The Skillful Podcast Episode 59: Willingness

#59: Willingness

Today’s episode discusses the DBT skill of Willingness. 

Willingness is one of the reality acceptance skills that we teach in Distress Tolerance. This skill can help you let go of fighting what is so you can do what’s needed in each situation – without dragging your feet or holding onto a grudge.

One way to understand Willingness is to think of its opposite: Willfulness. When Willfulness is present, you’re fighting reality, trying to control things, or being passive when action is needed. Your Willfulness might show up differently depending on the situation.

Show Highlights

  • Willfulness is fighting reality
  • Willfulness is trying to control things – the world, other people
  • Willfulness is also refusing to take action
  • Willfulness looks different when you are angry versus when you are sad or scared
  • Willfulness can be fearful avoidance, which can become a habit
  • Willingness is doing what works, doing just what is needed in the situation you are in, and who you are right now
  • Willingness is entering into life as it is in this moment
  • Wise Mind, Radical Acceptance and Willingness are all connected
  • Get to know what Willfulness feels like in your body
  • Radically accept that willfulness is present, rather than judging it
  • You cannot force yourself out of willfulness
  • Turn the mind toward participating in reality just as it is
  • Half-Smile and Willing Hands can help you soften
  • Willingness is not the same as approving or agreeing
  • We become willing to do what’s effective to achieve our goals
  • Willingness brings a lot of relief because you quit fighting

DBT Skills Discussed


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Below is an edited version of the transcript of this podcast episode.

DBT Skill: Willingness

Hello and welcome to The Skillful Podcast where we explore DBT and RO-DBT skills to help you reduce emotional suffering, improve your relationships, and become more present in your life. 

We are going to talk about the skill of Willingness today, which we have not spent a lot of time on, I think, on this podcast. I know we mentioned it a little bit in our Distress Tolerance Overview, Part Two, some months back, but we haven’t really devoted a chunk of time to the skill and I think it’s worth diving into it.

This is a skill that, to me, kind of gets lost in the shuffle. It’s not as much of a big name skill, like Radical Acceptance or Check the Facts. It’s such a valuable skill, and such a helpful reminder in moments of distress. 

The way we teach it is in conjunction with other skills, so it doesn’t get its fair due. Even for myself personally, I think I would benefit from thinking more in terms of ‘How can I be more willing to face life’s challenges?” 

We’ll talk about what Willingness is, and then its opposite, willfulness.

The skill of willingness is a skill that helps us respond to life situations wisely, with a sense of readiness. It’s doing what’s needed voluntarily and without kind of throwing a tantrum or holding a grudge.

It’s a reminder to me that when something is going on that I don’t like (and this goes along with radical acceptance) my natural tendency is to say, “I hate this, and I don’t want to do it. And it shouldn’t be this way.” 

Willingness is such a helpful reminder of what’s needed to what’s effective – throwing yourself into being open to doing what’s needed, versus begrudging or fighting what’s needed.

Begrudging or fighting takes so much energy. Sometimes I spend so much energy begrudging or fighting or resisting, which for me will look like some form of procrastination, or like not doing the thing I need to be doing, or being angry about the thing I need to do. Then, when I actually do the thing, or respond to life in the way that I need to, that’s most effective, I’m like, “Oh, that was not nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be.” The worst part was the willfulness beforehand, the resisting it.

That’s my experience as well, which is when I am willfully saying, “I am not going to do the effective thing right now.” I spend a lot of time doing that. And eventually I have to get willing. Once I do, then things flow, but I can sometimes spend a lot of time and energy being unhappy because I’m not willing to do what’s needed because I don’t want to, I don’t like it.

Willingness is a helpful reminder to try something versus fighting reality, which feels so much worse.

I think that the best way to think about the skill of Willingness is to think about its opposite, which is willfulness, which we are both describing. Willfulness is trying to control things, like the universe, ourselves, and people around us. Willfulness can look more active if we’re trying to control. It can look more passive when we’re being willful if we’re sitting on our hands and not taking action when action needs to be taken.

One way of being willful is to force my will and force even if it doesn’t fit. And the other way is to give up or just be passive and say, “I can’t do anything, I won’t do anything.” And those are the two extremes of what willfulness can show up as.

I think some of the time our willfulness can kind of shoot our distress level up. Then we’re much more in Emotion Mind and some other Distress Tolerance skills might be needed, like a TIP for using our cold water or paced breathing or something or else to bring our distress level down enough to be less resistant and to be really accepting of reality, as it is.

That’s what willingness is, it’s a part of our reality acceptance skill set.

Willfulness is a reaction that happens in high levels of distress. So think about when we’ve talked about noticing our distress levels by rating them on a scale of 0 to 10. So our subjective units of distress scales, SUDs, is  taking that moment when we notice that we’re stressed out or we’re shut down, or that we’re having an extreme emotional reaction, to kind of check in and say, “Okay, where am I from zero to 10?” with zero as total peace and 10 as total overwhelm.

Willfulness as we’re thinking about it, is like a high SUDs reaction, where I’m starting to feel stressed. And so now I’m digging in versus accepting the situation and saying, “Okay, something is happening that I need to do something about it.” Willfulness is kind of pulling into the emotion and saying, “No, I don’t like this. I don’t want it. I can’t, I won’t.” It really is a sign that my stress level is high. 

As you’re noticing willfulness (when you feel like “No, I won’t. I don’t want to, I can’t, nothing will ever work,”) take a pause, use the STOP skill to step back and observe what’s happening. Maybe you do need to do TIP and do something physical to bring your distress down. Maybe you need a little paced breathing in order to then re-engage and figure out from a Wise Mind place what you need to be doing here versus the reactive place of willfulness.

I think that very often, when willfulness is showing up, I am in Emotion Mind and am feeling strong emotion. Depending on the emotion, the willfulness is going to look different. 

So if I’m really angry, the willfulness might be that I just want to fight, and I have a right to be angry, and those kinds of things that are not in Wise Mind (where maybe I do have a right to be angry, but I need to stay effective). Willfulness is more like, “I have a right to be angry, so I will be angry and I’m not going to do anything that makes me less angry.” 

If I’m sad, willfulness is going to look very different. When I just don’t want to get out of this sadness. I’m not going to get up and go for a walk. I’m not going to reach out to someone to have a connection while I’m feeling sad. I’m just going to pull the covers over my head and feel sad. I don’t want to do anything. I can’t do anything. 

So depending on the emotion, it’s going to be more towards the extreme, but that will look different depending on what the specific emotion that’s feeling extreme is.

Willfulness is not something abstract. We’re talking about responding to life, essentially, on life’s terms. It’s not something you shouldn’t be doing. That language, I know for me, makes me feel more willful. Like, you’re not gonna tell me what to do. 

It’s much more helpful for me to frame it for myself in terms of effectiveness. 

“Is this willfulness? Is this me pushing against reality and trying to change it? Is this effective ultimately, for my goals? Would a more willing response feel better and be more effective?”

We can’t fight willfulness with more willfulness, or judgment, or trying to get out of it. I want listeners to really be thinking about this in terms of their own goals, and their own sense of effectiveness and ease in their lives. Not sort of like a blaming, shaming, kind of parental thing. Instead, think about it as “Is this something, if I did or I responded to, that definitely would make my life easier? Would it reduce my suffering and get me more of what I want?”

I’m recognizing that, typically, I noticed willfulness late. I’m feeling willful, I’m acting willful, long before I notice that I’m being willful. For me, willfulness is when I know what’s going to help, I know what will be effective, and I refuse to do it because I shouldn’t have to, I can’t, I don’t want to. I don’t notice that at first. I’m like, “I shouldn’t have to, I shouldn’t have to, I shouldn’t have to.” 

Over time, as I practice all of my DBT skills, I’m able to notice, okay, I’m stressed out, I’m tense. Then maybe notice how I’m willful. And then I can step back and say, “What am I feeling? What’s going on here?” Can I admit to myself what would be something effective to do, versus just fighting against what’s effective and saying, “I don’t care what’s effective. I just feel this. And I’m only acting on this feeling?” It’s something we shouldn’t, in an ideal world, have to do, but that isn’t the world we live in. 

Fighting against reality can be part of willfulness. 

Maybe it’s totally unfair. And we still need to sit down and do XYZ thing, or make this call or do whatever, usually uncomfortable, boring, tedious, challenging thing that we don’t want to do, or we don’t want to face. 

Sometimes my willfulness shows up as, “I don’t want to do that. I shouldn’t have to do that.” And sometimes it shows up as “I can’t do that. It’s too hard for me. I’ve done it too many times before, and I’m sick of doing it. I just don’t feel like it.” Both are forms of willfulness.

And I was thinking with the “can’t” that you’re talking more like an emotional can’t, (“I just can’t do this again.” I was also thinking of a can’t. I have something on my to do list right now that I’ve put every single day. Like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, now we’re on Friday. Each day, I put it number one on my to do list, and I don’t really know how to tackle it. So there’s sometimes a can’t or my willfulness here is because I don’t know what to do and I need help. So I’m not asking for that help, or, willing to figure out where I can get that guidance. 

That’s where the willingness comes in.

The willingness to sit back and say, “This has been on my list every single day. And nothing’s happening. What’s going on here? Oh, I don’t know what to do. So I need to reach out.” That’s a form of willingness. (“Okay, I need to reach out, I’m going to consider reaching out.”) 

Willfulness is like the thing on the to do list that gets rolled over every day of the week, like, I have done for months. Do you want to have a contest of how long you can leave it? That is sometimes where willfulness shows up. “I have this thing that I need to do, and either I don’t know what to do, or I’m anxious about doing it. And so I just keep putting it off and putting it off and putting it off.”

Sometimes willfulness is like “No, I refuse.” And sometimes it’s just “I’m just gonna roll that over, and I’ll put it on my to do list for tomorrow. And now it’s been four months and it’s still there. And I’m rolling it over day by day.”

That’s a form of willfulness, and the suffering that that creates, the shame – it doesn’t feel good. I’ve had this experience, when I do the thing, even if it’s complicated or hard, that there’s such a relief after. All the buildup beforehand, the four months of procrastinating on it, was a lot worse than actually sitting down and taking care of the thing. 

I’m recognizing that this is helping me reflect on my own willfulness, because this is one of the areas where it really does show up. And every single time, if I’ve been procrastinating on it for a couple of days, or for a couple of years, I feel so much better when I do it. 

The habit of willfulness, to give ourselves credit, is a habit of fearful avoidance. 

Willfulness is usually I’m afraid to face whatever I have to do, and so I’m finding ways to avoid it. But that habit can get so set in that I don’t even realize I’m doing it. And then I’m just doing this thing that drags out the pain instead of knowing I’ll feel relief if I just sit down and do it. 

This idea of things that are on our to do list for years, or things we intend to do, I have begun to think about some of those things for myself, as having the willingness to admit to myself and accept that these are things I’m not going to do. They’re off the to do list. And some things are like that: I think I need to do them, but it’s not necessary. Can I radically accept that this is a limitation, or something that is actually not going to happen right now?

For me, this is a form of willingness, where I admit I’m not doing it. Instead of, “I’m just gonna put it on the to do list for tomorrow,” it’s, “I’ve had this on the list for however long I’m not doing this. And maybe I’ll come back to it later. But for now, I’m taking it off.” 

That’s being effective, rather than torturing myself with my to do list, I’m being effective and saying, “You know, what? You haven’t done it yet. You’re not going to do it, put it to the side and move on.” versus “I should do this.” 

These are all willfulness: “I should do this.” “I shouldn’t be doing this.” “I shouldn’t be procrastinating on this.” 

Willingness is accepting what is, and responding to what is, in an effective way. It is doing just what is needed in the current situation or moment you’re in. It’s not your fantasy self that is eventually going to get to that thing that’s been on your to do list for years.

It’s also a reminder to check in with Wise Mind. Willfulness, for me, is a sign that I’m in Emotion Mind. I’m not thinking clearly, I’m not thinking reasonably, and I need to get in touch with Wise Mind, where Wise Mind is the balance of emotion and reason. 

I can notice what I’m feeling, but I can also notice facts. “Okay, I’m feeling really resistant to doing this thing. I’m feeling afraid of doing this thing. And factually, this is not a scary thing. Factually, this is a thing that does need to get done in order to achieve other goals.” Wise Mind is striking that balance. Willingness is checking in with Wise Mind. What is Wise Mind telling me? For me, Wise Mind is slower, it’s less reactive. 

Willingness is the willingness to check in and act from Wise Mind versus acting from Emotion Mind because you feel like you have no choice but to act. 

We teach the skill of Willingness in the Distress Tolerance module, and it’s related to reality acceptance skills. The way I conceptualize it is that it’s under the heading of Radical Acceptance. It’s another way to fully enter into participating in life the way it is. It’s a way of radically accepting. To combat willfulness in ourselves, we have to radically accept when we are willful. I think radical acceptance and willingness are really interrelated.

It’s about being willing to deal with life as it is, not as I wish it could be or think it should be. I’m accepting myself, I’m accepting the situation, I’m being willing to take the next effective step.

When you notice that you’re willful, there are different ways to work with it. 

The first thing you need to do is to notice that you’re being willful, that you’re experiencing it. Observing it, naming it, getting to know what it feels like in your body. Is it like a tightness? Am I holding my breath? Is it some physical sense of resistance inside of me? 

Rather than saying to yourself “I am being willful,” because that brings up more resistance in me, you can try naming it without attachment by saying “Willfulness is present right now.” or “I’m experiencing some willfulness.” Listeners know that I’m big about language, and trying to shift into less judgmental language. And so “I’m experiencing some willfulness” is, for me, going to get me more into willingness than “I’m being so willful,” which is in Emotion Mind. Being able to notice, if I’m using that kind of extreme language, can help me recognize that there’s probably some willfulness present.

Next, we want to radically accept the willfulness. 

Fully accept that this is what’s happening in the present moment. We cannot will ourselves out of our willfulness. You can’t fight willfulness with more willfulness. This might seem a little bit counterintuitive, but radically accept and allow it to be there. Judging it won’t help. Radically accept that right now, I’m experiencing willfulness, or that willfulness is present in me right now.

When I am in a willful place, which is a really strong emotion, I want to fight willfulness with more willfulness. I want to force myself out of my willfulness. I’ve done this experiment many times, but it does not work. I’m sure there are times that it does, but for the most part, trying to will myself out of willfulness is the opposite of what’s needed, which is acceptance. 

Start with noticing, naming and accepting the willfulness.

Then, we turn the mind towards participating in reality, just as it is. This is our Turning the Mind skill that we talk about with radical acceptance. When we can’t quite get to radical acceptance, we turn our minds. We orient ourselves towards acceptance. You can use turning the mind towards acceptance and towards willingness.

Notice that with all of these steps, we’re not saying, “Okay, now be willing.” We’re setting ourselves up. We’re labeling it. We’re radically accepting the willfulness is present. And then we’re turning our mind towards fully accepting and participating in reality as is. This doesn’t mean that we’re actually being willing at that moment. We are just setting ourselves on the path. Working with willfulness is a softening of that hard internal stance inside of us. 

Using the DBT skills of Half Smile and Willing Hands can help with setting us on that path.  

When we teach Radical Acceptance in DBT skills group, we follow that up with Turning The Mind for when we can’t accept, or it’s hard to accept, or acceptance is taking time. We turn our mind towards acceptance. It’s our pointing ourselves in that direction. We’re willing to do what’s effective, and then we can use Half Smile and Willing Hands to give us that physical experience of being open and willing. 

The Half Smile is the tiniest smile, not a big fake smile, but a tiny, tiny smile that subtly sends a very noticeable message to our body. “I’m trying to accept, I’m trying to be willing.” Willing Hands is holding our hands in an open palm posture. We’re physically opening our hands as a reminder and sending that signal to our body that “I’m trying to be willing, I’m trying to be open.” That really can help to shift out of the Emotion Mind willfulness into more Wise Mind acceptance, which is where we can decide what will be effective. 

We have to get out of willfulness and into more willingness, and posture can make a difference in that.

Another reminder is that, similar to radical acceptance, willingness is not the same as approval. We’re not saying that we are approving or agreeing with whatever is. We are thinking about what’s most effective for us and achieving our goals, and we are willing to do that. Reminding myself of that helps me loosen some of the willfulness.

What we’re trying to do with the skill of willingness is, noticing “I shouldn’t have to do this. And in order to be effective, I might have to.” Maybe this isn’t fair, maybe this is really hard, maybe I’m sick of doing this. That can all be true. Willingness is noticing all of that and saying, “And I’m still going to try to be effective.” 

The skills of acceptance and willingness and effectiveness are about wanting life to feel peaceful and wanting life to feel energizing in positive ways. If there are things that you’re struggling with, you’re going have to deal with them in order to have the peace and the energy that you want. Try to cultivate the willingness to do what’s going to get you to your long term goals, instead of getting stuck in the Emotion Mind willfulness, which keeps you stuck. 

Questions to consider:

What are the areas of your life where you tend to get willful? 

If you’re aware of that, then you’re going to be a little quicker to point yourself towards willingness. 

What are the areas where you tend to be willing?

For me, in my work with clients, I tend to be very willing. So if I notice that something isn’t working, I’m very willing to make changes, I’m very willing to explore possibilities. But in my personal life, just with myself, that’s where I notice willfulness. 

Notice where you’re willful, notice where you’re willing, and try to learn from the areas where you’re willing and apply that to the willful areas. 

As with most skills, this skill requires repetition. We practice, we notice, and we practice.  Willingness does bring a lot of relief. The benefit of practicing this skill is that you may not feel relief right away, but you will feel relief when you quit fighting, and are willing to do what’s effective. 

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