DBT Skills 101: Observe and Describe

The Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills of observe, describe, and participate focus on accepting yourself without judgment and changing destructive behaviors.

While at times we may wish we did not experience strong emotion, emotions serve an important purpose. Emotions are the bodies way of signaling to us what is happening around us and within us. From an evolutionary perspective, the development of an emotional response has helped to ensure our survival (e.g. the development of a fight or flight response). If our emotions become too intense, we find ourselves unable to remain in control, and on the flipside, if our emotions are blunted or we push them away, we are not able to access the messages and information we are being presented with.

Responses to our emotions may be primary (strong feelings that come on quickly, e.g. feeling surprised when winning a contest!) or secondary (our feelings about our feelings, e.g. if we feel angry and yell at a friend, we may then feel guilt as a secondary emotion to anger). Often, a primary reaction can set off a chain of events that cause more pain than the original emotion.  For example, an individual may be left with feelings of guilt and shame following a binge eating episode.

If you have been dealing with strong emotion for a long time, know that there is hope. DBT Emotion Regulation Skills are extremely accessible and effective. DBT teaches about the didactic: accepting yourself without judgment, while simultaneously changing destructive behaviors in the service of living a healthy life (Linehan, 1993a). We are all able to learn to control our responses as long as we choose to cope with our emotions!

Mental Noting: Observe and Describe

We have already learned about the evidenced-based support and theory behind mindfulness, a tool that allows us to connect with ourselves and the world around us in a new, observant way. Today, we will dive deeper into the practice of Observing & Describing in our everyday lives as a tool to monitor and regulate our emotions. Mindfulness teaches us the “what” skills: Observe, Describe, and Participate. These skills help us to remain in the present moment and prevent thoughts from spinning.

How can we use this skill of observation when we are taken in a wave of strong emotion? Non-judgmental observation provides us with a window of time in which we can step back from an event or emotion, and observe it through the lens of a camera, or as a “witness.” We will prevent ourselves from judging an experience or emotion as good or bad, avoid getting caught up in the experience and quiet the talkative mind. This experience can be calming in and of itself. This cognitive “space” we have created makes room for healthy decision making and increased flexibility.


– Start by noticing your environment and what is going on around you.

– Begin to attend to your feelings, thoughts and any bodily sensations without reacting to them.

– Non-judgmentally observe your emotional state (observe without trying to change).

– Avoid reacting to your emotion, simply notice it (e.g. I am feeling happiness or I am feeling anxious).

– Do not let the mind slip away, remain alert to each experience.

– Envision your thoughts as rubber, they present themselves and then bounce right back out or watch these thoughts and feelings rise and fall like waves.

– Do not push any sensations away but do not hold on to anything.


– Utilize descriptive words to explain your experiences (e.g. my hands are sweating, my chest is pounding, my temperature is rising).

– If you engage in self-judgment, acknowledge it (e.g. self-judgment has wandered in, stay in this moment).

– Avoid engaging with the content of the thoughts, simply label (I am having a thought about X, I am having a feeling about X).


– Remember to stay present, we are not engaging in the act of pushing away at this time.

– Avoid obsessive thoughts and judgments.

– Avoid questioning yourself and how you are doing at the task.