We all know willful people. You know, the determined, headstrong type. Some folks are innately tough-minded. Others become that way as a result of their formative experiences. In any case, willfulness is a most interesting character trait.
Parental discipline plays a key role in helping children develop sound character. But parenting strong-willed children is particularly challenging. No one wants their children to be pushovers. But it’s really hard to teach important lessons to the overly stubborn. To cultivate character, parents must succeed in bending their child’s will when necessary while taking care not to break their spirit.
Willfulness has both a positive and a negative side. Determined, driven, and decisive individuals can be high achievers. But they can also be notoriously stubborn and uncooperative. Properly formed and guided, a strong will can be one’s foremost asset. But an ill-formed, misguided will can be a great liability. And that’s true for both oneself and others.
Willingness is not the opposite of willfulness. However, it’s an important counterbalancing force. It’s hard to define willingness accurately. It’s certainly characterized by receptivity and openness. And such attributes are essential making the crucial life changes that grow a person in character. I’ve written about this before. (See, for example:)
But healthy willingness is more than just being open and receptive. One has to be eager to move forward in growth. And one has to be wholehearted about the endeavor, too. To properly grow in character, you have to want to be in better moral and spiritual shape. The founders of the 12 steps to recovery from addiction summed it up. They assert that one word characterizes what’s essential to turn things around: willingness. Specifically, it’s the willingness to turn one’s life and will over to a “higher power” or governing principle.
Character Disturbance and Willfulness
Forging healthy character is largely about getting the balance right on many dimensions. And that’s particularly true when it comes to willingness vs. willfulness. To be sure, some folks are overly willing. They’re simply too receptive and agreeable. They’re far too ready to accommodate the wishes of others. This makes them prime targets of abuse. Disturbed characters are drawn to the overly willing. They relish the opportunity to dominate and control.
By and large, disturbed characters are too willful for their own good or the good of anyone else. They’re not open to seeing things differently or doing things differently. It’s not that they don’t learn from experience. (Mental health professionals used to believe this was true.) Rather, they don’t seem to profit from experience. That’s because they’re unwilling to allow life’s lessons to reshape their approach. Their excessive willfulness blocks out the willingness necessary for character growth.
How It Happens
I have a lot to say about character formation in Character Disturbance. I focus particularly on the most problematic characters: narcissists and the various aggressive personalities. (For more on these topics see: )
- Dispelling Narcissistic Personality Misconceptions
- Beyond Mere Narcissism: The Aggressive Personalities
Narcissists never develop healthy willingness because they respect no higher power. It’s both a psychological and deeply spiritual dilemma. Some narcissists can’t even conceive of a power greater than themselves. Others simply have no respect for one.
The aggressive personalities actually recognize many higher powers in their lives. But they’re most often at war with them. They’re determined not to be subordinate. They defer to no one. To them, willingness is far too much like surrender or defeat. And that’s something they’ll never do freely.
Perhaps the most troubling character of all is the covert-aggressor. They’re the topic of my book In Sheep’s Clothing. They make you feel crazy. (See: Gaslighting Victims Question their Sanity.) Some recognize no higher power. Others are at war with the higher powers they acknowledge. But in any case they conceal their true sentiments. They’re out to dominate, for sure. And they sometimes succeed by making you think they’re doing anything but. That’s how they get the better of you. They throw you on the defensive. But they make it difficult for you to see them for the brutes they are.
A Properly Formed and Guided Will
Over the next few weeks I’ll be talking more about character and will. And I’ll be particularly focusing on how a healthy will is properly shaped and guided.