Paying Attention to Positives

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This section is about practicing increasing our positive emotions. This is another step in learning to deal with our difficult emotions. We need some positive emotions to put in the place of the negative emotions, or to share their space. This, like all of our DBT skills, may take some practice. If we are very used to dealing with negative emotions a lot, it may take a while to make some space for positive emotions and pleasant experiences.

This is not an effort to invalidate the negative emotions that we feel. It IS a way of expanding our experiences, and of providing some alternatives to some of our difficult times.

We can build positive emotional experiences in two ways:

  • Short Term Experiences
  • Long Term Experiences
  • Short Term Experiences

    Short-term positive experiences could be something like a swim, a walk in the park, going out for pizza, watching a favorite TV show, talking on the phone to a friend. Most of us probably already do something like this in our lives. We are asking you to INCREASE doing pleasant things that give you positive emotions. Doing more of this makes us feel good, which we deserve, even in the midst of all the turmoil, and it gets us in the habit of having positive feelings.

    Take a look at the
    Adult Pleasant Events Schedule. For the next week, do ONE THING every day from this list of 176 activities. It's helpful if you plan what you are going to do early in the day, but you might want to do something spontaneously. I would challenge you to do at least one thing on the list that you have never tried before, maybe something you have been wanting to do. Enjoy yourself.

    Long Term Experiences

    In addition to having short term pleasant experiences, we also want to do things and make changes in our lives that will make positive events happen more often. Marsha Linehan often speaks of having "a life worth living." This is part of what makes life worth living.

    What are some things that you can do to make your life more worth living in the long term?

    If you are going to school, or planning to go to school, you have a plan, and are working toward a goal. For some people, their job may be a goal in itself, or preparation for a goal (another more challenging or interesting or better-paying job). Perhaps you would like to move into your own apartment, or attend a treatment program, or move into the city or live in the country. Maybe you may be learning or want to learn a skill or a craft, or take art lessons or swimming lessons, visit a friend or family member or travel in another country or buy a car. The possibilities are endless

    Think about what you would like to do to make your life more pleasant in the future. Make a list. Now list some small steps you can take toward your goals. Take a first step. How does this feel?


    Another important area to work on for a more positive future is relationships. This is not an easy area for most of us. But we can do some things that will help.

    1. Repair a Relationship

      If you really care about a relationship that has gone bad or just lapsed, work on repairing it. In my own life, I had a relationship that I had let go for 20 years. L. was my best friend all through school. The last time I saw her, she was headed to Europe, and the meeting wasn't totally comfortable. I let 20 years go by, feeling hurt and abandoned. And then somehow it came to me that I did not have wait for her to write. I could write myself.  Maybe she would answer and maybe she wouldn't.  Well, she did and we have since gotten together, and that big knot I felt because she didn't write to me is gone. (By the way, I learned that she is an absolutely terrible letter writer! That's why the long silence.)

      Perhaps you will be inspired to renew a relationship or to work to repair a relationship. The rewards can be great.

    2. Create a New Relationship

      We can also reach out for new relationships. This is hard for a lot of us. One thing I have found helpful is to choose a community activity, like a club, bowling, singing, church, community gardening, etc. Go every week, and you will see the same people over and over, and begin to chat and feel familiar. Invite someone you like for coffee or a walk. Maybe you might try something like that for one of your Pleasant Events for this week.

    3. Work on a Current Relationship

    This could include spouses, partners, children, parents, siblings, friends, coworkers, any one who is close to you or with whom you spend a lot of time. If you think that your positive feelings would improve by working on a present relationship, then give it a try. Don't let all your happiness depend on one person. Try to cultivate a variety of relationships.

    Positive Mindfulness

    These last two points are really important if you are going to have and keep positive experiences in your life.


    Remember when we talked about and practiced mindfulness? To be mindful of positive experiences means applying mindfulness to the things that give you pleasure. Focus your attention on the positive things that happen or that you do - a talk with a friend, a walk in the woods, an ice cream cone, a good night's sleep, anything that you enjoy. Focus your attention on it, and if your attention wanders, refocus as many times as necessary. This will help to get you into the habit of experiencing pleasure.


    Distract yourself from:

  • thinking about when the positive experience will end
  • thinking about whether you really deserve this positive experience
  • thinking about what might be expected of you now that you've had this experience

  • For example, if you find yourself thinking, "Gee, I'm having fun at the circus, but I am so messed-up, I don't deserve this," distract yourself. Focus on the experience. Keep those worry thoughts away.

    In a situation like this, I usually distract by describing to myself the experience, for example, "It's a great day. It's fun seeing all these people. Look at that cute little kid. I love eating cotton candy. The clowns are so funny, especially that one in the striped suit."


    This lesson on focusing on positive experiences is a lot of material. You don't need to do it all at once. Just work down the list, and remember that actually practicing the skills is the most important thing, practicing them every day, until they become second-nature to you. Because we are trying to change thought and behavior patterns that have been with us for many years, you can expect that it's going to take a while to change things. But stick with it, because you CAN change, and it is SO worth it.



    What are you doing to put some more positive experiences in your life? Maybe schedule something nice for what is usually a down time of day for you. Try something you've never done before. Ask someone to do a pleasant events with you. Anytime you are feeling really down or blah, check out the Adult Pleasant Event Schedule and see what might appeal to you.

    One of the most important ways to work on negative feelings is to provide yourself with some positive experiences to take the place of the negative ones. It's much easier to let go of negative feelings when you have something positive to put in their place.

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