Paying Attention to Yourself

A big part of stress, anxiety and other intense emotions is how easy it is to get caught up in them. Everything seems to happen so fast and it only makes everything feel super intense and extra awful. Paying attention to yourself and your surroundings is incredibly helpful. This practice is known as Mindfulness tooltip available and has been shown time and again to be a major reducer of stress from day to day. [1-8]

The goal of mindfulness is to slow everything down, prevent going on "auto-pilot," and create more space for thinking and acting. This allows for less intensely negative emotions; and more effective, less impulsive decision-making.

Something about Mindfulness that is different from many of the other coping strategies on this site, is that Mindfulness isn't something you just use in a single moment. Mindfulness is something you try to practice every day, as much as you can, until it's something that can kick in during an intense moment, because you're just that used to doing it every day. From day to day, it's just a way to reduce anxiety and stay present. When the moment of a microaggression or other intense moment comes up, it's been described as "bullet time," as though everything slows down and you can process exactly what's going on and what you need to do.

Mindfulness has six parts. The three "What" parts, and the three "How" parts. Let's walk through them.

What are you doing

The three "What"s are the three things that you are doing when you're practicing Mindfulness.

  • Observing your surroundings

  • Describing your surroundings

  • Participating in the moment

For short, we simply say "Observe, Describe, Participate."


Pay attention to yourself and to your surroundings. With each sense you may have, notice what you can sense with it. Listen to the sounds, look at the sights, feel the sensations, smell the scents, and taste anything in your mouth. Focus on just the act of perceiving. No need to have opinions about them. No need to evaluate them. Pay attention to the here and now.


Next, put words to what you observe. Try to stay as close to face-value as you can. "The wind is howling." "My clothes are soft." "My mouth tastes like toothpaste." "My heart is beating quickly." "I'm smiling." If in a particular moment you are finding this difficult, you might want to try some Grounding Exercises.


When you're fully conscious of yourself and your surroundings, when you understand the "Scene" playing out, become a part of it. Participate in the world. In good moments, this means throwing yourself into fully enjoying the current moment. In the context of a microaggression, this means not freezing up and instead trying to do something. You don't have to confront a microaggression to participate. Doing anything to help yourself cope is also participating. The point is to be a conscious actor within your story. To act while fully aware of how you're feeling, what is going on around you, and what you're doing. To avoid going on "auto-pilot."

How are you doing it

The three "How"s are the three ways that you are doing things when you're practicing Mindfulness.

  • Non-judgmentally
  • One-mindfully
  • Effectively


It makes sense that we learn to judge everything. Being able to make a fast judgment definitely has its merits. When practicing mindfulness, being non-judgmental means slowing down your assessments and making them more deliberately. When noticing how you feel, don't jump to "I'm anxious", start with "My heart is beating fast," "I feel tense," and then slowly work through the conclusion that this is anxiety. For myself, I've noticed I can be quick to label excitement as anxiety. When I slow down and try to make fewer judgments, I'll realize it's actually excitement. Why does this matter? Emotions and feelings are physical sensations that are interpreted by the brain, and then whatever emotion the sensations are interpreted as, is the emotion that you feel. If I read my body and assess it as anxiety, I will then feel anxious even if I wasn't anxious before. Once I feel anxious, my body will reflect that, creating a cycle of anxiety. The body is interpreted by the brain, and then the body reflects the interpretation.

Being non-judgmental doesn't mean interpreting everything as good. It means not interpreting it right away. "That wall is an ugly shade of green" and "that wall is a pleasant shade of green" are both judgments. Practicing mindfulness is simply sticking to "that wall is green." Practicing this part of Mindfulness makes intense moments less overwhelming and easier to figure out.


This is about staying present. Focus on what you are doing in this moment. It's okay to just focus on one thing at a time. As an example, when you're in the shower, just think about the act of showering. "I am picking up soap. I am rubbing the soap on my arm. The water is warm." Personally, I find showers to be a place of rumination and anxiety. I'll find myself standing still, totally distracted by thinking over and over about that comment someone made about me and if it was because I was trans and if I should have said something and so on and so on. Eventually the water goes cold and I still have shampoo in my hair. Practicing mindfulness one-mindfully means focusing on what you're doing right now and letting anything else be a bridge you cross when you get there. This might seem counter to what I say in Safety Planning about the importance of making plans. The distinction is when you're making the plan, that should be your focus. When you're eating lunch, you're eating lunch. When you sit down to make a plan, that is when you think ahead about the future.

Staying present is easier said than done. For tips and exercises on staying in the moment, see Grounding Exercises.


This is elaborated on more in Goals, Goals, Goals. Effectiveness is focusing on what you're trying to do, and only doing what is needed to do that. This is so important for microaggressions. It's so easy when in the moment of an encounter to get distracted by wanting to tell off the aggressor on everything they did wrong. If in that moment you feel unsafe and actually mostly just want to get away from the aggressor, this is pretty counter-productive. In every moment, think about your actions and if they're doing what you want them to be doing. If you do want to confront someone with their microaggression, focus on doing just that and doing that well. Focus on what your goal is in the confrontation, and making sure you're not getting distracted from achieving that goal. When it seems like you're not getting anywhere and you aren't reaching your goal, reconsider if this interaction needs to be continued, or if it's just time to walk away.

Nobody is expecting you to achieve enlightenment

When you're reading about Mindfulness and trying to practice it, sometimes it can feel like you're being asked to reach a higher plane of consciousness and ascend to new a mode of existence. I definitely feel that way sometimes. The thing is, everyone is human. Everyone gets caught up in the moment sometimes. The goal of practicing Mindfulness is that it's practice. It's okay if you aren't actually doing it in every single moment. You're just practicing for when it really matters.

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[2] Harned, M. S., Chapman, A. L., Dexter-Mazza, E. T., Murray, A., Comtois, K. A., & Linehan, M. M. (2008). Treating co-occurring Axis I disorders in recurrently suicidal women with borderline personality disorder: A 2-year randomized trial of dialectical behavior therapy versus community treatment by experts. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76(6), 1068–1075.

[3] Karen Scheel. (2000). The Empirical Basis of Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Summary, Critique, and Implications. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 7(1).

[4] Kelly Koerner, & Linda Dimeff. (2000). Further Data on Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 7(1).

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[6] Linehan, M. (2015b). DBT skills training manual (Second edition). New York: The Guilford Press.

[7] Miller, A. L., et al. (1996). A pilot study: dialectical behavior therapy adapted for suicidal adolescents. Poster presented at the 1st Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Improvement and Teaching of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, New York, NY.

[8] Neacsiu, A. D., Eberle, J. W., Kramer, R., Wiesmann, T., & Linehan, M. M. (2014). Dialectical behavior therapy skills for transdiagnostic emotion dysregulation: A pilot randomized controlled trial. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 59, 40–51.