The untrained mind is like an untrained puppy - gets into trouble, pees where it is not supposed to, chews up the owner’s favorite shoes, eats garbage, and throws up. Likewise, an untrained mind wanders all over, gets itself and the person in trouble, and ruminates about things that make the person feel worse.”

DBT means embracing two sides, which is likely why it’s Mindfulness Skills are broken into two categories, What Skills and How Skills. We can see What Skills as acceptance-based and How Skills as change-based. What Skills stand for Observe, Describe, and Participate. We will look over How Skills is another post.

What Skills are to be done one at a time and refer to “what” you can do to take control of your mind and what is going on around you. Observe and Describe are useful when a new behavior is being learned, and Participate helps us get into the flow of things, become less self-conscious, and feel included.


Observing is the opposite of multitasking. The benefits include focusing the mind and getting information. When you use your six senses to fully take in the present moment, it’s hard to live in the past and future. When we observe we may also observe ourselves using things like a sleep diary or food journal. Just by tracking our behavior, we can later bring about change.

Observing is also useful in brining down or taking us out of panic. It can also help us in social situations. We can observe the thoughts in our brain and notice which are unneccessary past or future thoughts, judgemental thoughts, or catastrophizing thoughts. Doing so we can let go of believes and assumptions that can interfere with our present interactions, and direct our minds to healthier places.


Describing follows observing, and is our attempt to distinguish experiences and thoughts. It is adding words to our observations. Describing develops our ability to sort out and tell apart internal and external observations. Someone’s tone of voice, for instance, matters when they are saying something to us. We can decide if they are critiquing us, being sarcastic, or simply observing out loud to themselves. The aim and benefit is to crop out what IS observed from what is NOT observed. And when we do this correctly we can stick with facts rather than interpretations.

In describing, it is important to distinguish facts from mental concepts, thinking traps, and automatic thinking. For example, someone might text you they are going to the doctors and you might not hear from them the rest of the evening and you automatically assume they are really sick. Using this skill we may assume the worst but then we bring back our attention to the description: I’m going to the doctors. You might not hear from me for the rest of the evening. We then decide that is all we know.


Participating follows describing and it is entering wholly, with awareness, into life itself, nonjudgmentally and in the present moment. It is the ultimate goal of mindfulness. When you observe and describe non-judgmentally it is only natural that mindful participation can follow but it does take practice.

The benefits of participation include:

Experiencing flow: Flow is when you are fully immersed in an experience. Maybe you are working or having a conversation. You could be riding a bike. Flow is considered an optimal experience incompatible with boredom and associated with intense enjoyment and a sense of control. In a state of flow, things seem effortless and we may get loads of work done or get through a long conversation with a stranger without feeling anxious.

Being less self-conscious: When you are fully immersed in an activity or experience it is only natural that you are less aware of yourself. Full participation is incompatible with self-consciousness and just the action of including yourself into an activity or experience can build self-esteem.

You can Participate by:

Enter into present experiences with a clear goal: You can start to participate by simply utilizing the other what skills, by observing and describing. Participate when you are ready, comfortable, and have a clear goal in mind.

Knowing when to disengage: Some people don’t participate at all while others participate too much and can drive people crazy. Remembering when we are dealing with other people each experience is a shared activity. Participating is done on its own, but we should be mindfully aware of others and the environment. You can also stop participating and simply Observe and Describe when something is difficult.

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