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Mindfulness: Describe

In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Mindfulness has both How Skills and What Skills. The What Skills are what you do to be mindful and the How Skills are how you do the What Skills.

One of the DBT What Skills is Describe. When you describe mindfully, you apply accurate words to events actions of others. This means that you learn to not take thoughts and emotions as necessarily being accurate. You can have many thoughts and interpretations that turn out to not be accurate at all. For example, when you feel afraid, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a life-threatening situation happening. It doesn’t necessarily mean that anything threatening is happening. Just because you feel afraid doesn’t mean that you are in danger.

Imagine that you are awakened at night by a loud noise. You call someone, frantic, and tell them that someone is in your house and is after you. That would not be a mindful description. It might be your thought and it might fit the way you feel, but it’s not an accurate reflection of what happened. What happened is that you woke up when you heard and loud noise and you are super scared. When you find out the facts, you may learn there was someone trying to rob break in or you may learn that your cat knocked over a pan in the kitchen.

Calling for help and giving the worse possible case you can imagine will initially get you a faster response. People may respond to “Someone is breaking in” with more urgency than “I heard a loud noise and I am so scared.” But if you repeatedly give the worst case possibilities as facts, people will stop taking you seriously. They’ll tend to see you as someone who overreacts and may discount what you say. They may stop truly listening to you. Remember the story of the boy who called wolf? When your usual response to events is that the worst is happening without having facts, you lose credibility. Practicing mindfully describing can help build or re-build trust with others.

When you mindfully describe, you stick as close to your factual experience as you can, without interpretations or assumptions. Mindfully describing the facts of what is happening builds trust with others. When you can automatically just observe and describe, without assuming or adding judgment to your experience, you will decrease the chaos in your life that comes from judgements and assumptions–and that can be significant!

Imagine that you see your husband talking with an attractive woman when he is supposed to be at work. You see him hug her! You are so hurt and you rush home and throw his things on the lawn and change the locks. You are done–you will not be made a fool of.

You assumed something based on what you saw. You assumed your husband was cheating on you because he hugged the woman who was talking with him.

If you use observe and describe in this situation you would not assume or interpret. You would say “I see my husband hugging a girl. I am anxious about what that hug might mean.” You do not know the relationship he has with the person. When you stick to observe and describe you don’t make the assumption that he is cheating, an assumption that sends you to the heights of anger and hurt. When you stick with observe and describe, then you know you have a question about what is happening but don’t know the facts. So you check the facts rather than make assumptions. You would not have destroyed your relationship if you had checked the facts first and learned he was booking a surprise trip for your anniversary and the woman was the travel agent making it happen. It makes sense because you know your husband is affectionately with most everyone–you just didn’t think.

Mindfully describe means to stay with what you can observe without adding assumptions or interpretations. Practicing mindfully describing can help bring peace to your life.

Mindfulness: Describe

Karyn Hall, PhD

Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, a RO DBT Approved Supervisor and Trainer and owner of, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant as well as a therapist and certified coach, author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, SAVVY, Mindfulness Exercises for DBT Therapists, and co-author of The Power of Validation. Her podcast, The Emotionally Sensitive Person, is available on iTunes.

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APA Reference
Hall, K. (2018). Mindfulness: Describe. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Sep 2018
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