Willfulness Plus Willingness Yields Character


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: )

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.

21 thoughts on “Willfulness Plus Willingness Yields Character

  1. They definitely learn for experience, and they do find a way to profit from another’s perspective, although not directly as the rest of us. The impulsive tendency they have is exaggerated by their flight or flight response, unable to use the third “freeze” response most people disregard when analysing responses. The important feature to the freeze response is for some people is disassociation, the tool the manipulator uses frequently to get what they want. If they don’t like what you say they either flight (and use your perspective at a later date against you), or if the ego is threatened; fight. One way some do this is to completely “flip” your perspective of life around by reacting in a way that in abnormal. This puts us in a “freeze” state, a vulnerable state to them (which is why they don’t use it themselves). Is the contradictories or perspectives are large enough, dissasociative trance begins; as done by most cult leaders. This may be why the affects on their victims mirror PTSD survivors of wartime?

    1. When I read this-something occurs to me-and that is how different I am from my mother.

      As a narcissist-she will never get the spiritual side of things-she just doesn’t have that capacity. Nor for true honesty.

      She had some issues with addiction many years ago. All she did was stop taking the med. Nothing changed because she can’t get three things necessary for a 12 step program to work-four things actually.

      Honesty (she is honest as far as I know in daily life, but the honesty that you need-to see the effect of your own behaviour).

      The no contract has helped me to find some peace. It’s easier on my anxiety, moodiness, and the stress just isn’t there anymore.

      I spent many years in therapy frustrated, suffering from severe anxiety, active addiction, due to being unable to set boundaries with her-I tried but she didn’t respect them. Or if she did-it never lasted. And what I call the crazy-making (AKA, “it’s your mental problems”) never let up.

      The source of stress is gone. I have day to day stress, that is much more manageable now. I can function-pretty well too.

      I set healthy boundaries with myself. That’s where it starts.

      “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways.
      Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.”

                                      ~Proverbs 4:23-27

      All are concepts she won’t u understand. And because of this-will never change. I have compassion for the wounded child she was to be like this.

      And for myself. I pray for her. And that’s all I can do.

      1. JC,
        I am wondering if you saw narcissism as a choice. I am wondering why my daughter and son have narc characteristics and others raised by narcs do not. I left the ex when my kids were 8 and 10 yrs old. I know that’s very late in the formation of character stage, but they have had me for an example since then. My two grown kids know what their Dad was and I was hoping they would not choose to take on his character. Neither are anywhere to the degree he was and I don’t know if I could label them as narcissists, I just know they both lie at times, manipulate at times and lack empathy almost all the time, but nowhere to the degree of their Dad. They didn’t see their Dad for a very long time until he moved here and they were grown by then. After being around the ex I thought narcissism seemed to be a form of mental illness, but that I believe is just one theory.

        1. Kat,

          I don’t think that it was a choice for the narcissist to be a narc-given that abuse is what normally causes this type of problem. But I do think in all of the hurtful things she has said and done that were either nasty insults (being called things I wouldn’t repeat in mixed company, or having her tell people I was psychotic when I was in a coma-she knew exactly what she was doing, and didn’t care if it caused me harm-those things were a choice on part.

          Being a narc-in her case, I don’t think it was-the abuse made her that way-but it doesn’t mean I have to tolerate it.

        2. Kat,

          I think sometimes if you have only one (like one isn’t enough) narc parent-genetics may be part of it.

          But who really knows?

          God has a plan for all of us, including narcs.

          1. JC, my ex was from an abusive background-both mental and physical. I suppose there are many paths to being a narc. I put both my grown kids in God’s hands and decided I will have a relationship with them thru intercessory prayer if nothing else. I always have hope, because in God we can always hope, it is not too big for God. Sounds like your healthy boundaries are working well for you, you certainly don’t have to set yourself up for abuse, it just never stops with them. Its not possible to have a relationship with those who are not capable of it. Its very sad but its out of our control.

        3. Kat,
          My children did the same, followed their narc father despite the fact they hate much of what he did to all 3 of us. I think the nail on the head here is some see humility and compassion as weakness.
          So when you “freeze” or lets say “defer” because that’s a positive choice when a narc is trying to control the narc really thinks they’re winning!!!

          I just had a conversation with one son and his in laws. It was regarding a subject that they “seem” to have very strong loyalties to!!! LOL!
          When I said you wouldn’t have to pay taxes on your retirement pension if living in a non-taxing state, they immediately tried to dismiss me speaking only to each other.
          In my head I laughed as it was quite obvious what they were doing. They all had this mantra ready saying oh yes you do have to pay taxes on pension and draws on the annuity in IL.
          Instead of getting upset as they’ve tried to do to me in the past I smiled and withdrew from their childish nonsense! Obviously they probably thought I was shut down.
          What I was actually thinking was, well you all go ahead and think that and I guess pay your taxes like a toll booth, me I’m moving to a non-taxing state in a few years and I will gladly pay my Federal tax and keep my State tax in my account!!!
          I recognize God as My higher power…render to Caesar what is his and to GOD what is His!!!
          P.S. I went to the retirement meeting 2 times now and talked with our accountant many times regarding, but what do I know??? 🙂

    1. JC,

      I think its great you knew you needed therapy and took the initive to seek the help and support you needed. Since you first started posting I can tell how much you have taken back your life and are being you. In a very short period of time look what you have accomplished. I think you are making positive decisions in your life and above all putting your trust in God.

      You put a smile on my face.


  2. In regard to willingness, I’ve been the pleaser far too long and have finally now recognized this in myself and am trying to be conscious of when I’m trying to please rather than doing what I prefer to do. It’s never too late to change. I’m nearly 60 now and have finally opened my eyes to all these traits that I have, which in the past I thought they were good qualities to have. Now I’ve learned how going overboard on any good quality can get oneself into predicaments and situations that are unhealthy.

    Bowing down to other’s suggestions too readily is something I hope to put behind me. It’s difficult to undo traits (I guess you call it that) , traits that have become part of oneself for so long that they become natural and without aforethought. I intend to change that, to think first, to stick to my guns if it’s the best decision for me.

    Once away from an abusive marriage, I’ve come to know myself so much better, know the good and the bad. It’s been enlightening to get out of that funky fog that a CD can bring to a person.

    1. Lucy,

      I can’t agree with you more about being a people pleaser. I still have to catch myself when I am doing it, its just that I want to see others happy. I realize now if I am going to make someone happy, its because I want to but not for the same reasons I did before.

      Another thing you mention is bowing to anothers suggestion rather than deciding for oneself. Yes, we can change, its a matter of catching ourselves doing it. I think the more we take care of our needs we will or at least I do, I start to feel uncomfortable.

      I think its good to get the opinion of a trusted confidant at times and then weigh ones options.

      Yes, once away, it is wonderful to feel at peace and to know ourselves. Its wonderful to share the positive changes we have made.


    2. Lucy,
      I started reading a book on codependency and wow, my eyes were opened to what a people pleaser I am. I really didn’t realize it and what it looked like. Maybe its more common among women. I agree with BTOV, once you start seeing it and identifying when its happening you can make changes.

      1. Kat,

        These are to very good books to read:
        Who is Pulling Your Strings and Disease to Please by Harriet Braiker
        Codependency is a good part of realizing in oneself. Though there is a health dependency and then a unhealty one.

        Kat, it is hard to do, but many times we have to let go and watch the fall of our loved ones instead of rescueing them. They may in the end hate you and be resentful you didn’t bail them out. However, this gut wretching fall or continued falls may be what that person needs in order to have there “Come to Jesus Moment.”

        Its is a difficult thing to do, at the same times in order for us to stay in our integrity it is many times the wise thing to do and that is cutting ties.


          1. BTOV, thanks for the book recommendations. Will definitely check them out as this is one of my main problems. I have social phobia, being an introvert and shy, and this all ties in to thinking what others think of me defines me. This doesn’t correlate with Gods Word.
            Funny you mention not rescuing, there was an incident this past weekend with my son that involved him paying a lot of consequences for not planning a trip. He wanted me to rescue him but I said no, that’s the result of not planning. I told him to just take it as a learning experience. He is not happy with me. He lied and tried to manipulate me and it was his habit of flying by the seat of his pants that got him into a pickle. I don’t want to have to disrespect myself in order to have a relationship with my grown kids. That’s does a real number on your self worth. One thing about knowing God, I can always have hope for them. Thanks for your input BTOV, it is helpful and wise.

        1. Kat & BTOV,

          When it comes to healthy boundaries, there is an excellent series of books that I think of when I read your posts-I have read them though not in years (and actually have recently pulled them off my bookshelf for a read). It is a series by Drs. Cloud and Townsend on boundaries. The titles I am referring to are:

          Safe People
          Changes that Heal
          How People Grow

          And since that series there have been additional ones that are related-Boundaries in Dating, Boundaries in Marriage, the Mom Factor (I have this one too). And Kat, even one on Boundaries with Children (something to that effect). I got mine on Amazon.

          Moreover, the series is biblicaly based-that’s actually where I found the quote from Proverbs that I posted earlier.

          Though were I have struggled is enforcing these boundaries. For years, I have found one excuse and rationalization not to set limits with my mother-that she’s getting older (we both are), and well, you name it. But once I “took the plunge” it has gotten much better.

          Recovery is about health boundaries but when healing from a toxic relationship like the one you will have with a narc, since what you learn in a relationship of any kind with a narc-is NO boundaries. For me, these books helped me to be able to recognize when someone is not a “safe person.” It isn’t like I learned that one at home.

          What I learned in addition to no boundaries with my mother is also many bad habits that I am un-learning.

          1. JC, I have read the boundaries book by those authors, I even took a “class” for it in a local church. Excellent book, I didn’t know about the others, I would read anything they wrote. The codependent book I am reading is also a Christian based book-I find it much preferable to read a Christian book so I don’t have to filter everything thru my “God filter”. My parents were not narcs but they had a very poor sense of boundary. My Dad was alcoholic, my Mom a passive enabler. I have to unlearn as well, my Mom was such a people pleaser it was crippling for her. I don’t want to live like that! I started dealing with my daughters aggression a different way, not taking it anymore. The chips will fall where they will, same with my son. I don’t want to lose my self-respect. And in the end what kind of example am I if I do? Unlearning bad habits is what I am focusing on as well – its worth it no matter what your age, I am in my 60’s.

    3. Lucy and BTOV,
      I sooo agree with you both! I was a people pleaser my whole life as well. I was completely set up for it by family of origin. Love was never a word heard in our home growing up, except maybe by me! I was starved by my mother. I’d beg to help her in the kitchen just to talk to her about how lonely I was. She’d agree to let me peel potatoes etc, so long as I shut up. If I asked her why she didn’t like me she’d say “oh stop it and get out of here”.
      She often mocked me as I cried. I begged my family for love but never seemed to get any.
      Leaving home at 16 with a baby of my own, I thought the world was different. So, naturally I had nothing but compassion for others thinking it would be reciprocated. LOL we all know that does not happen.
      So, I thought my kids, if I love them, they will love me back!!! And here I am typing on a blog to say that too is not the case. But, what I have learned is that I’m no longer hungry for the love this world has to offer. I love God and others but I no longer desire love from siblings or kids or even my grandkids as my son is using them again to try and hurt me. Saw them 2x’s recently. My son had my grandson come over by me to tell me how much he loves me!
      He’s 4. He was eating green candies, as soon as he hugged me he put his face in my stomach with his mouth and put green candy on my white top. He pulled back examined it laughed and smiled at his dad across the table!
      How sad to use a child to hurt a loving grandma?
      He came over for a visit and in all the time I’ve watched him (a lot) he never once peed on the floor. Suddenly his sister is on the toilet and she’s yelling noooo!! I go in there to find my grandson standing behind her on the toilet peeing all over her dress the floor and toilet laughing his head off???
      By the time we retire if things are much worse, I’m moving without ever telling them!!!
      Peee on that!

  3. Priscilla, that’s terrible what your son put your grandson up to. That’s abusive and very damaging. I hope you are establishing boundaries, this is not anything you should have to be around. Shame on your son and his wife, that’s just sick and so unfortunate.

  4. Kat,
    Yes, I know. I’m pretty sure the son I thought I knew was really always a narcissist all along. Every time we recount a memory from early on we see how he was veering towards the left.
    It’s so sad to see my precious little grandkids being polluted and their innocence swiped away from them.
    Yes, I’m spending much less time with them as I know how futile it really is to try to be in relationship with people who really think so highly of themselves.

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