Willingness & Half-Smile

DBT Self Help - Willingness & Half Smile

Distress Tolerance skills are a set of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy skills that are strategies to help you get though difficult feelings and situations, and tolerate (deal with, sit with, accept) the things that you can’t immediately change. Emotions can be extreme and lead to behaviors that are ineffective. You may not be able to change the stressful situation you’re in, but you can change the way you feel. Distress Tolerance skills are aimed to make your response to distress more effective.

Willingness is key to practicing DBT. You have to be willing to participate in the program, to do the homework and practice the skills. Without this, it simply will not take.  


Willingness is the acceptance that you are part of a world greater than yourself. It is having a sense of your connection to the universe. Practicing willingness is bringing an openness to the world, a promise that you will take on whatever comes with grace. Willingness encourages you to focus on effectiveness or doing what is needed according to your Wise Mind.

Marsha Linehan, the creator of DBT, uses a batting cage as a metaphor for willingness. The pitching machine is throwing balls at you over and over. You have several choices of what to do. You could throw a tantrum saying it’s unfair how fast the balls are coming and refuse to hit them. Or you could step up and try to hit them. Willingness is hitting the balls, or trying to at least. To use an additional metaphor, it’s playing the cards you’re dealt rather than throwing in because you’ve got a bad hand.


Willfulness is the opposite of willingness. It is sitting on your hands or throwing a tantrum when action is needed. It is saying “No, no, no, I’m not even going to try.” It can be giving up but it’s also working too hard to ‘fix’ an unfixable situation. In the context of treatment, willfulness is refusing to try new coping skills and instead returning to less effective, potentially harmful, methods.

Willfulness can be giving in to self-pity. It’s easy to get stuck in a self-pitying spiral of wondering ‘why me?’ but it’s not effective to spend more than a moment there. It is the denial of reality, of the truth of life. All of us have experienced willfulness. It is nothing to be ashamed of. You just need to focus on cultivating willingness instead.

Cultivating Willingness

Willingness takes practice to cultivate. Follow these steps again and again to cultivate willingness in a situation.

  1. Notice your willfulness.
  2. Radically accept your willfulness. It is the reality of what you’re experiencing, so until you accept it you cannot move forward.
  3. Turn your mind towards acceptance and willingness. When willfulness returns, turn your mind again. You may need to do this repeatedly.
  4. Try a willing posture. Open your hands, palms facing the ceiling. Put on a half smile.
  5. Participate in reality.
DBT Self Help - Willingness & Half Smile


Accept reality with your body. Relax by letting go or by just tensing and relaxing your face, neck, and shoulder muscles and half-smile with your lips. A half-smile is just slightly upturned lips with a relaxed face. Try to adopt a serene facial expression. Your body communicates to your mind so this position will genuinely bring contentment to your mind. A full, false smile might tell your brain you are hiding or faking the emotion.

DBT Self Help - Willingness & Half Smile

Practice half-smiling both when you are in distress and when you are not. It might feel silly at first, but you will quickly feel its effectiveness. Try these exercises to cultivate willingness through the half-smile:

  • HALF-SMILE WHEN YOU FIRST AWAKE IN THE MORNING: Hang some sing you’ll see right away when you open your eyes. This sign will serve as a reminder to practice half-smile. Use the seconds before you get out of bed to take hold of your breath. Inhale and exhale three breaths mindfully while maintaining a half-smile.
  • HALF-SMILE DURING YOUR FREE MOMENTS: Anywhere you find yourself sitting or standing, half smile. Look at a child, a leaf, a painting on a wall, or anything that is relatively still, and smile. Inhale and exhale quietly three times.
  • HALF-SMILE WHILE LISTENING TO MUSIC: Listen to a piece of music for 2 or 3 minutes. Pay attention to the words, music, rhythm, and sentiments of the music you are listening to (not your daydreams of other times). Half smile while being mindful of your inhalations and exhalations.
  • HALF-SMILE WHEN IRRITATED: When you realize you’re irritated, half smile at once. Inhale and exhale quietly, maintaining a half-smile for three breaths. Do this as soon as you realize your irritation, no matter where you are. You could be in traffic or at the grocery store, take a moment to half-smile.
  • HALF-SMILE IN A LYING-DOWN POSITION: If you’re able, lie on your back on a flat surface. Keep your arms loosely by your sides and keep your legs slightly apart, stretched out before you. Maintain a half-smile. Breathe in and out gently, keeping your attention focused on your breath. Let go of every muscle in your body. Relax each muscle as though it were sinking down through the floor, or as though it were as soft and yielding as a piece of silk hanging in the breeze to dry. Let go entirely, keeping your attention only on your breath and half-smile. Think of yourself as a cat, completely relaxed before a warm fire, whose muscles yield without resistance to anyone’s touch. Continue for 15 breaths.
  • HALF-SMILE IN A SITTING POSITION: Sit on the floor with your back straight, or on a chair with your feet touching the floor. Half-smile. Inhale and exhale while maintaining the half-smile. Let go.
  • HALF-SMILE WHILE CONTEMPLATING THE PERSON YOU DISLIKE THE MOST: Sit quietly. Breathe and smile a half-smile. Imagine the person who has caused you the most suffering. Regard the features you dislike the most about them. Try to examine what makes this person happy and what causes suffering in their daily life. Imagine the person’s perceptions; try to see what patterns of thought and reason this person follows. Examine what motivates this person’s hopes and actions. Finally, consider the person’s consciousness. See whether the person’s views and insights are open and free or not, and whether or not the person has been influenced by any prejudices, narrow-mindedness, hatred, or anger. Continue until you feel compassion rise in your heart like a well filling with fresh water, and your anger and resentment disappear. Practice this exercise many times on the same person. Do not let your half-smile slip away during the exercise.


  • Consider a situation that caused you distress in the past. Does the situation matter now? Do you think of it often? Now consider a current distressing situation. Will it matter in 5 years?
  • Use mindfulness exercises to connect yourself to the universe, to the life around you. Notice your body’s position in space. Feel where it connects to the chair or floor beneath you.
  • Regularly use mindfulness to participate in your life. Use the What & How skills exercises to practice this.
  • Awareness of Connection to the Universe Exercise:
    • Focus your attention on where your body touches an object (floor or ground, air molecules, a chair or arm rest, your bed sheets and covers, your clothes, etc.). Try to see all the ways you are connected to and accepted by that object. Consider what the object does for you. Consider its kindness in doing that. Experience the sensation of touching the object and focus your entire attention on that kindness until a sense of being connected or loved or cared for arises in your heart.
      • For instance, focus your attention on your feet touching the ground. Consider the kindness of the ground holding you up, providing a path for you to get to other things, not letting you fall away from everything else.
      • Focus your attention on your body touching the chair you sit in. Consider how the chair accepts you totally, holds you up, supports your back, keeps you from falling down on the floor.
      • Focus your attention to the sheets and the covers on your bed. Consider the touch of the sheets and covers holding you, surrounding you and keeping you warm and comfortable.
      • Consider the walls in the room. They keep out the wind and the cold and the rain. Think of how the walls are connected to you via the floor and the air in the room. Experience your connection to the walls that provide you with a secure place to do things.
      • Go hug a tree. Think of how you and the tree are connected. Life is in you and in the tree and both of you are warmed by the sun, held by the air and supported by the earth. Try to experience the tree loving you by providing something to lean on, or by shading you.

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