Observing: An Essential DBT Skill for Developing Mindfulness

Person seated in a chair looks outside

This blog post is the third in a series of blog posts on mindfulness as it relates to Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) treatment, which can be relied upon during the quintessential safety and stabilization phase of trauma therapy for early childhood attachment wounds, emotional dysregulation, or unsettling thoughts or feelings. Follow or bookmark the blog category DBT to discover the power of mindfulness practice and learn each of the six essential DBT skills for cultivating mindfulness.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a type of psychotherapy that was originally developed to treat individuals with borderline personality disorder. However, its efficacy in treating a range of mental health concerns has been demonstrated, including depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders (Linehan, 2015). One of the core skills taught in DBT is observing, which involves paying close attention to one’s surroundings, thoughts, and feelings without judgment or analysis. The goal of observing is to develop mindfulness, a non-judgmental awareness of one’s internal and external experiences in the present moment (Linehan, 2015).

The practice of observing is rooted in the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness meditation, which has been found to have numerous mental health benefits, including reduced anxiety, depression, and stress (Gotink et al., 2015). In DBT, observing is taught as a way to develop greater self-awareness and emotional regulation, which can be helpful in managing a range of mental health concerns (Linehan, 2015). By learning to observe one’s thoughts and feelings without judgment, individuals can gain greater control over their emotional responses and make more deliberate choices about how to respond to challenging situations.

To practice observing, individuals may be instructed to focus their attention on their immediate surroundings, such as the colors, shapes, and textures of objects in the environment. They may also be encouraged to pay attention to their thoughts and feelings, without judging them as good or bad. One way to practice observing is through the use of mindfulness meditation, in which individuals sit quietly and focus their attention on their breath, bodily sensations, or other present-moment experiences. By observing these experiences without judgment or analysis, individuals can develop a greater sense of calm and focus.

If you’d like to practice observing, here are three ways to practice this skill on your own: 

  1. Pinwheels by Karyn Hall, PhD: Hold a pinwheel in front of you. Focus on the breath. Focus on the inhale and the exhale. Watch as your breath turns the pinwheel. Practice using your breath to spin the wheel faster or slower.
  2. Drawing by Jill Tiedemann, LPCC: Look at a simple pencil drawing. Allow yourself the time to observe it mindfully. After a minute or two, turn your attention to a blank piece of paper and draw from memory what you observed.
  3. Listen by Karyn Hall, PhD: Take a moment to listen to the world around you. You may want to close your eyes or soften your gaze to allow you to listen effectively. What do you hear? What do you notice as you take in each sound?

These are just three of the numerous ways you may practice this DBT mindfulness skill. 

Observing can also be practiced in daily life by intentionally noticing one’s surroundings, such as the feeling of the sun on one’s skin or the sound of birds chirping. This can help individuals become more present in the moment and more attuned to their emotional experiences. By becoming more aware of their thoughts and feelings, individuals can learn to respond to them in a more intentional and deliberate way, rather than reacting impulsively based on habit or emotion.

Overall, observing is an important mindfulness skill that can help individuals develop greater self-awareness and emotional regulation. By learning to observe their thoughts and feelings without judgment, individuals can gain greater control over their emotional responses and make more deliberate choices about how to respond to challenging situations. While observing may seem like a simple practice, it can be challenging to implement consistently. However, with practice and patience, individuals can develop greater mindfulness and reap the many mental health benefits that come with it.


Gotink, R. A., Chu, P., Busschbach, J. J., Benson, H., Fricchione, G. L., & Hunink, M. M. (2015). Standardised mindfulness-based interventions in healthcare: an overview of systematic reviews and meta-analyses of RCTs. PloS one, 10(4), e0124344.

Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT skills training manual. Guilford Publications.

Disclaimer: This blog shares general information only, not professional advice or recommendations. Consult healthcare providers for personal guidance. Decisions based on content are the reader's responsibility. Thank you.

Clayre runs a group practice of three queer and trans therapists, including youth therapist Audrey Wolfe, RCC, LGBT therapist Camber Giberson, RCC, CCC, and gender-affirming therapist Clayre Sessoms, RP, RCT, RCC, CCC, ATR-P. Work with us: book a session.

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