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Tip of The Week

Willingness: A Way to Accept Life's Challenges

By Melissa Horowitz, Psy.D.

When was the last time you were asked to accept something that you didn’t want to accept—for example, having a difficult conversation with your boss, staying late at work to finish a project, interacting with an angry spouse or parent, being single, having fertility issues, not getting hired after a hopeful interview, or living on a budget. Sometimes it can feel like everything is unpleasant and painstakingly hard and unfair. Whether something is unpleasant or hard or unfair, it can become more bearable when one is in a willing state of mind. Willingness is the way one thinks and acts in each situation. Willingness is about participating in life. It is a skill commonly used in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a form of cognitive behavior therapy created by Marsha Linehan Ph.D. The purpose of this skill is to promote acceptance—for example, to learn how to effectively interact in a world where both fairness and unfairness exist, to realize when one’s own emotional restraint or lack thereof can interfere with advancing one’s own personal values and goals, and to struggle less and to have a better quality of life.

Practicing willingness requires the mindset and ability to:

  • do just what is needed
  • accept the situation for what it is
  • even if the situation is unfair, resist pointing it out to prove the side

Imagine this scenario:

Penelope and Sam are a married couple. One evening, Penelope returns home after a long and unrewarding day. It rained heavily on her way to work. Her outfit was soaked. She spent the morning in wet clothing responding to a constant flow of urgent emails. She received critical feedback from her boss on a recent project and now must spend her weekend working on the revisions. She arrives home to find a leak in her bedroom ceiling. Penelope is worn down and tired. She feels angry and defeated. She proclaims, “This is the worst day ever!” and she can’t help but replay all the negative events of the day. In walks Sam after his day, which was virtually identical to Penelope’s. Both Penelope and Sam have strong urges to focus on the negative events and spend the night complaining to each other. It is easy to go there. What’s the harm? Won’t it help? Complaining is natural at times, but unconstructive complaining can become unwieldly and difficult to contain. If the conversation is not constructive, the problem (or a similar one) often comes back, which leads to future complaining. Constant complaining about work and life can erode a relationship. If Penelope and Sam value their relationship, they will try to limit their complaining. The willingness to accept the day’s events may look something like this:

  • Acknowledge the day was hard
  • Recognize the urge to complain and instead talk about more neutral topics
  • Shower and put on fresh clothing
  • Contact the landlord
  • Keep with the evening routine
  • Prepare for the next day
  • Being willing means putting effort into accepting what is and doing just enough to cope with it. Conversely, a lack of willingness means a refusal to do the minimum necessary to cope. Consider a time you were unwilling to do the minimum necessary to cope better in a difficult situation. If you were more willing, how would your thinking and actions have been different?

    For further reading, see:

    Linehan, M. (2014). DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition. New York: Guilford Press.

    Rathus, J. H., & Miller, A. L. (2015). DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents. New York: Guilford Press.

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