About Psychological Health: Be Willing
This is the second of a six-part series on psychological health. Psychological health is really about how to feel less stuck in your life and move toward having the life that you want. In my previous article I talked about the importance of being present. Being present is about noticing what is going on around you and inside of you. But what do you do with all of that stuff? That’s where being willing comes in.
Being willing is a mindset and an exercise. You already practice being willing on a regular basis. You willingly go to work when you’d rather stay in bed because you know it’s important. You hate doing laundry but are willing to do it when your partner asks because a healthy relationship means a lot to you. You might be willing to not have a second (or third) donut because your health matters to you.
Why does being willing matter?
Being willing matters because often in life not being willing gets us stuck. Here’s an example:
Joe has always felt anxious in social situations - he tenses up just thinking about going to a party. Being in a social situation means clammy hands, feeling dread, and a million thoughts about how he is probably being judged by those around him. To avoid experiencing all of these things Joe stays home a lot and feels pretty lonely. He knows that getting out and being more social would be good for him, but he isn’t willing to feel the dread and anxious feelings or the uncomfortable sensations in his body, and he doesn’t feel like battling all of the thoughts in his head. So he stays home and keeps feeling lonely. Joe is stuck.
Being willing isn’t the same as wanting something
Being willing doesn’t mean you have to want something. Joe doesn’t want to feel anxiety and have clammy hands when he goes to a party. So how do you become willing to have something you don’t want? Start by looking at it in the context of why it matters to you. It really matters to Joe that he have some supportive friends in his life. He might always feel anxious or always have clammy hands in social situations. But if he’s able to flex his willingness muscle he might be able to go to a party or two. And that can lead to connections with others.
Being willing to have what is happening also doesn’t mean torturing yourself. It’s important to be honest with yourself about what you are willing to have and accept and what you just can’t right now. In fact, being honest about not being willing can help you get unstuck!
How to be more willing
Start with what matters to you
It can really help to consider why being more willing matters and get in touch with this. I’ll talk more about this in a future post but consider what is meaningful in your life - this is usually stuff you’d like to see more of. I want to feel healthier. I want to having real connections with people. I want to give back to others. Being in touch with the “why” can make being willing to have something difficult a little easier. You might be willing to have challenging experiences because they get you more of the life you want.
Create a willingness scale
Consider a variety of behaviors that would move you forward and rank them for willingness with 0 being absolutely not possible and 10 being completely willing. This can help you see that often you have some flexibility in situations. Joe might rank going to a large party where he knows few people as a 2 but he might rank a small dinner party with a handful of other people a 6. Joe can then sort out what kinds of behaviors he’d be willing to try. Some of the low scoring ones might be off the table for right now but he can start to flex his willingness muscle with some of the activities that score higher.
Learn some ways to accept difficult stuff
In a future post I’ll more about what to do with all of the difficult thoughts that can get in the way but what about the feelings and sensations that can run through your body when you try out something that is challenging for you? If being present is about noticing that you are feeling anxious and being willing is about being OK with having anxiety, how can you make this easier to have? Kickstarting the relaxation response can help you soften around difficult feelings like anxiety and allow you to have them. The easiest way to relax in the face of a difficult feeling or physical sensation is to use your breath. You can read more about some relaxation breathing techniques here.
Being willing to have a difficult experience like anxiety isn’t easy. The good news is you don’t have to just grit your teeth and get through it.. Rank what you’re willing to have and do and then practice flexing and strengthening your “willingness muscle.” And most importantly, think of the why - why are you willing to do this? What are you willing to have to live the life you want?