When people are first introduced to DBT they are often quite stymied by the concept of mindfulness. “What exactly is it?” you will often hear them ask.
In its simplest terms, mindfulness is just the ability to notice one’s own thoughts, sensations, feelings, and yes, even our impulses without attaching a judgement to them or ourselves and without attempting to change them. Mindfulness goes hand in hand with the concept of radical acceptance.
Mindfulness is important because it keeps you in the moment
Mindfulness is such an important component of DBT because it helps keep you in the moment. I believe that most of us with BPD spend an awful lot of time either living in the past by brooding and ruminating on the bad things which have happened to us or living in the future, the “what if” thinking so many people engage in. Learning how to practice mindfulness helps you stay in the here and now and be a witness to what is happening in your life in the moment. For many people, not just those of us with BPD this can be a herculean task because our minds seem almost programmed to wander off into either the past or the future. Thinking like that becomes a habit and, as we all know, habits can be very hard to break.
Mindfulness helps with DBT training because it helps people with BPD feel like they are more in control. Because it gives us an awareness of what is going on in the moment, it helps us reduce our impulsivity which can cause a lot of shame for us. It also helps us resist the kinds of behaviours we engage in because they are simply habitual behaviours because we are noticing them and paying attention to them. Doing that gives us the opportunity to make decisions about whether or not we want to do something instead of just doing it like some knee-jerk reaction.
Being mindful helps a person slow down and instead focus on just doing one thing at a time which in turn helps us become more aware of both our actions and the emotions which spawn them.
It helps people with their self-judging behavior
A prime example of how practicing mindfulness helps with this is with self-judging behavior because practicing mindfulness will teach you how to notice your self-judgmental thoughts and separate them from what is actually going on when you are having those thoughts.
So, for example, you are in the grocery store and you accidentally drop a jar of pickles on the floor which breaks into a million pieces. Your initial thoughts might go like this:
I am so clumsy!
What a jerk I am!
Why wasn’t I more careful?
I do everything wrong!
Of course having this kind of internal dialogue with yourself will make you feel bad about yourself. People who do a lot of self-judging thinking tend to internalize it over time and it characterizes them and colors the rest of their lives. It can be a very hard cycle to break.
If you come to believe that you really are clumsy you will feel embarrassed and ashamed of yourself. If you come to believe that you can’t do anything right you will eventually stop trying. And the cycle perpetuates itself.
It helps you step back and notice your thoughts so you can re-frame them
Practicing mindfulness in a situation like this gives you a moment to step back and notice your thoughts and reframe them into a more positive thought. It gives you a time out so you can step away from the harshness of your thought. This is particularly important because we are NOT the sum total of our thoughts. I have a saying that goes through my mind quite often which is: “You will never say more to anyone else than you say to yourself in your head. Be kind to yourself” I also say, “If you wouldn’t say it to your best friend, please don’t say it to yourself.” Practicing mindfulness gives us a moment with those thoughts to look at them objectively and decide if we really want to think them or if we should, instead, discard them.
Learning how to do this takes most of the power of our negative thinking away and puts it squarely back in our own hands where it belongs. It changes those negative thoughts from “facts” into just “thoughts” which is what they are. Practicing mindfulness allows us to access our “wise mind” which is another important concept we learn about when we learn DBT skills.
It is important to realize that mindfulness is a skill and you must practice it like all the other DBT skills you learn. I say that most while most DBT skills are not intuitive they are relatively easy to learn but difficult to master. Like assertiveness, they take practice if you want to become good at them. Do not strive for perfection, just practice it and you will notice changes in a relatively short amount of time.