DBT 101: What is Mindfulness?


As we turn the corner of the holiday season, many of us have been thinking about commitments to make for the New Year. Do you have a desire to be a more active participant in your life? Stay more connected to people you care about? Better understand yourself? There’s a reason you can’t go to any health or lifestyle website without seeing an article hawking the benefits of mindfulness; practicing mindfulness can help you work on these big picture goals.

So, what exactly is mindfulness? Mindfulness can be defined as the practice of being present, in the moment, on purpose, without judgment, and not clinging to any moment. In dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), we also define it as observing, describing, and participating in the moment, as well as doing it non-judgmentally, doing one thing at a time, and doing what works for you (also known as “being effective”). Mindfulness is about noticing what is: that includes your distractions, thoughts, and feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant. It can include focusing on something specific, or narrowing your attention. Other times, mindfulness is about noticing everything around you, or expanding your attention.

Learning and practicing skills, including mindfulness, is important in DBT and is thought to play a crucial role in what helps people get better and build a life worth living. Mindfulness can be practiced in many ways.

Formal mindfulness practices are when someone actively engages in focusing their attention—and their awareness. For example, you can be mindful by observing your breath. To do this, you would breathe in and out, paying attention to what you feel in your body while doing so. What parts of your body move when breathing? What does the breath feel like in your nose or mouth? How fast or slow is the breath? Or, you could mindfully walk along a wooded path using your senses. You might pay attention to sounds around you, like birds chirping in branches above and leaves crunching underfoot, the smells of the foliage and the outdoors, and maybe even feel some leaves or branches.

Mindfulness can be practiced informally anytime throughout the day, and often, people do formal mindfulness practices to be able to use mindfulness at other times. If you’re sitting in a meeting struggling to stay focused, and notice you are thinking about your to-do list for the day, mindfulness is the act of noticing these distractions and bringing attention back to the meeting, to the activity you’re attempting to engage in and focus on. I like to tell people, mindfulness is not about not having distractions. Instead, being mindful is noticing the distractions and then coming back to what you were doing or what you wanted to focus on. Mindfulness does not (and should not!) “banish negative thoughts or emotions.” We all have them and it is quite unlikely any person can get rid of them all together! Therefore in DBT, we also teach people to be aware of their distress and unpleasant thoughts and feelings so that they can more effectively move forward with them, or do something to help move past them. 

Here are some tips for building mindfulness into your life this year:

  • Start small. Pick something you already do regularly. Try to be mindful of it. At first, do it for a short period of time, even just one minute.
  • Practice out loud. Pick something up, describe it out loud. What do you see – colors, texture? What does it feel like? What does it smell or taste like? Does it make sounds?
  • Noticing your distractions is, by definition, being mindful. Our minds wander. Mindfulness isn’t about having a clear mind or being void of thoughts. The ability to notice when our attention shifts and is no longer on what we were being mindful of is you being mindful of that happening.
  • Don’t judge your judging! If you do this, you know what I mean. When you notice distractions or judgments, don’t then judge yourself for them. But, when you do judge your judging, just notice that and observe and describe that process factually.
  • Go easy on yourself and don’t cling to an outcome. If this is hard for you or if you set a goal and don’t reach it, let that be what it is. If the outcome of your new or expanding mindfulness practice is not what you set out for, sit with your current outcome, and again, observe and describe this to yourself. Notice your thoughts and emotions tied to not achieving your outcome. And then, in practicing not clinging to the moment, set another goal! Doing this over and over again is another example of being mindful!

Andrea Barrocas Gottlieb, PhD, is the DBT Program Coordinator at Sheppard Pratt. She completed her psychology internship and postdoctoral training at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts, where she learned to implement Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) with youth and adults. She has studied and published research on nonsuicidal self-injury and mood disorders in youth. Dr. Gottlieb helps Sheppard Pratt implement DBT more widely through program development and staff training.