested to learn more about DBT and mindfulness I encourage you to contact Bridget Hogg Psychology Brisbane below. You may also be interested in reading the articles Everyday Mindfulness and What is Mindfulness?

Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT, is a treatment developed by clinical psychologist Marsha Linehan to address severe problems of emotion regulation and other associated behavioral difficulties such as interpersonal chaos, distress intolerance, social disruption and impulsivity. DBT is a skills-training form of treatment, and Mindfulness skills are considered core skills on which all other DBT skills rest.

Marsha describes how DBT Mindfulness Skills are derived from meditation practices and Eastern spiritual training, which she has translated into specific behaviours and psychological processes. The skills are non-denominational however, as mindfulness is central to contemplative practices across denominations and belief systems, and the skills can be incorporated into any individual’s spiritual beliefs. In essence, mindfulness is simply living with eyes wide open.


What is Mindfulness?