The next skill in the DBT Mindfulness arsenal is Describe. Describe is exactly what it sounds like, describing something. It can be inside or outside of us. We are putting factual terms on our experience. You will be describing what you see, hear, taste, touch, smell, feel, think. Not necessarily all at the same time, so don’t get overwhelmed just yet.
Describe is the second skill in ‘what’ we do to be mindful. The other two ‘what’ we do to be mindful are Observe and Participate. Describe sounds basic and it can be transformative. I’ve seen it be transformative in my life and the lives of numerous clients and colleagues.
Here’s an example that most people can relate to. When driving and someone cuts you off, “OMG, I cannot believe that jerk just cut me off.” (or maybe you think something a little stronger) Now, on the surface that may look like facts. Many of us would agree that cutting someone off on the road is a ‘jerky’ thing to do. Now, there’s not really any problem with those thoughts if you want to keep them around.
And they will make you feel worse than you need to over time. To begin with, it might feel good to have that righteous anger. It’s motivating, there’s some energy to it. Then, I have a little story to tell and others may participate in validating the injustice of it all. And that emotion, fueled by all those thoughts may end up causing me to do something I regret. All of that may end up making me feel worse than I did. I may have let someone else take control of my life from a small incident that did not end up in any harm really being done.
Most of us have MANY examples of when this kind of thing has happened and taken over our brains and bodies.
Here’s how this small skill can transform the situation, and has worked for me in numerous situations. “OMG, I cannot believe that jerk cut me off,” isn’t really accurate. It’s a short hand way of interpreting the situation. That phrase is a thought. Using the Describe skill, we would say, “I just had the thought, ‘OMG, I cannot believe that jerk cut me off.’” If we do not accurately describe that it is a thought, then that thought becomes our reality.
One possible way to describe this situation is that a driver moved their car into the lane that I am in closer to me than I was comfortable with. I had an emotional reaction to that car moving over into my lane. It was probably fear first and then anger in response to the fear. In this example, we’ve used Describe for things outside (the car moving into the lane) and inside (the fear and anger that I’ve labeled.) With this skill we can often go as deep as we want and it depends on the goal.
For instance, if I’m driving I’m going to use Describe enough with that situation that it does not have a lingering impact on me. If I’m using Describe to get as present as I possibly can be, then I’m probably going to go much deeper into describing. When I say ‘deeper’, what I really mean is how much detail is added to the description. If I’m describing my emotional state, then I could go into much more detail about what I’m feeling. I could label all the thoughts coming into my head as thoughts. I could pay attention to every little physical sensation that I have and try to describe each as fully as I can.
Describe helps us get a little bit of space from whatever is happening so I don’t end up acting in automatic ways that I’ve done so many times in the past.
I’ll give a more personal example. A number of years ago now, there was someone working for me that ended up deciding to leave LifeWork. That’s the Describe of the situation. Not a big deal, people leave their places of employment all the time, right? Well, this person was billing quite a bit and I was not expecting them to leave. I had signed a lease to double the size of our space the week before, and it hit me hard.
I started thinking, “I’ve convinced all these people to join this practice and now I’m going to fail them all.” It was gut wrenching. I was afraid, no, it was much stronger than fear. Not quite terrified. The Describe skill helped me to wander through that time. The first way I used it was to tell my wife that evening what had happened. I laid out the facts and then told her I was scared. I wasn’t really able to do a lot more describing at that point. The whole thing was just too intense for me to really dig into it. So, I did a lot of crisis survival strategies (from Distress Tolerance) to keep me going. I still had to work, be a father, be a husband.
My wife set up for us to go hang out with some dear friends of ours. I did not want to go, and recognized enough that I needed to be around people that I went. My friend helped me to begin to identify what I was actually feeling. He suggested that I was not just scared. My initial reaction was to deny that and instead I said, “Ok, maybe you are right.” There’s a little bit of openness there.
Over the next couple days (Saturday and Sunday), I spent some time really paying attention to my thoughts and my emotions, describing them to myself as well as I could (wasn’t so practiced at experiencing emotions at that time.) As I put words on my experience, I started to feel different. I started to be able to make a plan. The describe skill began to make it possible to let go of some of those thoughts and some of that fear and some of that hurt.
If you know DBT skills, you are probably noticing that I used a whole lot of skills other than Describe in that situation. There’s a bunch more detail that I decided not to add to that story. It was over the course of days to weeks that I began to get clear from the panic that I had experienced. And, it came back a few times. Since I had already had the reaction and met it head on, I knew what it was and it was less scary. Using Describe to put labels on things helps with all sorts of other skills (the Mindfulness skills are called ‘Core Mindfulness’ after all.)
You don’t have to completely understand anything to just start practicing as best you can. If you think you need DBT, reach out to us.
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