Distress Tolerance Series # 6 Willingness vs. Willfulness

Distress Tolerance Series # 6 Willingness vs. Willfulness

man with open arms, free from depression, willing

Willingness is a reality acceptance skill that involves accepting the world as it is without trying to change it. You may be wondering, why should I bother accepting things?


What we know is that rejecting or denying reality does not change reality at all, but usually increases suffering.




If we want to change our reality, we first have to accept it as it is, and then take action from there.


While denying reality may make it seem like you can avoid pain, it is just hiding or covering up something important. Of course we don’t like pain, but pain does communicate important things to us. It tells us that something is wrong, and if we ignore it, we may be ignoring important information that could help us pick a different path.


Willingness is accepting what is and responding to what is in an effective or appropriate way. It is doing what works, or just what is needed in each situation. It is throwing yourself wholeheartedly into life without hesitation. It is being a “yes,” person.


Imagine if life was like hitting baseballs from a pitching machine. Your job is to just hit each ball as it comes. Refusing to accept that the ball is coming does not stop it from coming. Defiance, denying, crying, whimpering, and shutting down does not stop the machine, they keep coming over and over. You can get upset about life, but it just keeps coming.


Willfulness is the opposite of willingness. It is refusing to accept reality, trying to control events and those around you. It is refusing to be a part of life, giving up, and shutting down, rather than doing what is needed. Willfulness is being a “no,” person. I always think of willfulness as a two-year-old having a tantrum. We have all seen a child melt-down in the middle of the grocery store aisle, sit on the floor, cry, and scream “No, No, No, I won’t do it!” That is what willfulness is like.


We all experience willfulness sometimes. It is important to be able to identify and label when willfulness has shown up. Remember, noticing and accepting something is the first step in changing it. If you never notice willfulness is there, you will never be able to take action from a more willing stance. So first, just notice and state without judgment, “Ok, willfulness has shown up.”


Then you need to radically accept that the willfulness is there; trying to battle it or judge it does not help. Imagine if you try to battle the two-year-old in the middle of a tantrum. Imagine telling them, “Stop acting like that and do what I tell you!” It doesn’t work and the child’s meltdown worsens. But what happens if you sit with the two-year old in the middle of the aisle and say, “I get it, you are hurting, you are upset you cannot have the Lucky Charms, it’s ok to be upset.” The child will likely calm down much sooner. To recognize and accept the willfulness allows us to move through it and on to a more willing standpoint.


So, remember, when life keeps coming at you (because life will keep coming!), you have the option to be a two-year old in a tantrum, or the option to accept reality as it is and do what is needed. When you notice your inner two-year old coming out, be gentle and don’t judge as that usually only makes it worse. Just notice and work towards turning your mind towards acceptance.


Now that you are a willingness pro, the last step is Half Smiling and Willing hands, which will be out next week.


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Thank you so much for tuning in for the Distress Tolerance Series! I hope these skills are helpful to you right now and for a long time to come. Skills practice is not a replacement for professional help. If you are struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns I encourage you to seek out professional help. ACTivation Psychology offers individual therapy for adolescents and adults struggling with anxiety, depression, transitions, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and other mental health concerns. Telehealth services are available during this time for individuals in the state of Colorado. Please remember that you do not have to struggle alone!


*The above is adapted from Linehan, M., M., (2014). DBT Training Manual. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. Please see the full text for more resources*


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