Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) encourages clients to remain in the present moment with awareness and acceptance of thoughts and feelings – without judgment. Clients begin the process by noticing their environment, thoughts, feelings, and any physical sensations without reacting to them. They simply observe what “is” without trying to change anything.

This process of observation, along with emotional acceptance, promotes mindfulness.

People with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and other disorders that involve intense emotions tend to reject their emotions as bad or wrong. Unfortunately, this can result in dangerous behaviors, such as self-harm.

When your clients judge their emotions and label them as “bad” or “wrong,” or scold themselves for experiencing certain feelings, their emotions may intensify. Thoughts they have about their emotions, and the desire to make those feelings go away, may cause more distress than the emotions themselves.

Karen is a client who is practicing observing her emotions in session. In the past, Karen typically reacted in an explosive way with her friends and family. The moment she became upset, she would lash out, send a nasty text, or give someone the silent treatment. Her relationships were unstable and volatile. She started therapy because she was facing a second divorce, and several loved ones offered her feedback that she might benefit from anger management classes. Karen tended to judge herself harshly but had no idea how to control her temper and better manage her emotions.

When you teach your clients to observe their emotions without judgment, they can allow intense feelings to pass without resorting to destructive habits. Here are some statements that can help them become more accepting of their emotions.

  • Feelings are not facts. Label emotions as “just emotions.”

  • Emotions help you understand yourself and the world around you.

  • You are not your feelings. Instead of saying “I’m angry,” or “I’m really upset!” say, “I feel angry,” or “I feel really upset!”

  • All emotions come and go, so visualize them as a wave that ebbs and flows.

  • Reflect on how you feel throughout the day. Focus on pleasant emotions and reflect on painful or overwhelming ones.

  • Accept your emotions as part of what makes you unique.

  • You are not a “bad” person for having uncomfortable or upsetting emotions.

The DBT skill of Observing Emotions is a mindfulness tool, and it takes practice, discipline, and focused attention.

According to Dr. Marsha Linehan, the founder of DBT, anyone can practice observing their emotions by:

  • noticing experiences without getting caught up in them or reacting to them.

  • allowing feelings and thoughts to come and go, like drifting clouds.

  • staying with the experience instead of pushing it away or clinging to it.

  • allowing things to unfold.

  • noticing what is experienced through the senses.

There are four steps you can teach your clients to help them begin to observe their emotions without judgment.

Identify the emotion and any judgments. Ask your client to answer the following questions.

  • Why are you experiencing this particular emotion now? Explore the possible meaning of what you feel, including specific triggers, conflicts, people, places, or situations.

  • Describe any judgments you have about your emotions.

  • How do your judgments affect how you feel about yourself?

If your client has a hard time identifying their emotions, ask them to sit for a moment and pay attention to their physical sensations and thoughts. Ask them to give the emotion a name (e.g., sadness, disgust, anger).

Allow space for observation. After your client identifies the emotion, ask them to close their eyes if it feels safe to do so. They can imagine putting that emotion five feet in front of them. Ask them to place the emotion outside their body so they can look at it. They will allow some distance so they can simply observe the emotion.

Give the emotion form. Ask your client the following questions:

  • If your emotion had a size, what size would it be?

  • If your emotion had a shape, what shape would it be?

  • If your emotion had a color, what color would it be?

Once they answer these questions, ask them to just watch it for a few moments and recognize it for what it is. When they are ready, they can allow the emotion to return to its original place inside the body.

Reflect. Once your client completes the process, ask them to reflect on what they noticed. Did they notice any change in their emotion when they got some distance from it? Were there changes in their reactions? Did the emotion feel different once the exercise was finished?

Your clients can practice this exercise once a day for a month. After a month, see if they notice any changes in how they relate to their emotions. Clients report that it helps them start to think differently about themselves and be more accepting of their emotions.

Give your clients the DBT Diary Card and Helping Your Clients Observe Their Emotions without Judgment worksheets to record their progress.

Click here to get your free worksheets, “Helping Your Clients Observe Their Emotions without Judgment” and “Using a Diary Card to Manage Intense Emotions.” to help teach clients how to observe their emotions.

Find many more worksheets on  various DBT tools with a free trial at www.BetweenSessions.com, where you will also have access to our Virtual Counseling Rooms that include DBT techniques.