‘What’ Skills – Observing
As we have seen, DBT encourages us to stay in the moment, with awareness to our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, without judging ourselves and others.
In the previous lesson we briefly looked at the six core skills in mindfulness. the first three skills – observe, describe and participate – are called ‘what’ skills. The second three skills are called ‘how’ skills (we will look more a those in the next lesson.
‘What’ skills are what we do when we practice mindulness – ‘how’ skills are how we do those things.
A person can only do one of the three ‘what’ skills at a time, but not all three at once. We can be observing what is happening, describing what is happening, or participating, but we can’t do all three together.
Imagine walking through a stranger’s house from the living room to kitchen, to get a drink from the fridge – with your eyes closed. You will bump into things, trip over things, maybe even hurt yourself. When you think you have reached the fridge, and open your eyes, you are probably at the sink instead!
This is a good example of how we walk through life with our eyes closed – not really observing what is around us. If you walk through that same house with your eyes open, observing where everything is, you will make it to the fridge unscathed.
We observe to see ‘what’ is – what is happening in front of you, what you are feeling or thinking. We also observe to decide what to do next. All of the things you observe in the moment (using all of your senses, not just what you see and feel) form your decisions on what to do next.
Try these observation exercises:
- Rub your top lip for 15 seconds and remove your hand, notice how long it takes for the sensation to stop
- Pay attention to your shoulders, are they slumped or tense? Consider how they feel in that moment.
- Put your hand on a cool surface and notice the sensations that occur.
- Stand still with your feet about a foot apart. Focus on where your feet are touching the floor. Without moving, find the spot where you feet are most balanced, where they are strongest on the floor.
These are good exercises to begin with – it can be frightening for some people to try and look at your own mind, so it may be easier to start with smaller observation exercises like those above. You can also practice observing while sitting on a park bench and watching people go by, or how a coffee cup feels in your hand. Notice the texture of things, the weight, the smell or the shape.
When some people enter a state of observation, they may dissociate when observing themselves, or feel a sense of looking in from the outside. If you feel this is you, before you begin observing imagine that you are sitting inside a flower when you are looking in at yourself. It’s a tall flower, with a long, strong stem going down into deep roots.
Imagine that you have climbed down this strong flower, down the long stem, and are at the root. Then begin observing. This practice helps cement yourself as being ‘rooted’ so you don’t lose sight of yourself.
Remember, when you observe you are paying attention on purpose, you are taking a step back and being alert, observing and nothing else. No labels, descriptions or reactions, just observe the experience.
Observing without describing can be difficult and requires practice. Our mind automatically adds labels to things we observe. For example, you hear the cheeping of a bird nearby. You are observing the sound of what could be a bird, but you haven’t actually observed a bird – your brain made that connection for you.
The skill is in learning to observe ONLY what we see, hear or sense, and nothing more.
If you are undergoing DBT, or have been reading about it, you may have heard of a ‘Teflon’ or ‘non-stick’ mind. This is an important concept in observing. The idea is that all experiences such as thoughts and feelings flow through the mind, being observed but not held onto. Allow these things to come into your mind, observe them, and let them go.
Some thoughts and feelings may be ones we don’t want to have, and we may try to avoid them while using observing skills., This is called ‘experiental avoidance’ and is when you may have thoughts that you try to block out or ignore.
Don’t think about an elephant right now. I bet you did, because the word conjures up that image of an elephant immediately. Studies show that shutting thoughts out actually acts like this elephant analogy – trying to shut them out just makes them pop into the mind all the more. The best way to get rid of unwanted thoughts is to step back, observe them, and let them go. They will not go away on their own, you must observe them and allow them to flow through your mind as you move to the next observation.
You may find when observing that your mind wanders, you feel distracted or bored, you begin thinking of something else and before you know it you are no longer observing. Remember, observing is non-judgmental, don’t judge yourself for being distracted, simply bring your mind back to observing. If you are hungry, acknowledge that and come back to observing. If you are sleepy, acknowledge that and come back to observing.
For those with a history of trama, observing can be painful at times. You may worry that you will see images from the past, that there will be intense emotions as a reszult of thoughts or images from the traumatic past. In fact, the ability to control our attention, to observe and allow these things to flow without grabbing onto them, can help us to reduce rumination – when we get trapped in negative thought patterns.
Try this exercise:
Play 30 seconds of classical music. Notice how the music goes up and down, or increases in speed or intensity. Notice how you feel when listening, how you sit and what is happening in your body.
Now play 30 seconds of a completely different type of music – disco, rock, etc. – notice how this music makes you feel, what happens in your body, etc.
While doing these two observation exercises, don’t compare between them, be fully present in each one. Afterwards, take a moment to compare the differences.
You can practice observation every day by simply being present in the moment. Be present while you eat an orange or your lunch, while you are on the bus coming home from work, while you are sitting in the park or your garden.