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Mindfulness in DBT (it's not what I thought it was!)

Before I started dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) for my borderline personality disorder, I would hear the word 'mindfulness' and want to roll my eyes. Candles, singing bowls, deep breathing, meditating...erm, that's not going to help me when I'm so distressed I'm pacing around feeling suicidal.

However, I quickly realised that mindfulness the DBT way was different. It wasn't about trying to feel inner peace, rid myself of my depression, love myself or anything else that felt unachievable to me.

Instead, I learnt that mindfulness in DBT is based on three principles:

Observing my body sensations, thoughts, emotions, urges and the world around me using my senses
Describing what I'm observing by putting words onto my experience. 'I can see a red car'. 'I can hear yelling'.
Participating in what I'm observing & describing. I.e. not 'checking out' of the world around me or dissociating

In DBT, these are known as the 'what' skills.

I also learnt that when practicing mindfulness the DBT way, I need to stay:

Non-judgemental. In other words, not labelling myself, others and situations as 'good', 'bad' or any other value judgement
One mindful. This means doing one thing at a time and bringing my attention back to the task at hand whenever my mind naturally wanders
Effective. Doing what works rather than what I might be tempted to do. Sticking with my goals, rather than following my immediate impulses

I appreciate that these principles are all very abstract! So I will give some examples.

Okay, so let's imagine that I've decided to cook pasta mindfully. First of all, I will observe the pasta. I will notice the shape and colour with my eyes, the texture with my fingers. I will hear the bubbling sound of the boiling water and feel its heat. When I open the can of chopped tomatoes, I will observe the sweet smell and hear the click.

I am also noticing my own body, thoughts and feelings. If I am having thoughts about the day and what happened, I notice those thoughts. If I am having the urge to send a text, I notice that too. I am aware that my body is warm and my breathing quick.

Secondly, I put words onto my experience to describe it. I say to myself: 'I can see the gold coloured pasta', 'I can hear the water bubbling'. I can also state: 'I am feeling anxious, having the thought that I have done something wrong and am having the urge to send a text'. At this moment, I am tempted to tell myself that I'm so 'bad' at mindfulness and 'terrible' at cooking. I notice that these are judgements.

Thirdly, I participate. This means that I 'enter into' the cooking of the pasta and continue to observe and describe, even if I don't feel like it. I don't focus my energy onto thinking about all the things I have done wrong and I don't take my phone out and send a text.

Even though I am having these thoughts about my phone every twenty seconds, I repeatedly return my focus to the cooking of the pasta. This is being one mindful because I am bringing my attention back to the task at hand, rather than multitasking.

Lastly, because I am gently bringing my focus back to the cooking, I am being effective. I know from my therapy that spending time engaging with anxious thoughts about what I may have done wrong makes me feel ashamed, sad and anxious. By sticking with the mindful cooking and not judging myself for my thoughts or urges, I am being effective.


Do you find mindfulness the DBT way helpful? Is there anything you don't like about it? It would be great to hear your thoughts.


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