It is not the goal of any self-help or self-development program to eliminate all pain from life; that's impossible. One of my favorite quotes from the DBT program is that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. We can't do much about some life situation popping up and creating a stab of emotional pain. However at that point, how we choose to react to that pain determines whether it will soon subside or whether we'll stoke it into a bonfire of intense, long-lasting suffering. One of the key factors to preventing suffering is whether in that difficult moment we choose to respond in a way that is "willful" or "willing."
In the DBT program, the "willful versus willingness" lesson appears under the larger topic of Radical Acceptance. Completely describing the concept of Radical Acceptance is outside the scope of this posting, but let me try to summarize it. Denial is when we insist that the difficult situation we're facing is wrong or shouldn't be happening. Acceptance is when we acknowledge that the difficult situation we're facing is actually happening. Radical Acceptance is when we take responsibility for addressing the difficult situation as best we can, we accept that parts of the situation are completely outside of our control, and we make the very best of the situation, addressing it and improving as best we can.
So hopefully you can see how being willing to address the situation is a key step toward Radical Acceptance. Let's take a look at what it means to address a situation in a willing manner:
- You pay attention to what is happening in this situation and how you feel about it; you simply notice it without impulsively and quickly acting on it.
- You determine what the situation calls for, and you decide to do something that is effective.
- You pay attention as you take action in the moment.
Now I could give a full-day workshop on what it means to be effective. However I can summarize it to mean doing what works, which appropriately addresses the situation, makes sure that you're taking care of yourself along the way, results in you feeling proud of how you reacted, and results in the best possible outcome. For example, if the bad situation is literally a glass of spilled milk, then effective action cleans up the spill as quickly and efficiently as possible, instead of blaming, shaming, crying over it, or other actions that are beside the point.
Doing what works may sound obvious to you, but observe in life how many times people act and react in ways that have nothing to do with effectively addressing a situation. People have hidden agendas, use situations to boost their egos, deny situations that threaten them, do what's comfortable and familiar, avoid out of fear, and much more.
Let's take a closer look at what it means to act willfully:
- You sit on your hands when the situation requires action.
- You give up.
- You do the opposite of what works, taking ineffective action.
- You try to fix a situation that can't be fixed.
- You try to force things instead of working cooperatively with what's around you, especially if you're trying to fix it in your head—thinking intensely about it over and over again—without taking action.
To shift into a willing state of mind, I suggest that my clients use thinking such as this: I wouldn't have written the script this way, but this is the way it's turned out. All the wishing in the world isn't going to make it different. I can manage this. To use another Marsha Linehan analogy from DBT, it's like playing cards. A good player doesn't stress about one hand that she's dealt. The idea is to be mindfully aware of your hand and to play it as skillfully as possible. When that hand is over then you let it go emotionally and move on to playing the next hand you're dealt. If you play each hand as skillfully as you can, then you end up playing a darn good game of cards. The same can be said of life as well.
To apply this lesson to your life, mindfully observe when you're resisting, denying, or refusing to deal effectively with a situation. Then shift to a mindset that allows you to accept the situation, flow with it, address it as best you can, and find peace in it without having to fix it.