In everyday life, willingness can be defined as a readiness, desire, inclination or preparedness.

However, in the field of behavioral health, willingness has a slightly different meaning. This is due, in large part, to how the term is utilized in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) literature, namely the 12 Steps.

Step Three in the 12 X 12 contains the verbiage:  “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”  Essentially, this statement has two components: first, the person must openly acknowledge that the life previously driven by his or her own desires and actions led to discomfort [consequences] and often a destructive addiction; and second, he/she must take the intentional action of surrendering his entire life to a higher power. This step naturally and inevitably leads to the action required to engage Step 4 – preparing a searching and fearless moral inventory.

This concept of willingness continues to show up throughout many aspects of 12 Step recovery, because the truth is, willingness isn’t just an idea. True willingness takes effort and action; it is a key aspect of ongoing recovery.  In the early days of recovery, having a small amount of willingness can make a huge difference in a person’s struggle on their path of recovery. The counter balance of this willingness is willfulness. Willfulness is really just our unbridled will. To have things, life, relationships, and fun just the way we want it.  You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “I want what I want when I want it.” This is what we call self-will run riot, and the essence of addiction.

So willfulness and willingness are at opposite ends of the spectrum. But the steps that lead to those opposite ends are often taken in small incremental steps. In other words a small amount of willingness can go a long way towards healthier choices and a better life. This kind of willingness is where the person in recovery makes a choice to listen to someone else and demonstrates a willingness to consider doing something a different way than he/she would have chosen on his or her own.

For example, when someone comes into residential treatment at MARR, they are asked to follow some simple rules, that, no doubt, many believe are stupid and make no sense. They can’t for the life of them understand how not dipping or smoking in the apartment has anything to do with their ability to stay sober long term. We ask for their willingness to follow these simple [but hard to follow] rules.  We know as counselors that their willingness in this instance is not a guarantee of long term recovery, but this decision and subsequent action takes them a step closer to experiencing surrender and learning more about willingness.

Willfulness would say, those rules are stupid and won’t make any difference in my being able to stay sober; but Willingness would say, I think this rule is stupid, but it must be there for a reason, and my best thinking got me into the mess I’m in, I will follow this rule.

In our Men’s Recovery Center, our patients demonstrate both willingness and willfulness throughout treatment; they vacillate between our way and their way, between their way or God’s way. Perhaps one of the greatest moments that willingness comes into play is when they realize they might need to confront one of their peers in the therapeutic community.  One of the primary reasons why the therapeutic community works is it provides many opportunities for men to truly be themselves [warts & all]. While each man allows the real self to come out and interact with other community members, eventually conflict occurs. This is precisely when the man in treatment is forced to make a decision about their willingness to confront the issue with their peer or remain angry, resentful, and sullen. So at the prompting of a peer in his community or his counselor at MARR or his 12 Step sponsor, he may choose to be willing to confront his peer. All kinds of fears go through his mind – like I have to live with this guy, or I’ll just wait it out and see if he changes on his own. If he is willing to be direct and talk with his peer about his struggle, there is an opportunity for honesty, integrity, and growth. This willingness is monumental and demonstrates growth and doing things differently than he has ever done before.

Sometimes in the struggle to become willing to confront a peer, it seems to be too big of a step and a counselor may ask him, “Are you willing to be willing to consider confronting your peer?”   Sometimes men find it a bit easier to be willing to become willing. This isn’t just a play on words or double talk. It really is an invitation for the individual to consider if he is even willing to become willing to consider this. So it’s less of a long and scary step. He may say – Yes I’m willing to be willing to consider talking with my roommate about this issue. This is not a complete decision, but an early consideration and processing things in recovery is a necessity.  This underscores how critical willingness is for people in recovery.

The bottom line is the action associated with willingness is fundamental to successful recovery. First he must display willingness to surrender to another way of seeing and doing, remain open to others, and ultimately to surrender to God. Being open to others and demonstrating some humility to not necessarily choose his own way – is rarely easy, but critical to growth, change, and progress in recovery.