If you or someone you love is considering making a behavior change, you may want to spend some time thinking about the concept of willingness. It’s something you’ve likely heard before, the idea of being willing to change or willing to engage in something that is difficult.
The dictionary definition of willingness is the state of being prepared to do something, to take action. When it comes to behavior change, it usually means being ready to engage in an action or series of actions that leads to the desired outcome and includes the ability or willingness to work towards the goal even though the process may not be fun, or rewarding, or enjoyable. There are lots of things that people do in life that involve having to accept painful or difficult feelings in pursuit of a meaningful, valued goal.
For example, a person might decide that working with underprivileged youths is so important to them that they go to work every day even though some days are filled with feelings of helplessness, sadness, anger about the systemic issues that cause the problems the kids face and anxiety about what will happen to them.
On the face of it, this doesn’t sound like a fun job. And you can tell yourself, “knowing that you’re helping a kid thrive is such an amazing reward!” While that may be true overall, there will be days (many days!) where it is very hard to connect with that feeling and you may even think about giving up at times as the problems just seem to big to bear.
So, why would you, or anyone, accept a job that might come along with so many uncomfortable or unwanted feelings? Because, even though it makes your heart ache or is incredibly frustrating at times, you care so much about it that you’re willing to accept all the feelings that come along with the job. This is also the case when you’re trying to change behaviors; it is a job that you are accepting that is ultimately very rewarding, even though the process is often painful and difficult.
If you’re trying to change a long-standing behavior pattern in your own life like drinking too much, over eating, or smoking, you have to be willing to endure all the bumps and bruises that come along with making that change. For example, if you’re giving up alcohol, you’re going to have to put up with your brain screaming at you to “JUST DRINK!” Why? Because your brain knows that this is how you can feel better, and it just wants you to do it! You might also have to face painful things like distancing yourself from heavy drinking friends or avoiding places that are familiar and fun but linked with drinking too much like your local bar. If you are going to drink less or not at all, you’re going to have to put up with the discomfort of feeling things you may have been avoiding with alcohol. And you’ll have to struggle through situations that were once made easier, or more tolerable, by drinking.
And if you’re someone who cares about a person who is working to change, there will be many times where you see your loved one do well, and many moments where they will struggle and fall. You will likely have to watch as they endure the pain that comes along with change and moments where they say they can’t do it. And on top of having to watch someone you love struggle over and over again, you will likely face the discomfort of realizing you don’t have control of the outcome and can only offer help and encourage the process. Your willingness to engage in this process during painful moments can help you tolerate and stay engaged for the long haul.
So again, why would anyone ever work to change a behavior if discomfort is part of the process? We do it because it matters. The changes we are making, or helping someone else make, matter so much to us, that we are willing to take on the pain, frustration, fear, worry, anxiety, and even the moments of joy and excitement, all of it.
So, if in reading this you find that you are willing to take this on in an effort to change, you may wonder how do you actually do it? The answer is to stop and take a moment to pause and think about and connect to why you’re making the change or why you are wanting to help someone change.Why is it important to you to step into the fire, knowing that you’re going to feel the flames. Why is making this change, or helping someone else change, important to you.
After you’ve connected with the meaning behind your actions, give yourself permission to have your feelings about the process. Give yourself permission to feel bad, or to feel down, or to feel frustrated. Or, maybe you’ll feel really great (which can also be a difficult emotion for a lot of people!). Whatever you’re feeling, give yourself permission to feel it.
Being willing to take on discomfort is not an easy thing to do but in being willing you can open up to the process of change in both the short and the long term.