DBT Video Text: Willingness & Willfulness

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These are scripts from videos by Dialectical Behavioral Therapy creator Marsha Linehan describing DBT skills. You can purchase the videos from Behavioral Tech LLC.


So what’s willingness? Willingness is the realization that you are part of and connected to some cosmic process. Not only that, but it’s a commitment to active participation in that process.

Willingness is when you allow the world to be what it is. And, no matter what it is, you agree to participate in the world.

So willingness has all to do with the attitude or the stance that you bring to life.

Life is a lot like being a batter in front of a pitching machine. So what happens when you’re in front of a pitching machine? There’s a machine and it’s throwing balls at you. And you’re standing at one end and the machine is at the other and the balls start coming. You’ve got a bat. 

Now, if the balls coming at you and the pitching machine is throwing them, what are your options? Well, you could either  take your bat, pull it back, try to hit the ball. Or, you could throw a tantrum. You could get really upset. You could say, ‘It’s coming too fast. I don’t like it. I’m not doing it. I’m not hitting that ball anymore. Stop.

You think the balls would stop coming if you did that? No. Life is like that. You can get as upset as you want about life but actually life just keeps coming – one moment right after the next.

What are your options? You can stand there, do nothing, let the ball go by. Or, you could stand in front of the ball and just get hit by it. Or, you could try to hit the ball. Willingness is trying to hit the ball. 

Sometimes when I’m trying to explain willingness to people that I work with, I remind them that life is a lot like playing cards. So imagine that you are in a card game. You get dealt a hand of cards, as does everybody else. Now, what’s the objective in a card game? The objective is to play the cards you get. Right? That’s the game – you get the cards, you play them.

DBT Willingness: a hand of cards at the table

So imagine you’re at a card game; you get your cards; other people get their cards. And one of the players gets mad about their cards, throws them down and says, ‘I don’t like my cards. I want more cards.’ You say, ‘Well, those are the ones you got dealt.’ And they say, ‘I don’t care, it’s not fair!’ You say, ‘Well, those are your cards.’ ‘No! I’m not playing these cards.’

What would you think? Would you want to play with that player? Probably not. Who do you think is going to win at the card game? Well, it’s probably the person who plays the cards. That’s willingness. 

Throwing the cards down and walking out, that’s willfulness. Sitting back and saying, ‘I don’t care. Oh well, I got a bad hand. Poor me. Whatever.’ Just throwing any old card out. Willfulness.

The idea when you’re playing a hand of cards is to play as skillfully as you can. That’s willingness. It has everything to do with throwing yourself in to life. Participating in a willing manner.


Willfulness is the opposite of willingness. If willingness is realizing that you are a part of and connected to life, willfulness is when you forget life. It’s when you deny it. It’s when you refuse to be a part of it. When you want to sit on the sidelines. Or, you try to ignore it. Or you try to destroy it.

Willfulness is a little like the terrible two’s. When you start saying, ‘No, no, no.’ But you are saying no to life itself. You’re saying no to reality. You’re saying no to what is.

All of us have experiences of willfulness. Let’s say something has happened to you that is really painful. Sooner or later you figure out, alright, I need to accept this. So, you turn your mind towards acceptance. And just as your mind’s turning, it’s almost there…What happens? Up pops willfulness. ‘No. I refuse. I’m not going to do it.’ 

What do you do when willfulness shows up? 

Well, the first thing you want to do when willfulness shows up is just notice it. You observe it. You identify it. You describe it. You say, ‘Willfulness has shown up.’ 

Second, radically accept the willfulness. You’ve got to accept that it really is there.

Third, you turn your mind. You turn your mind to willingness. Turn your mind towards acceptance, willingness, participating in reality just as it is. 

And if you’re having trouble getting yourself to turn your mind – you want to but your mind isn’t turning. What can be really helpful when that happens is to try a willing posture. You know sometimes you can have a really willful posture. Your mind’s going one way and your body is going another. 

So try a willing posture. What would that be? Well, open your hands. Try it right now. Just open your hands. It is actually hard to be willing with clenched fists. Open your hands. Relax your body. Sit like this or stand like this.

So what it that doesn’t work. What do you do next? The next step is ask yourself, ‘What’s the threat?’ Usually immovable willfulness has to do with some sort of threat. We’re thinking that if we’re willing we have something to lose, something terrible is going to happen to us. There’s something dangerous out there. That may be true also. 

Really immovable willfulness also involves some sort of catastrophe. We start saying, ‘Not only is there a threat, not only is it dangerous, but I won’t be able to deal with it.’ So we deny it. We push it away. We ignore it. Willfulness allows us to do that.

But remember, willingness is the active participation in reality. Willingness is what you need to overcome a threat. 

Willingness isn’t approval. And it’s definitely not lying down and letting yourself get rolled over. 

So ask yourself, ‘What’s the threat?’ Then you could ask yourself, ‘What’s the catastrophe?’

This text is the unofficial transcript of Behavioral Tech, LLC.
Chaos to Freedom Skills Training Video. Posted with permission from Behavioral Tech.
Transcribed by Sylvia James, May 15, 2006