DBT Mindfulness What Skill Describe

A. Why Describe?

Practice Exercise:

What was I thinking about as I created this lesson? Other people tell you what you are thinking; why can’t you tell me what I am thinking? We often think we know what another person is thinking. Are there times when others have insisted they know what you were thinking but really did not?

Practice Exercise:

I’m really tired, it’s late. Can you describe my intent or motive for writing (saying) that. We often think we know what other people’s motives are. Have there been times when others have insisted they know what was on your mind but really did not. How did you feel about that?

Practice Exercise:

What will you be doing tomorrow? Can you describe every minute of what will happen? Do you have plans or a schedule? We often say something about the future, like “I can’t do this” or “I’ll never be able to do that,” as if we are describing facts. How often have you acted as if you can describe what you’re going to do or not do—as if you had a crystal ball or were all knowing (omniscient). Which is worse: describing your own future as facts, or having others describe it for you?

1. Describing Distinguishes What Is Observed from What Is Not Observed

The Mindfulness skill of Describing is the ability to sort out and discriminate observations from mental concepts and thoughts about what we observe. Confusing mental concepts of events with events themselves (e.g., responding to thoughts and concepts as if they are facts) can lead to unnecessary emotional distress and confusion.

Example: When you find out that your child stole money, your mind might immediately describe that as ‘My child is going to end up going to jail,’ and that description causes emotional distress. Responding to thoughts about events as if they were facts can lead to ineffective actions when the thoughts do not match the actual event.

Example: Describing your boyfriend’s not being dressed yet when you come home before going out to your birthday dinner as not loving you may ruin your chances of having a nice dinner together.

2. Describing Allows Feedback from the Larger Community

Those around us can correct or validate our perceptions and descriptions of events.

Example: Think of how children learn: They say words, and parents and others correct them until they become very proficient at accurately describing what they observe.

Example: In Zen, the interview with the teacher, called dokusan, gives students an opportunity to describe their experiences during their mindfulness practice. An important component of these interviews is the teacher’s helping the students drop concepts and analyses of the world and instead respond to what is observed.

Example: After a party, one person often describes events to another and asks whether the other person saw it the same way. This can also be very important when getting consultation about interpersonal problems at work or in other settings.

3. Describing Observations by Writing Them Down Allows Observation of the Information

Observing, as discussed above, can change behavior in desired directions. Describing can also, at times, provide a means of processing the information we have observed. Many people, for example, find writing diaries very helpful in organizing the events they observe throughout their days. Describing and labeling emotions regulates emotions. Brain imaging research has shown that when individuals describe their emotional responses, the very act of labeling the emotions changes brain responding in the direction of emotion regulation.

B. Describing: What to Do

1. To Describe Is to Add Words to an Observation

Describing is putting words on experiences. Describing follows observing; it is labeling what is observed. True describing involves just sticking with the facts.

Example: If I am looking at a painting, the words “landscape,” “green,” “yellow,” and “brush strokes” might come to mind. That would be an example of describing. It’s simply applying basic descriptors to what’s there.

Example: Describing internal experience, I could say, “I observe a feeling of sadness arising.”

Discussion: Discuss the difference between describing and observing. Again, observing is like sensing without words. Describing is using words or thoughts to label what is observed.

Practice Exercise: Look at the image in Figure 7.3. Describe the drawing. 

2. If It Wasn’t Observed, It Can’t Be Described

No one has ever observed the thoughts, intentions, or emotions of another person.

  • No One Can Observe the Thoughts of Others

Although we can observe thoughts that go through our own minds, we can only infer or guess what another person is thinking. Assumptions of what others are thinking are just that: assumptions in our own minds.

Example: “You think I’m lying” is not a description of an observation. “I keep thinking that you think I am lying” is a description.

Example: “You are just thinking up ways to get out of going to the party with me” is not a description of an observation. “I think [or believe] that you are trying to come up with ways to get out of going to the party with me” is a description. 

Note: When the sentence is framed this way, you clarify that you are describing your own thoughts, not objective fact.

Example: “You disapprove” is not a description. “I think you disapprove” is a description. “I feel [or think] X when Y happens” is a good way to describe personal reactions to what others do or say. It is also taught as a way to communicate in several therapeutic programs and interventions. 

Example: Saying, “When you raise your eyebrows and purse your lips like that [X], I start thinking you think I’m lying [Y]” is also a form of describing. Putting it this way shows that you are describing your own thoughts, which you can observe.

Discussion: Describing a thought as a thought requires one to notice that it is a thought instead of a fact. Can you think of examples of the differences between thinking, “You don’t want me,” and the other person’s actually not wanting you; or thinking, “I am a jerk,” and being a jerk.

Discussion: Are there times when others have misinterpreted your thoughts. Discuss how this feels.

Practice Exercise:

I invite you to practice observing thoughts and labeling them as thoughts. Suggest labeling them into categories (e.g., “thoughts about myself,” “thoughts about others,” etc.). Use the conveyor belt exercise described earlier in this chapter, but this time as thoughts and feelings come down the belt, sort them into categories: For example, you could have one box for thoughts of any sort, one box for sensations in your body, and one box for urges to do something (such as to stop describing).

  • No One Can Observe the Intentions of Others

Speaking about the inferred intentions of others is not describing and can cause trouble. This is so because (1) it is extremely difficult to read other people’s intentions correctly; and (2) incorrectly characterizing others’ intentions can be exceptionally painful, particularly when they are socially unacceptable intentions. People often pay attention to the effects of what other people do and then assume that these effects were intentional.

Example: “I feel manipulated” translates into “You are manipulating me.”

Example: “I am feeling hurt” translates into “You did that to hurt me.”

Example: “When you tell me that you are going to quit school if I don’t give you a better grade, I feel manipulated” is a more accurate example of describing.

  • No One Can Observe the Feelings or Emotions of Another Individual

We cannot see the internal experiential components of emotions. We can, however, observe many components of emotions, such as facial expressions, postures, verbal expressions of emotions, and emotion-linked actions. But expressive behaviors can be misleading. The expressions associated with various emotions may be very similar, and because of this, we may often be wrong in our beliefs about the emotions of others.

Example: Many people sound as if they are angry or irritated when they are very anxious.

Example: People often withdraw from others when they are ashamed, leading others to say they are angry. We may also often incorrectly assume that someone who does something must have wanted to do it, when the person may instead have felt coerced or afraid to say no. The same is true when thinking about things a person does not do: We may assume, “If you wanted to, you would have done it.”

Example: To someone with an alcohol problem who has fallen off the wagon again, we may say incorrectly, “You just don’t want to stay sober.”

Example: If we call a person very late at night and he answers the phone, we may assume incorrectly that “He wants to talk to me.”

Note: Describing (A Mindfulness “What” Skill) is similar to checking the facts, an Emotion Regulation skill. (See the Emotion Regulation Lesson/Handout 8)

Discussion: Think about the times people have “described” your thoughts or feelings incorrectly. Think about times when you have “described” others’ emotions, thoughts, or intentions incorrectly. There is a difference between inferences and descriptions based on observation. Write about the times you have “described” others’ emotions, thoughts, or intentions incorrectly. Write about the times people have “described” your thoughts or feelings incorrectly.

  • No One Has Ever Observed a Concept, a Meaning, a Cause, or a Change in Things

Concepts and meanings are the results of our putting together in our minds a number of observations to make sense out of them. Causes and changes are inferred from observing the world and making logical deductions from our observations.

Example: If I see you hit a billiards ball with a cue, and the ball moves; I infer that hitting the ball caused the movement. But I did not observe the ‘cause,’ because this is a concept, not something I can observe. Conclusions and comparisons such as “more” or “less,” or any differences between things, are also the results of mental calculations that occur in our minds.

Example: If we see a person acting very irritable one day, and very calm the next day, we might say, “I see you are calmer than you were yesterday.” Actually, the statement is based on comparing in our minds what we observed on one day with what we are observing today, and then forming a conclusion. But conclusions about things and how they have changed are concepts, not things we can observe. We can, of course, observe the conclusions we draw in our own minds.

C. Describing Practice Exercises

Like the introductory exercises for observing practice described earlier, these are very brief exercises that can be done as you first start teaching describing. You can do one exercise and then share the experience, or you can do several of these sequentially and then share. You can weave the instructions and questions in as you cover the teaching points. These exercises do not need a setup.

  • “Observe and then describe the first thought running through your mind.”
  • “Observe and then describe a picture on the wall or an object on the table.”
  • “Observe sounds in the room for a few minutes, and then describe the sounds you heard.”
  • “Observe sensations in your body, and then describe one or more of your sensations.”
  • “Observe your thoughts as if they were on a conveyor belt. As they come by, sort them by descriptive category into boxes—for instance, planning thoughts, worry thoughts.”

D. Between-Session Practice Exercises for Describing

The next lesson lists a number of ideas for practicing describing in between sessions.


DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition, by Marsha M. Linehan. Copyright 2015.

Permission to photocopy this handout is granted to purchasers of DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition, and DBT Skills Training Manual, Second Edition, for personal use and use with individual clients only.