Mindfulness and DBT

One of the core concepts in DBT is mindfulness.  In every skills training group meeting, we continually come back to it.  We open up every meeting with a mindfulness exercise, and we spend a lot of time discussing mindfulness.  So, what is mindfulness?

Well, essentially it’s taking hold of your mind.  It is:

  • Full awareness–being aware of your present moment.  Noticing that you are happy, sad, angry, tense, or in pain.  Noticing that you have an itch or an ache.  Noticing your thoughts about something like “I can’t deal with this!” or “I hate that guy.” or “I don’t want to be here.”
  • Attentional control–Staying focused on one thing at a time.

There are three states of mindfulness:

Emotional Mind:

A person is in Emotion Mind when their thinking and behavior are controlled mostly by their emotions.  Logical thinking and planning are difficult, facts may be distorted or made larger or more important, thoughts and behaviors might be said to be “hot,” and the energy of the behavior tends to match the intensity of the feelings.

Some examples of emotion mind might be:

  • having a fight with someone you disagree with
  • going on a trip on an impulse, without planning
  • cuddling a puppy
  • making love
  • going out to fly a kite just for the fun of it
  • snapping at a salesperson because they don’t have the item you want
  • putting an expensive item on your credit card just because you like it

Reasonable or Rational Mind:

A person is in Reasonable Mind when they are approaching things intellectually, thinking logically, planning behavior, paying attention to empirical facts (facts that can be observed or measured or counted), focusing their attention, and when they are “cool,” that is, not emotional in their approaches to solving problems.

Some examples of Reasonable Mind might be:

  • calling the bus station to find out the bus schedule, instead of just walking over and hoping to find a bus
  • planning for an outing several days before
  • measuring the ingredients to bake a cake
  • asking a saleswoman the details about something you want to buy
  • studying for a test
  • looking up information on the Internet

Wise Mind:

Wise Mind is the coming together, the overlap of Reasonable Mind and Emotion Mind. But when they come together or overlap, they produce something bigger than either of them were separately. What is added is intuition, a feeling of “knowing” what’s right, a felt sense, a sense that some people feel in their body (head, heart, stomach or somewhere else) that something is just right, the right thing to do or the right way for things to be.  You can experience intuition about what’s right or appropriate without thinking about it, without knowing it intellectually, just feeling it.

This is just an introduction to mindfulness and the three states of mind.  Most people tend to exist in either emotional mind or reasonable mind.  It takes a great deal of practice to combine the two and enter into wise mind.


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I’ve been in and out of therapy since I was 16.  No one ever discussed mindfulness, and I certainly would not have wanted to practice mindfulness as it pertained to my own state of mind because I did not live in a validating environment.  What I had going for me in terms of learning mindfulness later on is self-awareness and hypervigilance.  In order to do well in my environment, I was required to be very aware of everything going on around me.  I could not be reactive because that would trigger a negative response in my mother.  My mother lived in emotional mind.  I had to, therefore, live in reasonable mind to bring balance to the environment.

What happens when we are self-aware as well as aware of our environments? We are prepared for learning mindfulness.  What we have to get rid of are the judgments.  What I have observed in myself and others who come from intense environments is a tendency to judge others based upon a tendency to judge ourselves.  This tendency seems to originate in judgmental and negative self-talk.  It might look like this:

“Why did I do that? I shouldn’t have done that.  What kind of person does a thing like that! My mother (or father or someone else) was right.  I am selfish or ___________ (another quality).  I don’t deserve anything.  I am just a _________ only good for ________.”

The only useful statement or question in this running commentary is “Why did I do that?” Even “I shouldn’t have done that,” is questionable because it involves the S-word–should.  Should is often used in invalidating statements which are part of the larger category of cognitive distortions known in DBT as Stinkin’ Thinkin’.   I will cover Stinkin’ Thinkin’ later.  The point here is that what I wrote here is just one big, nasty judgment, and many of us engage in this kind of self-talk on a regular basis.  Why? We grew up hearing it.  If this was the outer atmosphere in our environment, then it makes sense that it would become the inner atmosphere in ourselves.  So, what can we do about it?

Here is an introduction to the Three Steps To Achieving Wise Mind–The What Skills


Simply notice the experience in the present moment.  Wordless watching.  Watch your thoughts and feelings come and go like clouds in the sky or as if they are on a conveyor belt.  Don’t push away your thoughts and feelings or apply meaning to them.  Just let them happen even when they are painful, shocking, or go against your value system.

Note: This may be a challenge to a Christian particularly if you were raised in a legalistic environment.  There is a great deal of teaching around taking our thoughts captive based upon 2 Corinthians 10:5.  There is another verse, Matthew 7:1, that simply says, “Do not judge so that you are not judged.”  There are another eight more verses in the New Testament that address judgment and clearly instruct us not to judge.  And, of course, there is Romans 8:1 which directly says that there is now absolutely no condemnation of any kind for those in relationship with Jesus.  So, if God does not condemn or judge us, then we can stop judging others, and, more to the point, stop condemning and judging ourselves for our perceived shortcomings, thoughts, and actions.  If you notice a thought go through your mind that disappoints you, simply let it pass.  Remember–God is not disillusioned with you.  He never had an illusions about you to begin with.  We are the ones in need of therapy and a paradigm shift.  Not God.


Wordful watching: Label what you observed with words now.  Put words on the experience like “I feel sadness in my heart, ” or “I notice that I’m thirsty,” or “I’m feeling anxiety about a project at work,” or “I feel relaxed.”  Describe only what you observe, but do not interpret your observations.


Become one with your experience meaning experience or lose yourself in it.  Fully experience your feelings without being self-conscious.  Actively practice.  Don’t worry about tomorrow or focus on yesterday.  Fully be present in the current moment with all your heart whether it be dancing, cleaning, taking a test, or having coffee with a friend.

Three Steps to Achieving Wise Mind–The How Skills

Don’t Judge

  • Notice but don’t evaluate as good or bad.
  • Acknowledge the harmful and the helpful but, again, don’t judge.  For example, replace “You’re such a jerk!” with “I feel angry when you do that.”
  • Don’t judge your judging.  **This one is very important.  We all engage in this one, and it can lead us to spin out.  We may notice a thought or a behavior that triggers us or causes us to apply a judgment to our character.  Then, we judge ourselves for judging ourselves, and the cycle starts.  For example, we might feel annoyed by a coworker’s recent tardiness to meetings.  Perhaps we’ve shared our frustrations with another coworker.  We then find out that the tardy coworker has been late because she was recently diagnosed with a serious illness that has required her to go to many morning doctor’s appointments, and she is very fatigued.  Suddenly, you feel selfish and ashamed.  You begin to say things to yourself like, “What kind of person am I? Oh my gosh, I am a horrible person! I should have asked her if she was okay! Of course, she’s sick.  She looks sick! How come everyone else knew that she was ill and I didn’t?”  And now you feel too ashamed to even look her in the face.  Then, you realize that you’re engaging in negative self-talk.  “Oh my gosh, I’m beating myself up! I shouldn’t be doing that! I’m judging myself now! What kind of person does that? I’m mean to everyone! Even myself!” And on and on it goes.  Stopping the Judgment Train before it leaves the depot can put a stop to a lot of this negativity before it even starts.

Stay Focused

  • Do one thing at a time like observe or describe.
  • Let go of distractions.
  • Concentrate your mind.
  • Live in the present moment.

Do What Works

  • Focus on what works.  Don’t let emotions control your behaviors.
  • Play by the rules that govern the context of the circumstances.
  • Act as skillfully as you can.
  • Do what you need to do to achieve your goals.
  • Let go of negative feelings that hurt you and make things worse.

Letting go of negative feelings may be one of the more difficult things to do when practicing mindfulness, but it is essential for learning emotional regulation.

Taking it one step further, here are basic strategies for developing Zen Mindfulness.  What is Zen Mindfulness? It is:

Continuous, clear awareness of the present moment. Always returning, whether from an enjoyable fantasy, an emotional outburst or a melancholy remembrance; always returning to this moment. Being fully here, present-moment after present-moment. This is mindfulness. It’s not about having your “mind-full” of something, it’s actually the opposite – it’s the setting aside of your mental and emotional baggage, resulting in a clarity and a fluidity that lets thoughts, feelings and perceptions flow smoothly through your awareness without sticking. (Zen Mindfulness)

  • Focus your attention on the present moment and observe whatever you are experiencing.
  • Let go of any concern for how others perceive you.
  • Observe and put words to your feelings and thoughts and to your experiencing of sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste.
  • Quiet your mind and notice your breathing several times a day.
  • Practice being nonjudgmental daily.

The important thing to notice in the language about mindfulness is the word “practice”.  Mindfulness is a practice because it is skills-based.  Learning to be nonjudgmental is a skill.  Mindfulness flows around the dialectic as does being nonjudgmental, and this is something that many people in our culture do not understand.  The dialectic can be a hard concept for people to grasp.  Remember: the dialectic is two opposing ideas that are true at the same time.  So, you can have an idea like “I can see where you are coming from and even empathize with you, but I still don’t agree with you.”  That is a validating statement and even a dialectical statement.  It’s not a judgment, but there are those who feel judged simply because one doesn’t agree with them.

Dipping your toe in the mindfulness waters often begins with mindfulness exercises.  One of my favorites is exercises that center around radical acceptance because radical acceptance is the opposite of judgmentalism.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Read a controversial story in the newspaper without being judgmental about what has occurred.
  • The next time you get caught in heavy traffic, wait without being critical.
  • Watch the world news on television without being critical of what’s happening.
  • Listen to a news story or a political commentary on the radio without being judgmental.  (The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook)

When I did these exercises I chose the last suggestion.  I was amazed at just how critical I really was, but it clued me in to my reactions and thoughts.  I could then apply that chain reaction to other areas in my life where I was being critical and judgmental and use mindfulness instead in the form of radical acceptance.

The next topic in DBT is distress tolerance, but the foundation for everything is mindfulness.  This is something that is constantly practiced and developed.  So, start practicing, and remember that the first time you play a new song on an instrument it sounds pretty awful.  The same will be true in your mindfulness practice.  Over time, the more you practice the art of mindfulness, the better it will “sound”.

Miller, Rathus, & Landsman (1999). Adapted from Marsha M. Linehan’s Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder, Guilford Press, 1993.




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