Mindfulness & Me

Alright, I said in the last post that I want to get more focused on how I utilize DBT skills... so I figured I better start here, where all DBT programs start: mindfulness. Mindfulness in DBT isn't quite the same as the mindfulness you see plastered everywhere nowadays. Sure, all mindfulness practices are based on the same basic ideas, but in DBT it's all about using mindfulness skills to be our most effective selves and obtaining some mastery and control over our emotional reactions.

To be quite honest, prior to my year in DBT, I thought all that meditation and mindfulness crap... was just crap. Any previous attempt I had made at quieting my mind to nothingness... had done nothing more than provoke extreme anxiety and floods of emotion. Some of us just do not respond well to the general sentiment that "if you just change your thinking, you will feel better," even if we know our thoughts are causing us distress.

I always joke that DBT "tricked me" into changing my thinking. Marsha Linehan has this sort of magical way of taking tools and translating them into tangible lessons for emotionally sensitive people with a history of invalidation, so that we can feel empowered that we changed our thinking and still love ourselves in the process. Here's a short video of her talking about mindfulness in DBT.

A lot of the therapy handouts I received before entering a year long DBT program were lists of distorted thinking and examples of thoughts I should replace them with - which to a sensitive person who already blamed herself for everything, read like "all these bad thoughts are your fault - so just change them already!" It didn't help me change my thinking and it left me feeling horrible about myself.

What I like about DBT is that we are never left wondering "but how???" So much mindfulness meditation crap out there is "just be present!" But if you have a lot of anxiety and emotions, you can't "just" be anything - you need steps to help get you there. And thanks to my friends at NowMattersNow.org, there are FREE videos on the internet of Marsha teaching all the mindfulness skills (links to them below are underlined and bolded).

Every DBT program starts with a few weeks of just learning the WHAT and the HOW of mindfulness. Basically, the WHAT skills, are just what you are doing when you are practicing mindfulness. They are:

  • Observing - Simple, yeah? Not so much. Training my brain to learn how to observe things in the present took a lot of intentional practice before it became second nature. I would go for walks and assume I'd just be walking around seeing"bird" or "tree" or "cloud." Haha, nope. It was a lot of "oh, that was a thought, ok, now I will redirect my attention back to observing" or "oh, I am having a feeling, but I am not paying attention to that right now, back to walking and looking around." I have found, for me, that most of observing is redirecting my attention back to observing. [But it's a really awesome skill to have because now I am getting really good at redirecting my attention from thoughts or feelings that I would like to get away from if they are not helpful!].

  • Describing - As Marsha says in the video, "you cannot describe what you cannot observe." This has had a huge impact on on those distorted thoughts those other handouts were trying to help but failed. Just simply changing a hand out from "these thoughts are distorted and aren't real" to "describe only what you can observe, only the facts you know" really shifted the power and control back over to me and kind of gave me this homework challenge that was exciting to execute.

  • Participating - Going "all-in" on what you are doing. I graduated from my DBT program like... 4 years ago, and as an introvert and a homebody, I will admit, I am only just starting to get the hang of this one. It is still my nature to sit at the edge of life and just observe. But nowadays, if I am going to spend time with other people, I want to be there for it and not feel like I left myself out (because I do that to myself often and it hurts!). If I notice a thought or feeling creeping up and pulling my attention away from a conversation or activity, I redirect my attention back to what I want to be doing.

When you are doing WHAT you are doing, you are only doing one of these at a time (though, often, we humans observe and immediately describe to ourselves in our brains so it might feel like we do both at once). The HOW skills are how you are doing the WHAT skills, and we endeavor to utilize all three HOW skills whilst doing any WHAT skill. They are:

  • One-mindfully - One thing at a time. Sounds easy on paper but is actually kind of hard in practice! I often notice I am doing 4 things at once and am starting to get frustrated and put 3 things down.

  • Non-judgementally - Just the facts. If you cannot observe it, then it's likely a judgement. Honestly, this was a huge life-changer for me. I spent a week just observing every time I had a judgement. And oooooof, did I find out how often my judgements were shaping my descriptions of everything, my moods and my interactions with people. My favorite group exercise was to try to say our therapist was judgemental without using any judgements. I came up with "Lindsey has opinions." It's such a simple adjustment, but it has had a HUGE affect on my ability to control my own moods, to be honest. If I realize halfway through a work day that I am feeling super cranky, I will often shift to try to stop making judgements about coworkers for the rest of the day and it really helps! I love this skill!

  • Effectively - Is what I am doing bringing me closer to my goals or pushing me farther away from them? Is is helpful to me or hurtful in the long run? Being effective means always keeping these in mind when engaging in a behavior or going down a thought hole. Being effective means using your Wise Mind.

Wow I just realized I wrote a whole ass post using a Wise Mind image I made, and almost forgot to even mention Wise Mind - which might actually be the lesson I had before the WHAT and HOW skills. It's kind of abstract, and I mostly just think about what is effective. Basically, your Wise Mind is not one where you react purely on emotion or logic, but rather a balance of both. Cultivating your Wise Mind and getting in tune with it is a big part of recovery in DBT, but I have a hard time using words for it! I think, as someone who never trusted their own feelings and reactions to things, I had lost all touch with myself and my ability to suss out what is right for me. I suspect putting this abstract idea out there helps us kind of rebuild that trust within ourselves, but it also is tied into being mindful in general.

What is your experience with mindfulness? Did you used to think it was a bunch of fluffy poo your annoying yoga friends yammered on about but left you feeling anxious an alienated like me? Have you come around to its ability to help you regain some control over what you're paying attention to? I am now such a mindfulness nerd and LineFan, I keep something like this printed out and in my line of sight all day at work:

A black and white photo of Marsha Linehan with text that reads "keep calm and use wise mind"
[Edited] image from The New York Times

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