Harness the Power of Willingness

Ever since the OCD conference last month, I’ve been thinking so much about the idea of willingness. it’s not a new concept for me, but something Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz said landed perfectly. He said “we’re going to use exposures to get better at having anxiety.” For anyone who hasn’t been reading my posts, an exposure is therapy-speak for intentionally facing your fears. If your fear and/or anxiety goes down, great! But it’s not the goal. The goal is tolerance, not reduction.

According to Marsha Linehan, PhD, willingness is “… accepting what is, together with responding to what is, in an effective and appropriate way.”

Willingness is an essential ingredient in learning how to transform any behavior, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll be using it for anxiety or OCD. Being willing to accept the presence of internal discomfort, be it in thought, emotion or sensation, and not doing anything to get rid of it may sound easy, but it’s often much harder than you think.

I hear people say all the time, “I’m willing to feel this way, but I really wish I didn’t” or “I’m willing to have these thoughts if I know they’re going to go away eventually.” In both cases, their ability to tolerate their thoughts or feelings is contingent on something else — either knowing they will end or the wish that they didn’t have them. That’s not accepting reality AS IT IS, even if you don’t like it. Fighting “what is” will often make the situation worse: it’s like swimming against the waves. Being willing is a mindset that’s negotiated sometimes daily, sometimes on a moment-by-moment basis.

In the case of anxiety and OCD, you need to be ready, open, and willing to accept uncomfortable physical sensations or feelings, noisy, distressing, intrusive or uncertain thoughts and a situation that may suck. Being ok with “what is” even if it sucks, because to fight it, resist it, question it, worry about it, or try and make it different or figure it out only makes it stronger. It grows and persists.

Let me give a concrete example. After getting into a disagreement with a friend the other night, I felt unsettled, my stomach was in swirls, and my thoughts were racing and mostly unhelpful. Instead of allowing the situation to just be, I engaged with my thoughts by replaying the conversation in my mind and searching for some reassurance that I didn’t say something too offensive and was actually an okay friend.

It wasn’t until I was 20 minutes into this spiral that I realized how tense I was and took a step back. Instead of spending those 20 minutes acknowledging that I was feeling unsettled, anxious and sad, I put my time and attention into making those feelings go away, time I could have spent doing something more important to me.

Last week, I discussed my own willingness to experience discomfort on the VersaClimber. I do it, because it brings me rewards like physical well-being and a sense of achievement.

Willingness isn’t something you just turn on like a light switch. It’s a mindset that needs to be set in place, over and over, and this is the work. How can you start?

Here are 4 things to increase your awareness:

  1. Know your baseline: in general, are you more anxiety/fear tolerant or anxiety/fear averse? If you try to reduce, eliminate, or get rid of sensations, feelings, and thoughts, you’re more averse.
  2. When you’re feeling worried or anxious, ask yourself: how willing am I to feel this feeling? sensation? have these thoughts? 5 minutes? 10 minutes?
  3. When you notice you’re feeling worried or anxious, how might you be resisting the moment? Are you trying to change what is? Are you wishing something was different? Are you making your acceptance be contingent on something else?
  4. Practice mindfulness … every day. Mindfulness is being in the present moment without judgment. You can be mindful that you’re resisting the present moment. If you can do this without beating yourself up or expecting things to be different, you’re on the right track