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DBT Series: Article 1 – Tell Me What You See

DBT Series: Article 1 – Tell Me What You See

She can feel it – the anger rising in her core. “I cannot believe she’s late!”

Sandy has been sitting in the center of the restaurant with all eyes on her for almost twenty-five minutes as she waits for Gretchen, her friend of two years, to arrive. Granted, she was ten minutes early, but still! The nerve! Sandy has a desire to give her friend a piece of her mind when – if – she finally shows up. Her stomach lurches, head pounds, and her breathing quickens. Thoughts spin out-of-control, slowly chipping away at their friendship as she starts to recall (real or imagined) instances where Gretchen was “just like everyone else” who has hurt her.

Seething, Sandy looks up and see her smiling friend bouncing toward her. She sits down, talking a mile a minute about her morning. Something was said about traffic, but there doesn’t seem to be any repentance in her voice. At that point, Sandy loses her grip and hollers at her for her inconsideration. She rattles complaints on and on, emphasizing how much she relies on others to be honest and how utterly disappointed she feels. Mid-tirade, she notices the expression on her friend’s face. It is one of total surprise. It takes her aback. The little guy in her head that is usually the voice of reason interjects, “Umm…wow…this is the first time she’s ever been late, and it was only ten minutes! What gives?” Sandy calms down immediately, but the damage is done.

What on earth just happened?

Have you ever experienced something like this? When you notice thinking and behavior on the order of “a bazooka at an ant” in yourself, it is time to stop and take a look at what just happened. Not just any look, but an “observation”.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is a set of four modules of life skills that help people become more aware of themselves, manage their emotions, reduce harm during times of distress, and improve interpersonal interactions. One crucial and cornerstone skill in DBT is Mindfulness. Mindfulness is, to quote a forerunner in the field, Jon Kabat-Zinn, “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment non-judgmentally, as if your life depended on it.1

How on earth do you do that, you wonder? There are many ways to become mindful, but three skills taught in DBT that can bring a person to a state of mindfulness are: Observe, Describe, and Participate.


This means to stand back, mentally and emotionally, from the present moment. Just allow life to happen. No commentary, no opinions, no words at all. Just “be” and “allow”. This gives the body a chance to calm down and, rather than putting meanings from the past on events in the present, you will simply “notice” rather than “judge”. Judgment conjures up difficult emotions.


Once you are in a place of allowing and you have let go of judgment, you can begin to put words to your experience – but not just any old words, but “just the facts”. For example, if your coworker is yelling and rolling her eyes in the bay next to you, you don’t say, “She’s so inconsiderate and rude! She doesn’t care about any of us.” Instead, you say, “Person sitting on a chair across from me, eyes moving, talking loudly.” After all, thems the facts! What else do you really know about this situation?


Only after you have mastered the skills of observe and describe are you free to fully be in the present moment. The art of “losing yourself” and fully living is called “Participate” in DBT. This is when you are mindful of what you are doing and who you are with but not of yourself. This is the opposite of self-conscious. This is the state-of-being responsible for most peak experiences in life. This is one of the goals of mindfulness.

“Okay,” you may say, “this all sounds well and good, but what does it mean in real life? How would the scenario above had played out differently if Sandy had been more mindful?” Perhaps the scenario would have gone a bit more like this:

She can feel it – the anger rising in her core. “I cannot believe she is late!” Instantly, Sandy recognizes the warning sign within her body. Taking a deep, cleansing breath, she focuses her attention on the rising and falling of her chest and stomach. Her mind goes blank and her body relaxes. Slowly, Sandy allows words to label the moment. “It is 2:10 pm. My friend is not here. I am sitting at a table with a cold drink of water. People are sitting around me eating.”

As she comments on the facts of the current moment, Sandy realizes that she is unaware of any malevolent intent by her friend. Nothing in Gretchen’s history has ever indicated lack of care. Sandy concludes she can ask her friend what happened, call her friend if she really worries, and that she does not have to become upset. Looking around the room for something to soothe her, she notices a captioned basketball game on a television screen in the corner. She throws her whole mind into watching the game. Before she knows it, Gretchen comes bounding in, chatting about her day. Sandy hears the comment about traffic in a different way. She joins in on the chatter and the afternoon is enjoyable.  

If stories like Sandy’s sound all too familiar, perhaps you would benefit from learning and practicing some of the skills written about here. DBT is at the core of skills taught at The Center • A Place of HOPE. The caring staff would love to help you learn more about yourself. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you want to learn more.

Written by Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Training & Curriculum Consultant for The Center • A Place of HOPE. As a Neuroscience-informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board-certified Group Psychotherapist, Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. The Center is located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, and creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.

1 Mindfulness for Life; An Interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD. Santa Barbara, CA; Glendon Association; Video Recordings


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