Letting Go of Willingness

This week I have been reading, and enjoying, the ‘The Little ACT Workbook’ by Michael Sinclair and Matthew Beadman. I’ll write a concise review, which makes absolute sense given the concise nature of the book, before trying to articulate how it provoked me to carefully consider what we mean by the word ‘willingness’.

The book is written brilliantly in that it clearly articulates what ACT is all about in a truly accessible and relatable way. It does this using a gentle tone that is perfectly suited to the people most likely to benefit from a book like this; those suffering with lower levels of distress. It uses great case examples to illustrate points, it threads ACT-consistent language into the stitching of the book and it includes helpful summary points. In fact, if anyone out there is looking for a brief but useful primer to the ACT model then I think that this book offers something that no other ACT book does.

The criticism that I have of the book is an issue that could be levelled against all self-help books; it felt more didactic than experiential. In other words, finishing books is reinforcing so when it came to the exercises I found myself moving through the pages pretty quickly without really ‘experiencing’ them. To be fair, the authors signpost not to do this at the beginning of the book but maybe, and I say this with no experience of writing a self-help book, stronger signposting in the body of the book would have helped to guide the reader i.e. ‘after this page, stop reading and see if what we have said in this chapter resonates with you over the next week – then come back to the book’ or ‘try this exercise 3 times in the next week then come back’. Such guidance, in addition to the creation of a material-filled website, might better support readers in an on-going basis as they surf these tricky waters.

The final thing that popped out at me when reading the book is what I want to spend the rest of this blog talking about. The description of ‘willingness’, presented in such an accessible way, awakened uneasiness in me that I’m going to try to articulate now.

When I first began my ACT journey, I thought that acceptance, in the model, referred to a feeling i.e. if we can turn up our willingness feeling dial then we will be better able to act willingly. But then, as I have laid out in another blog, you realize that willingness can’t be a feeling. Why, because if the pitch in ACT is that it is very difficult to control our feelings, then why should the feeling of willingness be any different? I think it may be difficult to conjure up a feeling of willingness.

So you can imagine my relief, after delving into the literature a little more, when I found that willingness is considered an action. But if willingness is an action, then why do we need committed action in the hexaflex? It gets worse; not only is willingness an action but also most writers suggest that willingness involves an openness, acceptance and curiosity about unwanted thoughts and feelings. What are openness, acceptance and curiosity? Are they feelings? If so, see previous point about feelings. Some people say they are a stance – what in the hell is a stance? Stance sounds like private events to me, the same private events that we pitch as being difficult to control.

You see, I like to view my unwanted thoughts and feelings like a radio playing the background: I acknowledge them and their potentially unhelpful nature enough to give me the space to choose my actions. But I don’t really interact with them, in my internal world, much more than that. I don’t actively focus on them, I don’t actively accept them, I don’t actively feel open to them and I am not actively curious about them. They just sort of exist. I actively watch them, but apart from that it’s a pretty passive process, like clouds passing in the sky.

So if willingness actually involves awareness and acknowledgement of our unwanted guests, rather than active acceptance, then is that not what we try to do with the ‘contacting the present moment’ part of the hexaflex? Given these lines of argument, what I am wondering is whether acceptance even needs to be a part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

In other words, in therapy you may want to consider doing the following things:

  • Listen with Empathy and Compassion.
  • Improve Self-ing. Have clients contact self-as-context (defusion) and self-as-process (contacting the present moment) so to increase awareness of the thoughts, feelings and stories that minds can feed us, and to increase awareness of the fact that that sometimes some of those internal private events aren’t helpful / functional in the way they influence our behaviour.
  • Improve Valued Action – use increased awareness about the nature of minds to help people act in a way that is consistent with who they want to be.

I’m going to call my new therapy Values and Self-ing Therapy (VAST) but the funny thing is that it won’t really look any different to ACT. In other words, although my therapy will involve only 5 out of the 6 ACT components, it will still look like ACT, which adds to my feeling that we don’t need ‘willingness’ in the hexaflex.

Importantly, you need to know that I write these blogs in the hope that they will stimulate thought and not because I think what I say is ‘right’. This post especially leaves me feeling vulnerable so I am hoping that people who disagree will take the time to teach me alternative views of ‘willingness’ that make it a crucial component in the ACT model.


  1. Great post! Can’t find a way to translate willingness in French anyhow!

    Beyond that, using the ACT matrix overcomes all of your reservations with the Hexaflex, which I share.

    As you practice sorting on the diagram, you are selfing, both as process and context, as well as deictic-framing : noticing your experience and behaviors as if they were from you-there-then.

    Next you choose whether to engage in a toward or away move, i.e. contacting values and behaving.

  2. Wonderfully stimulating topic, Nic!

    I think that anybody who has been doing ACT for a while and is skilled understands that it is hard to promote one of the processes without promoting the rest of them, this is because as Steve reminds us, each of the labels is simply a way of talking about, or making it easier to understand what we’re chasing after, which is psychological flexibility. ACT could easily have been called PFET (Psychological Flexibility Enhancement Therapy) or the like.

    And here I will defend Acceptance/Willingness as a stance:

    Imagine yourself struggling against something physically, either pushing something away from you with great force, or pulling something toward you so that it won’t leave. And I invite you to physically get out of your chair and do this, stand and face a wall and put your hands on it as if you at pushing it away from you; really get your back and legs into it. Notice now where your feet are as your are engaging in this behavior. Your stance is widened, planted to keep give you more force and to keep yourself from budging.

    When we engage in willingness (which is not a dial as much as a binary switch), we choose and engage in the behavior of altering our stance in a way that makes it more likely that we will receive what we have been struggling against, but also opens us up to receiving more and opens us up to being able to move freely. We can now walk and do anything else from this less planted, more open and willing stance.

    Now then comes committed action. If acceptance is the act of altering the stance, then committed action is what comes next, the actual engagement of actions that take advantage of this new stance. We can alter our stance without moving further, or we can alter our stance for a moment and then go right back to that planted stance, or we can alter our stance and then choose to take even the tiniest baby step toward whatever we value. And so on and so on.


  3. Thanks, as always, for sharing your thoughts on this, Nic.

    I’ve been running up against similar (and unavoidable?) issues with these nontechnical terms, I’ve changed in the way that I talk about psychological flexibility altogether. I thought it might be useful or interesting to someone other than me.

    I think about the flexibility – inflexibility continuum as a way of characterizing our responses in the presence of aversive stimulation. To train flexible responding in the clinic, I produce the aversive (with my words, my physical stance, my facial expression) to occasion the arousal and avoidance that’s become problematic, then I add to the context to occasion and reinforce behavior that’s not under aversive control without the (often) aversive stimulus going away.

    What behavior that’s not under aversive control? (I think this is where the hexaflex comes in- not as a definition of flexibility but as a tool for training it.)

    Well in the presence of aversives, we practice:
    attending to something, anything and then something else, anything
    attending to thoughts that dominate and then to other stuff
    attend to the aversive stimulatoon itself and all it’s stimulus products
    attend to their experience of themselves and the aversive situation from other perspectives
    attend to what might be available that matters
    and do stuff to approach stuff that matters

  4. Interesting and courageous post! But I never thought of Acceptance as a feeling or a stance. It seems to me like one of the most precisely defined hexaflex terms, as it’s usually explained as being in opposition to EA. So I find it useful to think of Acceptance as disengaging from experiential avoidance – which seems to me like a concrete skill.

    • Fascinating discussion. The more I have started considering what acceptance actually means the further I seem to find my thinking clouded and confused by various possible explanations. It seems to me intuitively to mean being open to experiences in the sense of not blocking or pushing them away. I particularly like the view of Alan Pogrebinschi above regarding being in opposition to EA.

      • Yes I agree. This is how I think of acceptance Alan and Teresa. I run into problems with some clients in using the word acceptance, such as people with chronic pain as it can be associated with giving up, putting up with or not seeking change which then incurs resistance. So talking about openness, coming into contact with your experience , getting to know rather than struggle or push away our experience can be more helpful

  5. I have to say that I really appreciate everyone’s thoughts here; they have been really helpful for me. It feels like many of us are on the same page – willingness /acceptance can be defined simply as ‘not avoidance’. That makes much more sense to me and overcomes a lot of my previous worries. However, if willingness exercises are basically training our clients to see that ‘avoidance may not be helping’ then that doesn’t quite map onto the hexaflex i.e. let’s replace willingness on the hexaflex with ‘Undermining Avoidance’ and delete often confusing overlapping definitions like ‘willingness is an action, that is done with an open, accepting and curious stance’.

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