DBT Skills: Observe, Describe, and Participate

Welcome to Columbus Park’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) mini-series! Join us over the next three blogs/weeks, as we share a few central DBT skills that can enhance your life and help you cope when things get tough.

To start, let’s consider how to observe, describe, and participate in a non-judgmental way.

Emotions serve an important purpose: They tell our body what is happening around us and within us. Emotional responses are central to our survival. Think about what happens when you’re in danger. It’s so important for your safety that you feel fear. Fear motivates you to escape danger – and fast.   

While big emotions are often critically important and protective in many ways, at times, they can get in our way. If emotions become too intense, we can lose agency and the ability to respond most effectively. Conversely, if emotions are dulled or buried, we may miss out on important information. 

If you’ve been struggling with strong emotions, know there is hope thanks to DBT skills.

You’ve probably heard of mindfulness by now. Mindfulness is a tool that allows us to connect with ourselves and the world around us in order to remain in the present moment and prevent our thoughts from spinning out of control. When we talk about mindfulness in DBT, we talk about Observing, Describing, and Participating.

When we Observe, Describe and Participate, we step back from an experience and take it in as a “witness.” We can stop ourselves from judging the moment as good or bad and avoid getting caught up in negative feelings. This mindfulness state is calm and allows for healthy decision-making.  When we’re mindful, we tend to be less reactive and impulsive which is great.

So how can we use Observe, Describe and Participate skill during a time of strong emotions?

Think about when you see a spectacular sunset. Let’s not grab our phones and start taking photos just yet! Just OBSERVE. Observe the shapes and colors in the sky. Consider the sensations in your body. Identify the emotions coming up around the experience. You can observe X; you can observe Y. Whenever you are observing, you are practicing an aspect of mindfulness.

Now, DESCRIBE what you see, what you feel, what you hear, and what you smell. In DBT, we try to describe using neutral, non-judgmental language: “I see pink, purple, and orange fluffy clouds surrounding a big ball of soft orange fire. I notice that my heart is beating quickly and that my breath is short.”

Finally, be PRESENT in the experience. Again, don’t grab your phone! Just take in the experience, fully and without judgment. If you notice negative thoughts (“Argh, I really should be taking a photo…”), acknowledge that they’re there and bring yourself back to the experience.

Every moment of every day is an opportunity to be present – to observe, describe and participate. And some moments are clearly not beautiful sunsets. We often have challenging, upsetting, difficult events and experiences in our lives that trigger a whole host of emotions.  The hardest times are the times when we need to practice these skills the hardest. 

We will naturally try to avoid difficult emotions and experiences, but this approach can lead to more harm than good in many cases. Think about behaviors like binge eating or alcohol overuse – two examples out of many unsustainable methods for coping. Folks often describe food and drugs as methods of escape from difficult feelings.  

As an alternative, we can consider trying to remain present in those feelings, to try observing and describing the situation without judgment. We can try to accept the difficult situation and, from a thoughtful, mindful place, make some decisions about the best way to handle it. When we’re mindful, we’re in an ideal headspace to cope most effectively.

Here are a few tips for understanding the DBT Observe, Describe, and Participate skill.


  • Notice the word around you. What is happening?
  • Consider your thoughts, feelings, and bodily responses without reacting to or judging them.
  • Observe your mindset and emotional state without trying to change it.
  • Stay alert to your present experience.
  • Think about your thoughts like rubber: They come to you and then bounce back. Or envision them like waves, rising and falling at the shore.
  • Try not to push your feelings away but don’t hold on to them either.


  • Use descriptive words to paint a picture of your current circumstances (i.e. My heart is racing, I feel warm, and my hands are sweating).
  • If you find yourself making a judgment, acknowledge it but don’t engage with it. Simply label it: “I am having a negative thought about my feelings.”


  • Be present! Move through the moment.
  • Avoid obsessive thoughts or judgments. Don’t question how you’re doing at the task. 


Reach out to the team at Columbus Park to learn more about our highly effective evidence-based approach to treatment.