At face value, willing and willful may seem straight forward: willingness seems like another word for compliance, and willfulness seems like another word for stubborn or oppositional. However, they mean something very different in DBT. Linehan takes these words, and their definitions, from Gerald May's book Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology. May uses these terms to refer to "the underlying attitude one has toward the wonder of life itself. Willingness notices this wonder and bows in some kind of reverence to it. Willfulness forgets it, ignores it, or at its worst, actively tries to destroy it." Or "More simply, willingness is saying yes to the mystery of being alive in each moment. Willfulness is saying no, or perhaps more commonly, 'yes, but...'" (quoted in Linehan, 1993, p. 148).
As you can see, these concepts are more esoteric than the words themselves suggest. They are about the very attitude one has toward the world, and the process that is life. Many, if not most, people harbor some willfulness. There are aspects of life we have not embraced. We think that life "should" be fair, that bad things "shouldn't" happen to good people, that bad people should get their just desserts, or that trying harder should produce a better result. Or perhaps we think we shouldn't have to try so hard, or that other people should treat us a certain way. The list could go on and on. These are all examples - concrete, relatable examples - of willfulness. Wilfulness includes all of the things we won't accept. And this non-acceptance, rather than changing the nature of life, only results in our own unhappiness.
Conversely, while willingness - or, as they say in AA, taking "life on life's terms" - does not change the nature of life, or necessarily make us "happy" per se, it does take away the unnecessary suffering we create for ourselves through willfulness. Thus, as applied to Distress Tolerance, willingness doesn't change the situation we find ourselves in, but it helps us not to intensify our resulting distress, where willfulness instead heaps unnecessary suffering on top of unavoidable pain. (In fact, suffering can be defined as the refusal to accept and bear unavoidable pain. And yes, pain in life is often unavoidable).
Because this is still fairly abstract, the skills-training manual tries to make it more concrete (p. 177). It includes instructions to "cultivate a willing response to each situation" by:
- Doing what is needed in each situation, focusing on what is effective (i.e., what moves you toward your goals), rather that need to be "right." It is open to doing things differently, and letting go of strategies that prove ineffective.
- Listening very carefully to your Wise Mind (i.e., the kind of thinking that incorporates both rational thinking and emotional awareness), and acting from your inner self.
- Being aware of your connection to the universe – to the present moment, to the person with whom you’re talking, to the floor you’re standing on or the chair you’re sitting in.
Instructions to "replace willfulness with willingness" are also included, with a list of ways to recognize willfulness when it occurs:
- Willfulness is sitting on your hands when action is needed, refusing to make changes that are needed.
- Willfulness is giving up.
- Willfulness is doing the opposite of “what works,” the opposite of being effective.
- Willfulness is trying to fix every situation (because trying to fix it means you are not accepting it the way it is).
- Willfulness is refusing to tolerate the moment.
To help clients understand these concepts, Linehan introduces a couple of metaphors: "...life is like hitting baseballs from a pitching machine. A person's job is just to do her best to hit each ball as it comes. Refusing to accept that a ball is coming does not make it stop coming.... A person can stand in the way of a ball and get hit, stand there doing nothing and let the ball go by as a strike, or swing at the ball. Another metaphor is that life is like a game of cards. It makes no difference to a good card player what cards she gets. The object is to play whatever hand she gets as well as possible. As soon as one hand is played, another hand is dealt. The last game is over and the current game is on. The idea is to be mindful of the current hand, play it as skillfully as possible, and then let go and focus on the next hand of cards" (skills training manual, p. 103)
What other metaphors can you come up with to explain willing and willful? How do you use these concepts with clients, or apply them to yourself?