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Medically Reviewed by
Cimone Safilian-Hanif, PhD in International Psychology, on February 5, 2024


In DBT, the concepts of willingness and willfulness are important to understand and apply. These concepts are typically discussed in the context of behavioral change and acceptance.

Willingness refers to the ability to be open, receptive, and engaged in the present moment. It involves a mindset of acceptance and a willingness to participate fully in the process of change. Willingness is about being open to new experiences, perspectives, and strategies that can help you improve your overall well-being. Willingness is recognizing the reality of the situation and being an effective problem solver. It is the opposite of resistance, or fighting what is happening and refusing to tolerate the facts around you.

We often see in popular culture the admiration of grit and willpower. There is this idea that if you are not succeeding in something it's because you lack willpower and you just need to buckle down and try harder. Refuse anything but your strictly planned goal! In DBT, this is referred to as willfulness, and we see it as a limiting way of looking at a problem.

Willfulness refers to a state of stubbornness or resistance to change. It involves having a rigid or an inflexible mindset and refusing to consider alternative viewpoints or approaches. Willfulness is seen as a barrier to behavioral change. It can manifest as an unwillingness to try new coping skills or a reluctance to acknowledge and address problematic behaviors. Willfulness can stem from an individual’s fear of change, a desire to maintain control, or a belief that one’s current strategies are the only valid ones.

In real life, some things can’t be changed or aren’t worth changing, and instead, we need to recognize the reality and be flexible in our problem solving. In this exercise, we are going to practice willingness - a skill that will help you find creative and flexible solutions to your problem. By cultivating willingness, you can learn to approach challenging situations or emotions with an open mind and a willingness to experience them fully. This can lead to greater self-awareness, emotional regulation, and personal growth!

Distress Tolerance: Willingness vs. Willfulness
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In this exercise, we will go over three steps that will help solve a problematic situation that you are experiencing. First, you will describe the problematic situation, you will state what you are willful about (what you are refusing to accept and how you are fighting this situation), and then you will proceed to figure out what you are willing to do about the problem (after you've radically accept the facts about it).

Step One: Describe the Situation

First, describe the problematic situation. Try to state the facts - what happened, when it happened, who was involved and what is the problem that you are experiencing. Don't write down how you feel about it or what your thoughts are (those will be the next steps). This step by itself, will help you start seeing the situation in a way where you willingly are going to be able to solve it (instead of willfully, i.e. by fighting and resisting the situation).

Example: "I got a bad performance review at work last week. My supervisor and I don’t see eye to eye. I am very dissatisfied and don’t want to accept the performance review."

Step Two: How Are You Willful About this Situation

Describe your emotions, your thoughts and your physical sensations that reflect how you are resisting the situation and how you don't want to tolerate what is happening. After this, write the result from this way of solving the situation - what you want to do.

Example: " I really don't believe that I was treated fairly, and I think that I deserve a much better performance review and raise than what I got. All of my other performance reviews have been great, so I don't think that this is right! I assume that my new supervisor has it out for me, and doesn’t appreciate all the work I am doing because I do my work quietly and suck-up. Also, I'm being punished for disagreeing, I don’t just nod yes to everything like my coworkers. This is just so unfair!

I want to talk to my supervisor and HR and really just have an argument about this performance review. I am feeling very angry and I see no problem in me expressing that anger!"

*This way of solving the problem clearly will produce tension and is not the best solution. Having a heated argument will probably not result with positive effects.

Step Three: What Are You Willing To Do

In this step we will explore the alternative concept of willingness. If you accepted all the facts of the situation, what would your emotions and thoughts be? What would you then be willing to do? Is there a different, more flexible solution as opposed to spending unnecessary energy fighting the unchangeable facts? Take your time and think about it.

Example: "If I accept the facts of the situation, that I got a bad performance review and that right now I can't change the past or the assessment that I got, I would probably feel a little ashamed but also really curious about what went wrong. What I would do is have a meeting with my supervisor, and openly try to understand what my weaknesses were. Maybe there is really something that I haven't understood well, or maybe I've missed something important. Either way, there is no harm in asking in a calm manner. I will proactively ask for more frequent feedback. If none of that works and I just can’t get on with them, maybe I will just explain that we aren’t a good fit and see if I can get transferred to another division or look for another job."

Perhaps the concept of willingness vs. willfulness is a little abstract at first to internalize. Take your time and think about how you would apply the willingness approach in your everyday life.

Also, maybe you will become aware that you spend a lot of time refusing to accept what cannot be changed. Use this awareness to try to substitute this attitude with the more liberating one - willingness.

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Use the worksheet to think about a situation and how you approached it willfully and willingly.

DBT Distress Tolerance: Willingness vs. Willfulness

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Is this concept similar to radical acceptance?

As you dive deeper into the DBT skills (like radical acceptance) and exercises that we prepared for you, you will notice that many of them are connected. Radical acceptance is a specific aspect of willingness that focuses on accepting reality as it is without judgment or resistance. For example, to be willing to find a flexible solution to a problematic situation you want to solve, you would need to radically accept the facts first. Also, you will probably consult your wise mind in order to check whether the solution you picked is the one that you feel most right about.

How can I more easily remember the difference between willfulness and willingness?

Try to remember it this way: if you feel frustrated and are trying to change something that simply cannot be changed and you spend a lot of energy in vain - that is willfulness. On the other hand, willingness makes you more effective when solving the problematic situation. You accept the facts and you do what you need to do to solve the situation, no more, no less. For most people, willingness feels better than willfulness - it feels lighter and there is a liberating sense of going forward without feeling bitter about what you don't like.

How does this exercise fit into the big picture of distress tolerance?

You can look at this exercise as a new skill to better solve problems. If you frequently or strongly get overwhelmingly emotional and that prevents you from living optimally, then you will probably find this exercise useful. Thinking about events from the perspective of willingness will soothe your extreme emotions and will help you in a situation of emotional distress. Remember, these distress tolerance skills are all about surviving the emotional crises that you experience without making them worse.

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If you have any behavioral health questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare or mental health care provider. This article is supported by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from behavioral health societies and governmental agencies. However, it is not a substitute for professional behavioral health advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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Comments About Willingness vs Willfulness

  1. This is explained in a simple manner, but it also goes really deep. It made me re-examine my thinking and behavior. Thank you.

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