Core Mindfulness in Dialectical Behavior Therapy

close-up of a man's eyes shutAs discussed in the overview of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), the first of the four primary DBT modules is core mindfulness. Derived largely from Eastern zen philosophies and Western contemplative practices, mindfulness forms the foundation for the other three DBT modules of interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance, and emotion regulation.

Mindfulness is the practice of observing one’s emotions and environment, describing feelings and experiences, and fully participating in the moment. By learning and incorporating mindfulness skills, clients become more aware of their feelings, thoughts, impulses, and behaviors. This awareness empowers the individual to better regulate his or her emotions and choose more appropriate actions.

Three States of Mind
A central concept of core mindfulness in DBT is that there are three states of mind: the logical mind, the emotional mind, and the wise mind. In Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder, DBT founder Dr. Marsha Linehan explains that mindfulness helps achieve the wise mind state, which is a balance between the logical (or “cool”) state of mind and the emotional (or “hot”) state of mind. In the wise mind, the individual considers things rationally while factoring in his or her feelings. This enables the person to acknowledge intense emotions in a nonjudgmental manner while making healthier behavioral choices.

“What” and “How” Mindfulness Skills
In DBT, the practice of core mindfulness is taught through “what” skills and “how” skills, i.e., what can we do to become mindful and how should we do it? The three “what” skills are observing, describing, and participating. The observing skill refers to observing the current environment and events, as well as the client’s own sensations, thoughts, and feelings—without describing or judging him or her. This process helps prevent impulsive reactions and the triggering of negative emotions and internal dialogues.

The second step is to describe what has been observed and experienced, being careful to express facts rather than interpretations. For example, the client might say, “I am feeling frustrated with the complexity of this project,” rather than, “I am too stupid to complete this project.”

The third “what” skill is participation, wherein the individual is fully engaged in the present moment. The focus is on the discussion one is engaged in, or the event he or she is attending, rather than allowing the mind to wander about past incidents or future possibilities—which generally increases feelings of agitation.

In practicing the “what” skills, it is critical to employ the “how” skills, which explain how to perform the “what” skills: nonjudgmentally, one-mindfully, and effectively. The nonjudgmental skill helps neutralize the common tendency to label experiences and feelings as “good” or “bad.” In applying this skill, the individual describes the key facts of the experience rather than his or her feelings and judgments about it.

The second “how” skill, one-mindfulness, refers to focusing 100% attention on the present situation rather than multitasking—in other words, participating mindfully as opposed to mindlessly. This skill is helpful in breaking the habit of dwelling on negative thought patterns, which tends to prolong and aggravate distressing emotions.

Finally, the effectiveness skill enhances the capability to select behaviors that are consistent with achieving goals rather than deliberating on what is fair or unfair, and how things “should be.” The idea is to take productive and goal-oriented actions instead of being caught up in a cycle of negative thinking and behaviors.

Mindfulness can be a challenging skill for some people to develop. Many of us have become accustomed to focusing on something that has already happened or may occur in the future, rather than what is happening right in front of us. With training and practice, however, core mindfulness enables clients to become more flexible in their thinking and avoid being controlled by their emotions. It can help reduce the tendency to react negatively based on internal triggers, allowing clients to be fully present in the moment and engage in more productive behaviors.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Suzette Bray, MFT, therapist in Burbank, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • K Hayden

    February 15th, 2013 at 11:18 PM

    I cannot concentrate or be fully present in the moment at any cost.I do not know why this happens but it always does.Is there any specific exercise that would help me in this?Some puzzle or activity that I can do to enhance these skills?Because no matter how much I tell myself I always end up mind wandering and not paying attention to the present.

  • Cale

    February 16th, 2013 at 6:26 AM

    Great if you have a therapist who really understands this and is willing to fully explore this method of being with you, guiding you as to how to get there and how it can improve your life.

  • Elisabet

    February 17th, 2013 at 5:35 AM

    The most difficult aspect of this for me is to control that impulsiveness. I am someone who automatically flies off the handle and makes some very irrational and impulsive decisions as a result. I hate this about myself because I know that this hurts a lot of people including me in the process but I have never found the ability to get this under control. I have thought that maybe therapy could work for me but I was never too sure. But with this, maybe I have finally found my answer?

  • Jean Nystrom

    February 17th, 2013 at 1:36 PM

    This is why I turned the program I use, play attention. I am essentially my daughter’s coach, therapist and but most important Best Friend who keeps BOTH of us in the moment. Interesting article.

  • Natasha.S

    February 18th, 2013 at 5:14 PM

    I used to be mentally absent from many a situation in the past.But with meditation and mindfulness I can see the difference.It is amazing how it can go on to help you see and experience each moment and event completely and from a whole new perspective.

    While it may not be as easy as clicking a mouse it is not hard either.All you need is a little patience and investment of time.But the rewards are many.Not only does it help you remain present and calm but also soothes you from deep within.

  • kate

    February 19th, 2013 at 4:03 AM

    I honestly have tried this method, I really have, but you hit it exactly right when you said that many of us have a hard time with it because we can’t let go of the past to focus on that which is clearly right in front of us today. I want to be that person who can move beyond the past and let it all go in a good and positive way, but I have not been able to achieve that state of mindfulness and being just yet.

  • Bob

    February 19th, 2013 at 11:42 PM

    I’ve observed that at times when I am hard on myself and am thinking on the lines of “I’m too stupid to complete this project” I actually render myself incapable of doing the task at hand.

    Compare this to the other thoughts where I figure out the real reason, which could be frustration, and I can pull myself together and go ahead with the task. It may sound like a big change but really the way we perceive and look at things combined with our mental status can really make a difference.

    I wish I could do the positive and the right thing every time but I do make mistakes, I do make the wrong choices. I am working on it and hope to be able to make the isn’t choice all the time.

  • henry

    February 21st, 2013 at 11:28 PM

    mindfulness seems like a blast from the past for me. I was able to look into and understand my feelings and emotions so well in the past. But since the past few years things have certainly changed.

    I can no longer read my own thoughts and emotions accurately and if someone asks me “How are you feeling right now?” I will have a hard time describing or even identifying my own feelings. I do not know how or why this happened but really want to change things and take it back to what it used to be like. Any help in this is appreciated.

  • Darren

    February 22nd, 2013 at 11:42 PM

    I understand what you mean,henry. I have been there and experienced that and frankly I did not know how to get out of it. A friend helped me to and the avenue I chose was meditation. Meditation can really help you look within yourself and be able to recognize and read your emotions and feelings.

    Give it a try and you will not be disappointed.

  • Chris

    January 25th, 2015 at 12:20 PM

    We Are All Different and Respond To Thing Differently. CBT and/or DBT IS NOT FOR EVERYONE NOW OR EVER !! While its Great that there has been success for Some with Any Therapy we ALL Need to Realize this. Whether you’re are a Patient or Therapist etcetera. Hopefully someday their will be an Answer to such a Complex Variety of Mental Illness without putting us through Hell and Back to see IF something has actually helped.

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