Why Can’t I Bury My Head in the Sand? Willfulness, Willingness & Radical Acceptance

Last Wednesday I received news that I felt completely unprepared to handle.  Since then, I’ve spent a good bit of time stewing in a sea of negative emotions.

In an attempt to balance out those emotions, I’ve also focused my meditations this week on the concept of willingness.  In DBT, the willfulness/willingness dialectic is part of Radical Acceptance Skill.  This is a distress tolerance skill – and usually one of the most bemoaned when taught in class.  

Are you kidding me – you want me to practice acceptance in the middle of an emotional crisis? How the hell am I supposed to do that?

 First question I get – without fail.

And it’s true – the absolute last thing we want to do is ACCEPT when things aren’t going our way.  Willfulness is the opposite of acceptance. It is an unwillingness to see the moment for its truth or to engage with the facts.

For example – here’s what my initial (willful) reaction looked like:

This can’t be happening!!!!
My plate is already full – I can’t handle something as significant as this right now.
I knew what was going on – and this isn’t it!

All statements of complete non-acceptance.  I was fully prepared to engage in my favorite skill borrowed from the ostrich – bury my head in the sand and just hope the danger will go away. For a good long while.

ALAS!! This is not an effective technique – nor one I’d recommend.  Because let’s face it, problems tend to grow when we ignore them and pretend like they don’t exist.

Acceptance is the first step in problem solving.  We have to admit things aren’t going our way before we can even begin to formulate a plan on how to change them.   Willingness allows us to engage in the process that comes next.

So how do we handle non-acceptance and willful thinking?  DBT suggests these 4 steps:

  1. Use OBSERVE & DESCRIBE to label willfulness when it comes up.  Take a non-judgmental stance towards it & stick to the facts of the situation.  It could be as simple of a statement as Right now I don’t want things to be how they arethis is my willfulness.
  2. Practice ACCEPTANCE that you are currently in a state of willfulness.  Again, focusing on that non-judgmental perspective (it doesn’t do you any good to beat yourself up).  Willfulness is a valid emotion, and when we experience it there is a reason.  It just usually is not an emotion that leads to us being more effective.
  3. Actively TURN THE MIND towards acceptance.  Write down your personal acceptance mantra.   Each time you find willfulness sinking in, say your mantra out loud or in your head.  This is a repletion-based skill – expect to do it over and over. 
  4. Open up physically.  Use HALF-SMILE, WILLING HANDS, and correct posture.  By changing your physical stance, you are signaling to your brain that you are engaging the behaviors of willingness. 

By making the journey from non-acceptance to acceptance I’ve been able to gain a broader understanding of the situation.  To see the dialectic that in all situations there can be both good and bad.  I’m facing something I wasn’t prepared to face.  And yet, I believe that I can come out stronger on the other side.  Maybe this bit of bad news was the catalyst I have been waiting for in regard to some necessary personal growth.  

As with many of the DBT skills, it’s much simpler to talk about acceptance then it is to practice acceptance in the moment (especially when emotions are high). However, it is often the skill that best allows us to move out of a loop of negative emotions. The more attached you are to your willfulness, the harder it is to let go. Expect to use turning the mind A LOT!

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mindfulness, emotions, dialectical behavior therapy, counseling, DBT, borderline personality disorder, narcissist, distress tolerance skills, radical acceptance,


Published by Jamie Schmidt

Just a human being on a journey of self discovery. Psychology + Spirit + Healing

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