If You Feel Like You Have an Insatiable Need for Control, Read This

Effort doesn't always work in your favor. Sometimes, it even works against you.

For many of us, 2020 has been a year of desperately attempting to cling on to some elusive level of certainty.

I've wanted to write about this topic for a very long time, but I never quite had the words to explain it. Now, I do. This year has delivered so many unexpected blows that I've had no choice but to learn from experience.

Let me start here: I was someone who did very well in school by learning (and excelling at) "the game of school" — put in effort, get a reward. This served me really well until the day after I graduated college. That's when I learned that the world operates in an ass-backwards kind of way.

For example, the more desperate you are for love, the less likely you are to get it. The more confident you try to be, the more anxiety that bubbles up. The more respect you demand, the less people take you seriously. The more you try to ensure you avoid pain, the more you suffer.

In other words, it's the opposite of what you learned in school: Effort doesn't always work in your favor. Sometimes, it even works against you.

I know what you're thinking: "Yeah, yeah Polina. But when my head's on fire and my heart is beating out of control, am I supposed to kick back, put my feet up, and watch three seasons of America's Next Top Model?" (That actually sounds kind of nice...but no.)

The truth is that when things go wrong, your instinct is to hold on tighter. To worry more. To resist with everything you have. So how do you override these very natural human impulses?

Through The Profile, I've studied many people who have come to master their emotional state in order to become mentally resilient. Here are several techniques I've learned that may be useful in relinquishing control during the situations that matter.

First, I was intrigued by Hugh Jackman's ability to let go and relax when he's on stage. Before a role, he does a significant amount of research on the character, and he makes choices ahead of time that will eventually play out in the scene. But his best moments have come from leaving room for spontaneity. “I actually think you need to risk being bad,” Jackman says. “Just … let it be.”

Easier said than done, right? But then, he discovered the "85% rule." The rule states that intensity, force, or stress should never override form, technique, and preparation.

Jackman elaborates: “A sprint coach realized that [Olympian] Carl Lewis did nothing at the 50-meter mark; his breathing and form was exactly the same. Other runners would try to push harder, clenching their fists, scrunching their faces. But Carl Lewis stayed exactly the same—and went on to breeze past the others.”

It’s like that with everything in life — the more you try to force something, the less optimal your performance. If you aim for 85% energy expenditure and reserve the other 15% for mental and physical calm, you'll gain greater control over your own body.

I was recently working on a deep-dive on David Goggins, who has completed three Navy SEAL “hell weeks," more than 50 endurance races, and holds the Guinness World Record for most pull-ups (4,030) in 24 hours. He's mastered the ability to stay calm in chaotic and emotionally-taxing situations.

"The key is to quiet your mind while in mental hell and embrace whatever obstacle is in front of you with open arms," he says. "We must learn to conserve energy and to control the emotional and mental stresses of our setbacks."

SEAL training teaches candidates the difficult task of gaining control over their physiology. They use a principle called "The Four Pillars of Mental Toughness," which includes goal-setting, mental visualization, positive self-talk, and arousal control.

Arousal control — intentionally regulating your emotional response — is the most interesting because it's a skill very few people possess. When the average person is under intense stress, they start sweating, their heart starts racing, and the mind goes blank. But SEALs learn how to override the body's natural responses in the most extreme circumstances.

For example, Navy SEALs’ heart rates often drop when they are engaged in combat, and athletes describe a state of tunnel vision and effortless excellence in high-pressure situations.

The problem is that you can't teach yourself to regulate your physiological and psychological instincts when you're sitting comfortably on your couch. You need to put yourself in challenging situations where you can be "stress-tested."

Ultra-marathoner Courtney Dauwalter has managed to stay calm even through bouts of severe nausea, a bleeding head injury, and temporary blindness. Although she tries to prepare herself mentally for some of the more painful endurance races, she can’t get to that level of pain on her daily training runs. You’re stress-tested, she says, on the day of the actual race.

Most of us are conditioned to think we need to avoid pain at all costs. But here's a different perspective: Dauwalter talks about pain as an actual place: she visualizes herself entering "the pain cave." The reason it’s helpful to personify pain is that it serves as a reminder that you’re in control when you enter and equally as aware that you can leave. “It’s not a place I’m scared to enter,” she says. “It’s a place I’m excited to find the entrance to.”

Do you know who you are after running for 19 hours straight with no sleep? Do you know who you are when someone manipulates your emotions? Do you know who you are when you hit rock bottom?

Sometimes, you enter "the pain cave" voluntarily and other times, life shoves you in there against your will. I've had several experiences this year where a) my plans burned to the ground b) things went (very) wrong, and c) trusted friends blindsided me.

I could feel my stomach in knots, my heart racing, and my brain fuming. And yet the secret to staying calm and at peace is to learn how to relinquish control of the external circumstance at a moment when that control is all you crave.

As 2020 has proven, none of us are immune to life’s most soul-crushing challenges. The only thing we know for certain is that the world will continue to be random and chaotic. “Conflict is going to find us. It is the rare, pathetically-privileged person that doesn’t get their fair share of hardship,” rock climber Tommy Caldwell says.

At the same time, you can’t live life resisting what’s to come. Here’s a mindset that has carried Caldwell through some dark times: “Hardship is inevitable, so put your goggles on, and face the wind. If we allow ourselves to be exposed to challenge, then that challenge can energize us and show us who we are."

Remember, you may not have control over other people and circumstances, but you have control over your own emotional sobriety.


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