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Willingness Vs. Willfulness in Therapy

Willfulness: obstinately bent on having one’s own way. Said or done on purpose, deliberate.

Willingness: ready to do something without being forced. Helpful, cooperative and enthusiastic. Offered voluntarily.

In therapy for mental illness or other struggles, there will undoubtedly be times when the patient has one idea about how he or she should proceed, and the therapist has another. Sometimes the patient might truly think that their plan will be more fruitful, and other times they might simply be resistant to the therapist’s suggestion. When someone is willful, they are taking deliberate actions to further their own plans and designs. In therapy, this could play out in a number of ways. For example, a patient might refuse to take medications that have been prescribed by a psychiatrist because they think they don’t need them. A depressed patient might continue to engage in self-harm behaviors because they are convinced the healthy coping skills their therapist has suggested won’t work. They might decide it’s a good idea to argue with their loved ones about their condition instead of listening to their parents’, spouse’s, friends’, etc. concern because they are focused on what these other people have done wrong. All of these examples demonstrate a patient’s willfulness. The patient has made a conscious choice to carry out such actions because they think they know better.

Consider the question: If you (the patient) know better, then why even attend therapy for mental illness, grief, or life transitions? Isn’t it true that you (the patient) would not have sought out the help of a professional if your life, feelings, thoughts, etc. were going exactly as you had planned or desired?

On the other side of willfulness is willingness. Willingness comes with the same degree of action and purposefulness but has an additional component – cooperation. Willfulness is close-minded, while willingness is open-minded. Willfulness accepts only one plan, while willingness considers many. A depressed patient, if willing, listens to the suggestions of the therapist and opts to try something different. This could mean trying out a new medication, with the knowledge that if it doesn’t work, the treatment team can consider an alternative. This could mean going for a walk, calling a friend, a writing in a journal instead of engaging in self-harm behaviors. It could mean sticking to the meal plan decided upon in therapy for eating disorders even when it is uncomfortable. It could mean trying to see an issue from a loved one’s point of view instead of resolutely insisting that they are wrong.

It can be quite disconcerting to try something new and be willing. Willfulness seems so much easier, as it often means sticking to what is known or what you (the patient) have done in the past. It often means trusting your own mind, even though your mind has been contributing to the problem. It makes sense, however, to realize that problems can’t be solved with the same thinking that created them. Being willing means letting go and trusting someone else to help and offer solutions. The therapist, psychiatrist, or whoever else makes up the treatment team really does have your (the patient’s) best interest in mind.

Let go of willfulness and embrace willingness!

To see more writing by this author, check out her health blog at www.restoremetohealth.com.