Core Mindfulness: Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

A man sits in a chair with his chin propped on his hand and thinks.Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is an offspring of cognitive behavior therapy that incorporates Eastern meditative practices. The dialectic comes from the synthesis of opposites, particularly acceptance and change, that is a tenet core to the DBT philosophy. We accept ourselves as good enough, and we recognize the need for all of us to change and grow. These two concepts could seem contradictory, but through the persuasive dialogue, or dialectic, we can understand these seemingly opposing truths side by side.

DBT is taught as a series of skills in four modules: mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotional regulation, and distress tolerance. The first of these modules is core mindfulness and, as the name implies, it is the foundation of DBT. Core mindfulness is based in Eastern Zen philosophy, and it includes Western contemplative practices. Mindfulness is an awareness of thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and behavioral urges. By learning mindfulness, we are empowered to be in charge of ourselves in a different way. It has been proven that awareness assists in emotional regulation. As we understand ourselves, we accept ourselves and change ourselves. It is a practice of attention and intention.

In DBT, core mindfulness begins with the concept of states of mind. According to the theory, there are three states of mind that we are all in at varying times: wise mind, logical mind, and emotional mind. Wise mind is the ideal state of mind that we strive for from which to make our decisions. The other two states of mind combine to form wise mind. Logical mind is the state of mind that people use when doing math, reading a map, and various other concrete tasks. It is described as the “cool” state of mind that we use to deal with empirical facts. The last state of mind is emotional mind. Emotional mind is the state of mind in which we feel the depth of our emotions and act from an emotional state. In an extreme, this state of mind would be used if we reacted impulsively out of anger, without regard to consequences. This is considered the “hot” state of mind.

Wise mind is the state of mind in the middle of both logical and emotional mind. In wise mind, we are aware of our feelings, and we decide how to act in a way to honor our feelings and goals. In wise mind if we were angered, we would acknowledge our feelings and act in a way that would not create negative consequences for ourselves.

Learning to be more aware of feelings and internal states is a valuable therapeutic process in DBT. These skills are taught through the “what” skills of core mindfulness: observe, describe, and participate. “The goal is to develop a lifestyle of participating with awareness; an assumption of DBT is that participation without awareness is characteristic of impulsive and mood dependent behaviors” (Linehan). We use all three parts of the skill until a new behavior is learned, then we can choose the appropriate parts of the skill to use more selectively.

The first skill is where we observe or attend to thoughts, feelings, events, and behaviors without trying to change them—we just collect data. We want to know how we respond to certain events in our lives. After we become aware through observation, we want to describe our experience. Describing is the second “what” skill of core mindfulness. The more accurately and richly we describe our experience, the more empathy and self control we can access. It is important to separate the experience from reality and understand that feeling and thoughts are not facts. For example, if I feel unloved, it does not mean I am unloved. The final “what” skill of core mindfulness is to participate without self-consciousness. To participate, we are fully present in the moment. We try to become more present and alive in each moment of our lives.

The final aspect of core mindfulness are the “how” skills: non-judgmentally, one-mindfully, and effectively. Non-judgmentally means taking a non-evaluative approach, judging something as neither good nor bad. Instead of judging events, DBT teaches looking at consequences of behaviors and events. One-mindfully is a way to help focus on the task at hand. We practice controlling our attention and focusing on one thing in the moment. We do not let worry thoughts or negative mood influence our task. One-mindfully is the opposite of multi-tasking. Effectively, or doing what works, is the final “how” skill of core mindfulness. Effectively is understanding and acting according to a goal rather than acting according to what we deem as “right or fair”. It empowers us to act from our goals and objectives versus judgments. It is a tool for enabling action on a single goal versus endless contemplation.

Overall, the core mindfulness “what” and “how” skills help to form a foundation for DBT skills training. The main objective is to develop awareness and insight in order to behave in ways that attain our goals. DBT helps to develop awareness, understanding, communication, and focus to navigate life and challenging situations.

Linehan, Marsha. (1993). Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. Guilford: New York.

© Copyright 2008 by Tara Arnold, PhD, LCSW. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • Ralph

    January 28th, 2008 at 11:13 AM

    I really love this approach to life in general. I think so many people would be better off if they would only formulate a goal and then evaluate how their actions are affecting their attainment of their goal. If their actions are causing them to progress towards their goal, they continue the behavior. However, if their actions are distancing them from their goal, they change their behavior. It sounds so simple, yet why can’t we all get this thing accomplished? It all lies in our emotions. It is so difficult for humans to discount our emotions and make decisions based solely on such wonderful, logical thinking.

  • Martin

    January 28th, 2008 at 11:15 AM

    I partially agree with what Ralph said. However, I don’t think the world would be better off if we just reacted from our logical selves rather than our emotional selves. Hence, the author’s reference to a wise self as being a combination of the two. If we never let emotions enter our decisions, where would we be? We would all act in self interest alone, with never an altruistic thought or action in the mix. The poor would not be fed, the naked would not be clothed. What kind of world would that be?

  • Dianne

    January 29th, 2008 at 5:59 AM

    Ah, my dear Martin. But, aren’t you making a flawed assumption? Aren’t you assuming that all goals are selfish ones? Isn’t is possible that someone could make a goal of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked? I guess, if they do, they could go strictly on logic in obtaining that goal. Or, would they end up stepping on toes in pursuit of the unselfish goal?

  • Augusta

    January 29th, 2008 at 6:02 AM

    I think this dialogue is exactly why this type of therapy is so important. It is important to honor and incorporate both logical and emotional thinking when making a decision. Decisions do indeed need to be made intentionally. Rather than making decisions exclusively with either logic or emotion, it is vital to incorporate both. Otherwise, we all risk making decisions that are not beneficial to the world at large. And, sometimes, these same decisions are not even beneficial to ourselves. I love the idea of making decisions based on the outcomes they are thought to bring. This way, we can evaluate how those decisions will affect ourselves as well as those around us.

  • Mrs M.Abderrazek

    May 14th, 2009 at 3:16 AM

    Dear Tara :

    Thanks for the blog you presented here .Actually , I am a Borderline case defined so by my therapist . And as i am always angry in my life and donot enjoy my whole life ,i suffer a lot . i lost all my realtionships and people think i am crazy .
    i think this mindfulness or dialectical behavior therapy is very interesting and i tried this therapy 5 days ago
    i tried to remain in present and not traveling in the wonder land of thoughts and pain , blaming this one and forgiving that one .
    The mindfulness helped to be in the present but in fact i am not sure about what i am doing as i am judging what i am doing .
    i hope to recover completely and to be normal .

  • gaye cranfield

    July 22nd, 2009 at 11:28 PM

    Thank you for publishing the information on DBT. The pyschologist who is helping me cope with the Asperger’s Syndromne I’m blessed with is to start DBT @ our next consultation.

  • Deb Miller

    August 5th, 2009 at 7:28 PM

    To M. Abderrazek,
    I understand where you are at. Mindfulness is never a 5 day, 5 week, 5 month or 5 year situation where the end product results in endless utopia. It is a life long willingness to want to strive for a better life. You cannot try it for just a bit and expect results or change immediately. It requires PRACTICE. It requires the active intention and deliberate utilization of the skills and knowledge and AWARENESS you’ve learned and practice in everyday problematic areas. You are judging what you are doing because you are not at the point of understanding how all the dynamics of DBT interrelate and can effect growth, wisdom and change. But that’s OK! Just knowing you want to heal is half the battle overcome. Awareness of your self, how you behave based on emotions and logic and new skills learned will do nothing less than provide you with a brighter future filled with wisdom, peace and self validation! The key is practice and try to stay with it- even if you stop the DBT therapy, still practice and use what you have learned.

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