DBT Stories: Two skills: Observe and stop!

The observe skill is about being able to step back and watch yourself.  Rather than being swept up in the heat of the moment, with the observe skill you can watch what is happening, watch the unfolding of your own experience, thoughts, emotions.   

This is mindfulness.   

In developmental psychology, Robert Keegan describes a phenomena called the “Subject-Object shift” .  It’s when a person stops being their experience, and is able to be the person having the experience.   In the same way that a baby has no awareness of its life beyond its immediate experience, we get lost in our experience.  The baby doesn’t think “I am feeling a bit peck-ish”, no the baby embodies hunger when it is hungry.   But as it gets older, the child is able to recognize hunger as a signal, an experience.

In this same way, late at night, when no one else is around, people can sink into a terminal kind of loneliness.  As though this is all there is or ever was or will be.  When in fact, the loneliness is an experience.  A limited experience that can be observed and moved through. Rather than being loneliness, you are experiencing loneliness.

When I teach the Observe skill, I like borrowing from Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and use their STOP acronym.  At a training with Marsha Linehan,  she asked for suggestions to go into the second edition of the Skills Training manual.  I suggested the STOP and she replied, “Its already in.”  She changed it a little bit, and I find that I prefer the original which I will present here. 

The STOP stands for Stop what you are doing, Take a breath, Observe your physical sensations, emotions, thoughts and your action urges, assess how your current actions align with your short term and long term goals.  If they are a match, then Proceed.

I like to send STOP reminder texts to my clients.  While we are learning this skill, I usually send the STOP text a couple of times a day randomly, so clients can rehearse the skill. I highly recommend that you set STOP reminders in your phone to go off at random times. This way you will be practicing when you don’t need the skill, so you will be able to access it when you do.

I occasionally sent STOP reminders to friends, family and clients. On Thanksgiving at 3pm, the STOP reminder changed the course of many a family meal. The following stories are composites that illustrate how powerful the STOP can be.

Saving Thanksgiving

Down in the Holler

“Mom, I am not going to microwave the rolls.” Mikey wiped sweat from his brow.  The tiny kitchen afforded no space for real cooking.  His mom’s bulk swiveled from the stove to the counter, chopping and basting. Twice she had bumped her head on the cabinets, as he grabbed plates and glasses, trying his best to contribute. 

“This is my kitchen.  My meal, Mikey.  You will do those rolls my way.”

His uncle chuckled from the doorway, pulling on the last of the six pack he arrived with an hour early. “You best mind your momma, son.”

Thirteen hours on the greyhound bus from Louisville to this holler in eastern Kentucky.  What had he expected?  Nothing was different.   And there seemed to be no space to show them how he had changed.  He had earned an associates degree in culinary arts, been working in kitchens all over Louisville, and his mom only trusted him with setting the table and warming the rolls.  

He had offered to bake fresh rolls.  “It wouldn’t be anything, momma.”

“These will do fine, Mikey. Leave it be.”

Why didn’t she make eye contact with him?  What was her problem?  She had always been so damn controlling.  Her shitty little trailer was her fiefdom.  Nothing good in her life.  Just gossiping and controlling everyone around her.  It was a wonder she had kept that job at the walmart for so long. 

A chorus of mean thoughts swelled in his head.  What the hell had been the point of coming here after being gone for 5 years?  

He felt his phone vibrate in his pocket.  Pulling it out, there was a text from his therapist. “STOP reminder: Stop what you are doing, Take a breath, Observe your physical sensations, emotions and thoughts, assess how your current actions align with your short term and long term goals.  If they are a match, then Proceed.”

No one has to know you are doing a STOP, his therapist had reminded everyone at last week’s DBT group.   He paused for just a moment, took in a deep breath, bringing his attention inward.  Just use the breath to bring your attention to the most important person in your whole world. 

Observe.  His jaw was clenched, his face was flushed and there was tension everywhere in his body. What is the emotion?  Anger.  What kind of anger?  Irritation, frustration.  What is under the anger?  Hurt. I am really really hurt.  I am a fucking cook and she won’t even acknowledge it! That’s the thought.  What is the action urge?  I want to scream at her “You old bitch, you were always a terrible mother.  You never saw me, never listened to me, coming here was complete waste!”  How does that relate to your short term and long term goals?

In group the previous week, Mikey had identified two goals. Short term goal for the trip, just to get along with his family and have a pleasant visit.  His long term goal was to have better relationships with his family and feel more connected.  How would this action urge relate to those goals?

‘It would not help.’ He chuckled to himself.  ‘Its rolls. Its just rolls.’

He looked at his mom.   Her short Baptist hair, her sweat pants and t-shirt, her index cards passed down from her mother.  “I make the turkey just like mama did from the Women’s Day magazine.  Comes out just right every time. You can count on those recipes.”

“That’s why I come here every Thanksgiving, Beverly.” His uncle chortled. 

Radical Acceptance.  Just accepting the situation as it is.

Change of Perspective.  There was very little in his momma’s life that was in her control, maybe this meal was important that way.

Change the environment.  He laughed inwardly, this was not an environment open to change. That’s why he left it.  But perhaps that was okay.  He reminded himself that he was just a visitor and that it might be interesting to just observe the environment and take note of everything that is just as it was, and which things had actually changed.

Back in Louisville

Kendra sent another text.  “Where ARE you!?  Why aren’t you answering any of my calls or texts?!”

Every year, somebody in the family had to fuck up Thanksgiving.  Every year, Kendra spent two days cooking.  For weeks before she poured over culinary magazines and pinterest trying to put together the perfect Thanksgiving.   It was fun. “Its Fun for me!” She insisted.  “I want to create something really special for all of you.”

And yet every year, somebody was cruel or thoughtless or rebellious and she would end up taking her plate upstairs to eat alone in front of the tv. ‘This is my life,’ she thought, looking out the window at the driveway and the street infront of the house. 

Her youngest daughter was on the verge of a tantrum.  “Amy, stop it! No one eats until Lauren gets here. No one.”

“Jesus, Kendra, we haven’t eaten all day.  The food is getting cold.  Lets just let Amy eat something. ” Her useless husband interjected. 

“I told her 2pm.  I told everyone 2pm.  She is 23 years old, when is she going to start thinking about other people for a change?”  Being a mother can be so thankless.   Why couldn’t they just appreciate her on Thanksgiving. ‘I hold this whole family together,’ she thought, ‘I do the cooking, the cleaning, the bills, the chauffeuring, I work, I help.  What’s it all for?  All I want is to have a nice family meal where everyone shows up on time.  Is that too much to ask?’

Then she saw Lauren’s car pull up in the driveway.  She looked down at her phone, 2:59. And then exactly at 3pm, a text arrived:  STOP reminder: Stop what you are doing, Take a breath, Observe your physical sensations, emotions and thoughts, assess how your current actions align with your short term and long term goals.  If they are a match, then Proceed.

All of her anger seemed to sink into her feet.  Replacing it, a flood of anguish.  She took a deep breath, letting the tension flow out of her body.  What was happening in her body?  So much childhood trauma had taught her to ignore her body.  It was always hard to pay attention to it.  I don’t know, she thought.  Knots in my stomache, furrowed brow.  What is the emotion?  Furious, betrayed, sad.  The thoughts? ‘My daughter is an ungrateful brat. I failed as a mother.  Everything I do is worthless.’ ‘Ouch, wow.  Those are some really harsh thoughts’, she observed as she was able to step back from the sticky trap of her mind.   What was she about to do?  She was gunning to yell at Lauren “You worthless, thoughtless brat, don’t you care about me at all?”

How would this relate to her short term and long term goals? ‘Not so good.’  In DBT group, she had stated her goals for the holiday.  Her short term goal was to make it through the meal without leaving the table and try to actually enjoy her family.   Her long term goal was to stop nagging so much.  Sometimes she hated the sound of her own voice, ‘Pick up your room’, “why haven’t you done this?”  “When are you going to do that?” “Oh for god’s sake! What is wrong with you people.”  She didn’t want to talk to them this way.  She loved them. 

When Lauren walked in the door, Kendra gave her a hug. “Foods gonna be kinda cold.  Next year, we start at 2pm with or without you, kiddo. Come on in.”

Then she said nothing else about it. 

She pulled her mind in to the moment and sat down to eat with her family.  

And this year, she stayed for the entire meal. 

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Diana is a licensed professional counselor based in Nashville. She has been teaching DBT skills for the last ten years after writing her master's thesis about making DBT skills training interesting and engaging. She loves using story telling to help illustrate how skills can be used.

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