Distress Tolerance 8: Willfullness and Turning the Mind

In my posts about Radical Acceptance we cover a lot about why it’s a useful skill to use but how do we practice it? What does it look like if we don’t accept our reality, and how do we train ourselves to change unhealthy behaviours?

When we are faced with a situation that is distressing and want to slip back into unhealthy coping mechanisms we can get stuck in a cycle of willfulness that can be difficult to get out of.


Willfullness is the stubbournness of not wanting to change, or not wanting to accept reality, and just go back to the easier but problematic coping mechanisms.

It starts in the mind but manifests in the body in a number of ways. If the mind is feeling threatened, the brain will begin to cycle through sensations and impulses that have worked in the past to protect itself. You may begin to feel panicked and start tightening joints and muscles, or fidget and become restless. Your brain may become confused and you find it difficult to communicate or make decisions. You may get racing thoughts, headaches, ragged breathing, or panic attacks. You may become extra protective and curl yourself up, cut yourself off from others, and shut yourself down from the world.

These are all normal responses to perceived threats, our instincts are hard wired into our brains and they occur to protect us from danger. But when we’re not in actual immediate danger and our brains are telling us that we are (the brain lies to you) our bodies definitely feel the impact.

When we find ourselves experiencing this willfullness we need to turn the mind to become more willing and open to find a healthier way to address the situation.

This is a skill that takes practice, and it’s a good idea to do the hard work when you are NOT in a crisis so you can refer back to the work you’ve done when a crisis does occur.

Let’s get to work!

Make a list of body and emotional sensations you feel when you are being willful. Include postures and facial expressions, breathing patterns, thought patterns and impulses. This record will make it easier for you to recall times and situations that cause you distress and trigger willfullness.

Then, try to find which skills you can use to ease these symptoms. Refer to the five senses, or the A.C.C.E.P.T.S. skills, or I.M.P.R.O.V.E. the moment.

Make a list of situations where willfullness sets in. Try to come up with at least 5 scenarios, and number them.

Make a matching list of strategies to practice willingness in each of your numbered scenarios. Here are some examples.

Willful situations

  1. Trying to control the uncontrolable
  2. Being ignored/disrespected/misunderstood
  3. Being constantly interrupted
  4. No outlet for passions
  5. Trouble connecting in relationships

Strategies to Turn the Mind

  1. Re-assess the perceived threat
  2. Easy manner/Half-smile
  3. Participate in the moment
  4. Make it work for me/find a creative way
  5. Wise mind – effectively

Some of the skills you need will be discussed in later posts, things like being effective in relationships and emotional regulation. This is another reason we did each module twice, you can add to your lists when you have a broader understanding of the struggles you deal with and the best skills to use for each.

Wise Mind