How "Describing" Can Slow Down Your Emotional Reaction (DBT)

Yesterday in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) group, we once began covering the module on Mindfulness. Our focus was on the "What" skills (as in "What does being mindful mean?").
The three sections covered were:
  • Observing
  • Describing
  • Participating
In this post, I'll be focusing on "Describing," as I can relate it to some issues I have been experiencing around black or white, all-or-thing style thinking, which is typical in those with Borderline Personality Disorder.

Perhaps you can relate to some of these scenarios. Some of them I've personally experienced:

  • I'm having a bad hair day. It sucks. I will just chop it off. (Black or White, All or Nothing thinking: My hair looks bad today (when it perhaps looked okay yesterday) = I should cut it off. Now.
I've actually done this one MANY times and always regretted it. Since I've been in DBT, my hair has grown longer than it has in YEARS! I slow down my mind once the impulsive thought comes up that I identify as black or white, and then I distract or go into Wise Mind to put space between the impulse and taking any action.)


  • My boss just gave me a weird look = He's about to fire me.

    I am getting better about realizing that this is just a "thought" and a "fear" rather than a "fact," which leads me to the focus of the DBT lesson, which encourages us to describe our experiences so that we can learn to cope with what is actually happening in the moment and not what we THINK or FEEL is happening, both of which can be deceptive and cause us unnecessary suffering.

So, instead of jumping from noticing an expression on my boss' face to assuming that it means he is about to fire me, I'd slow down the process and describe everything, like this:

  • Boss' brow is furrowed, his eyes are squinted, and his lips are tight. (It's not enough to just say "Boss looks angry." With describing, you give all of the details that you can observe.)
  • I am noticing that a feeling of anxiety or fear has arisen in me. (Rather than "I am anxious" or "I am afraid."  You are noticing the feeling arising within you.)
  • I noticed a thought come up that "he could be coming over to fire me." (Notice how I did not say "He could be coming over to fire me." I said that I noticed a thought, and the content of that thought was "He could be coming over to fire me." This differentiates that a thought does not necessarily equal a fact.)
See how nothing was added or taken away to the situation at hand, and there is no judgment?

During the video we watched, Dr. Marsha Linehan, founder of DBT, gave us this example.  Suppose you say to the person sitting next to you, "I am a green Martian." You may truly believe that you are a green Martian, but does that make it true? If you started using the Describing skill, you'd soon see that this was just a "thought" with no supporting evidence. It is not a fact.

Describing a situation in detail, without adding or subtracting any information, helps us to be in the present moment and more readily available to cope with reality as it truly is.

Do you find yourself jumping from a thought or feeling to a reaction or impulse?  Is it possible to notice that a thought is a thought, a feeling is a feeling, and that describing can be used to gain clarity around whether the thought or feeling is connected to a fact?

Thank you for reading.
More Soon.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Debbie!
    Since there is no DBT offer in my region (for some reason I think, only US is covered with that in a good way), but I underwent 3 major breakdowns last week, I decided to purchase the Skill Manual from Marsha Linehan, even though it is pretty expensive. I learned that Wise Mind is one of the core elements, still I seem to not fully get when to use it. From what I found through searching your blog, it seems I have to use it when I am full in my emotions and fail to view things with reason. I use the Wise Mind Whats and Hows to bring up reason and view things from all sides, not only through my emotions? Is this what it means?

    I obviously have to do some selfteaching here, which is not the way it is supposed to be, but the only option I have right now. :(

    Thank you!

    Also I wish you lots of strength to go through your crisis at the moment. It is no failure, of course it feels like it, but it isn't. Easier said than felt, right? However I am thankful for your blog :) If it helps to have longer episodes of being ok and shorten the periods of distress, it already helped.



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