SOF selection requires that you develop a close relationship with pain.
This doesn’t just mean lots of dramatic grimacing for the camera. Eventually, successful experiences teach you that pain can be just a signpost along a familiar path. It tells you something about where you are, but it’s not a stop sign or even a warning sign. It’s just a signal to be calibrated.
Pain Without Suffering
We can feel and acknowledge the discomfort, and simultaneously prevent ourselves from making it worse with an emotional response. We can no longer react to the itch with a scratch. The goal is to rationally analyze thoughts and feelings that well up during intense exertion, without adding to them: To learn to be in pain without suffering.
Pain, much like fatigue, isn’t a straightforward signal. Fatigue is not directly related to how much glucose you’ve got left or your physiological potential to continue an activity. It’s a surprisingly malleable, complex, and predictive emotion. It’s derived from real-time physiological data alongside things like your mood, motivation, and predictions based on past experiences. It’s as much about how tired you think you should be as what’s happening in your muscles.
Pain is similar. Our perception of pain isn’t just the direct result of a signal that perfectly correlates with injury or tissue damage. It’s a predictive emotion that’s heavily influenced by the focus of our attention. Like fatigue, our feelings of pain have a basis in real-time physiological data but are also heavily dependent on what we’re paying attention to, how we process the things that we experience, and how much we think something should hurt.
Consider, for example, a case reported in the British Medical Journal in 1995. A 29-year old construction worker jumped onto a plank and a 7-inch nail punched completely through his boot. He was in excruciating pain and was started on opioids at the hospital. When the doctors removed the boot, they realized that the nail had passed cleanly between his toes. This doesn’t mean that the pain that the man felt wasn’t real. It just illustrates how emotions like panic and fear can compound our expectations of how we think we should feel, and in turn, what we do feel. The pain that he felt was just as real as if he’d truly had a nail punched through his foot. When he gained new information that enabled him to change his opinion of the situation, his pain immediately resolved.
In another case, reported in 2007, a man – another construction worker – unexpectedly discharged a nail gun. He felt a thump in the side of his face but didn’t notice any significant damage. Just a little bruising under his jaw and a toothache. Six days later, after working, eating, sleeping, and going about his life as usual, he went to the dentist. An x-ray revealed a 4-inch nail embedded in his head. He didn’t experience much pain because he didn’t expect to feel pain based on the information that he had available.
So, pain is a much more fluid concept than we often believe. It doesn’t necessarily correlate with tissue damage or anything particularly problematic. Sometimes, it’s just an erroneous, overly-strident signal in our minds. If we can manage our thoughts and attention and put ourselves through experiences that help us to recalibrate these signals, we can change our relationship with pain in different contexts.
This brings us back to SOF selection.
It’s hard to metabolically break a healthy body. Surprisingly few of those who wash out of selection courses do so because of injuries, medical issues, or even performance failures. Most of the time, they simply quit. While those who voluntarily leave these courses are physically capable of continuing, they’re forced to accept a new reality: They don’t want to.
The Will to Persist vs. The Urge to Stop
Although our bodies can persevere through extreme levels of fatigue, that doesn’t mean that they do so happily. The harder we push, the more negative feedback we get. Our minds and bodies turn up the volume, bit by bit, screaming at us to slow down, to stop, to get back to the comfortable embrace of equilibrium.
In most physical activities, we hit a ceiling because our drive to keep going becomes overwhelmed by our urge to stop or slow down. Very few honest people ever finish a short, painful workout like a 500-meter row or a 1.5-mile run and think “I couldn’t have gone harder for even one second of that.”
Much of that inhibitory urge is driven by pain and our responses to it. When we start to feel the discomfort of extreme exertion, we react. It can be likened to a fear response. It’s not conscious, it’s just scratching an itch. We feel pain and we pull back, like a hand from a hot stove.
But the funny thing about the pain that we feel in endurance activities is that it’s rarely reflective of our physiological limits. A hot stove would burn your hand, but if you pushed through the signals telling you to slow down on a run you’d just be a little more uncomfortable while running faster. Not all fears are rational.
Paradoxical Intention Overview
Years ago, the holocaust survivor and therapist Viktor Frankl coined the term paradoxical intention. The idea is to encourage people to engage in behaviors that they fear most. If there are monsters under your bed, you crawl under there and find out what they’re up to. This helps to change their perceptions of their fears, and make them less intimidating. It often involves a sort of dark humor, in which we learn to laugh at the things that make us uncomfortable.
It’s often used for things like phobias or recursive anxieties. These are anxieties that can sustain and worsen themselves over time. For example, if someone finds blushing to be extremely embarrassing, then the slightest hint of blushing would make them feel instantly embarrassed, which would make them blush more, and on and on.
This can play out in physical efforts as well, depending on how you react to physical discomfort. If the painful sensations of fatigue make you feel stressed and reactive and increase your desire to quit, then that stress response will worsen the feelings of fatigue. Pain triggers negative self-talk and shines the spotlight of your attention on your discomfort, which heightens your perception of pain, which turns up the volume on the self-talk, and on it goes.
Paradoxical intention is meant to break this cycle by having people try to do the thing that holds them in fear.
The person embarrassed by blushing in social situations tries to blush as much as they can, so brightly that people have to shield their eyes from the red glow.
Someone terrified of public speaking who is afraid that their heart will beat so fast that they’ll have a heart attack practices public speaking and deliberately tries to raise their heart rate as high as they can.
Someone struggling to fall asleep consciously lets go of the idea of trying to sleep. Instead, they either calmly accept the idea that they may not sleep at all, or they actively try to stay awake while lying still in bed. It’s often easier to sleep when the self-imposed pressure to sleep is gone.
While nobody in SOF selection is ever likely to use the phrase “paradoxical intent” it’s not an uncommon experience in practice. Sometimes, in a moment of intense discomfort, candidates will try to see if it’s really possible to do any of the things that their brain is warning them about if they keep pushing.
In 2004 I was in SWCC selection, on a conditioning run on the beach in Coronado.
We were chasing an alarmingly fit instructor over sand dunes, around rocks, and along the water’s edge, trying to keep up well enough to avoid the ‘goon squad’.
That’s anyone who’s too slow. You don’t want to be there.
Up ahead of me, the instructor stopped. The fastest students fell in behind him, next to a support truck. In the back of that truck were our canteens, water, and the promise of a moment’s respite.
The instructor stood facing the line of students still running towards him, his hand raised overhead like a tomahawk. As one last student passed under his arm, he brought his hand down in front of me, marking the cutoff for the goon squad, and pointed to the ocean.
I was ten feet away. So close.
“Goon squad, hit the surf!”
It was time to pay the man.
Without slowing down I took a hard left and ran straight into the ocean, still wearing my boots and uniform. I went in to my knees and collapsed under a wave, soaking myself from head to toe.
I ran back toward the instructor, my uniform weighed down heavily and my boots sloshing with saltwater.
“Front lean and rest position, go!“
Down I went into the pushup position.
Behind me, slower students were still catching up, making it to the cutoff point and bee-lining for the surf zone for their “fresh coat of wet”. Being the fastest slow guy just meant I got more time in the pushup position.
Once the rest of the pack had caught up, it was beatdown time.
Pushups, burpees, flutter kicks, and sand. Sand everywhere, sticking to our wet clothes, abrading our skin, getting in our ears. Every weekend we’d get a haircut at a barbershop in Coronado for Monday’s personnel inspection. You’d hear the scissors crunching through sand.
Finally, we got a reprieve from our pushups and mountain climbers. We were allowed a quick gulp of water and the running resumed. By now the instructors and the small pack of fast guys had gotten a decent rest, so they were off like a shot.
Behind us was another instructor in the truck on his bullhorn.
“It pays to be a winner! Better to keep up than catch up, isn’t it gents?”
This was one of those low points that come along regularly in selection.
Everything hurt, there was no end in sight, and it was going to get worse before it was over. We hadn’t even made it to the turnaround point yet.
This was the first of several times that I tried an experiment.
Already, I had been in the selection pipeline for more than a year and a half. And over the course of that time, I’d developed a slogan: hurt fast or hurt slow. You see, in times like this, everything is painful enough that the discomfort becomes a constant. It doesn’t matter much if you’re sprinting as hard as you can or easing off just enough to hang in the middle of the pack.
Whether you’re moving fast or slow, it’s all just a blur of suffering. As soon as it’s over most of it fades from your memory. The only thing that sticks around is whether or not you did what was required.
Stopping wasn’t an option. That would mean a humiliating dismissal from the course.
On the other side of the spectrum was actual physical breakdown. I was already pushing my body about as hard as I thought possible.
If I pushed just a little more, surely something had to break. I wanted to see how much hurt fast I could tolerate, because at the end of that rainbow I’d hopefully black myself out and crash in the sand.
The cool thing was that this was kind of OK. True physical failure was acceptable, as long as you didn’t mentally give up and you didn’t make a pattern out of it.
Hypoglycemia, hypothermia, hypoxia… There were any number of ways to exceed your body’s limits, and when that happened, the medics would snag you, bring you just back to the realm of a functioning human, and send you back on your merry way into the pushup position.
Right now, I just wanted that little rest. I wanted to know what was on the other side of this pain. What was it that some part of my mind was fighting against, pulling me away from?
Hopefully – and logically – it would be a quick nap, face down in the sand.
Surely I could do that through a little more sheer exertion.
I put my eyes on the back of the instructor who was already bolting for the horizon and tried to set myself on fire to catch him. I told myself that it would all be over in a few minutes and sprinted with everything I had.
Eventually, heaving with soreness, drooling on myself, with sand sticking to the snot on my face, I was at the front of the pack, right behind the instructor. And I was still running. Everything hurt even more, but I could still keep going.
Craig’s experience was not unique. Once you’ve spent enough time at what feels like the edge of your physical breaking point, you get curious. You want to know what would really happen if you crossed the line.
Many candidates at some point find themselves asking, “what happens if I just try to push myself so hard that I break?” Instead of avoiding the dark corners of their minds, they go deeper into them. They make them their home.
Our bodies can handle a lot more than we usually believe, as long as our minds are willing to come along for the ride. Those who go through these experiences learn that what felt like a physical breaking point was simply an erroneous signal. It was just pain, one more signpost along the road.
There are two basic ways to apply the concept of paradoxical intention.
With either one, it’s crucial to focus on metabolic limits, not the limits of your connective tissues. It’s hard to break yourself by running, rowing, or echo biking as fast as you can for as long as you can. It’s very easy to break yourself with loaded movements that compromise your joints under fatigue. You want the stress to be on your heart, muscles, and lungs. Not your ACLs and shoulder labrums.
Paradoxical Intention Method 1: Let go
This is the “F-it, send it” version of paradoxical intention.
Here, you consciously let go of your urge to fight against the pain that you’re experiencing, or the worries that you have about what it may imply. You calmly and deliberately accept whatever might happen and keep going.
Basically, whatever worst-case scenario that your imagination can cook up is met with the phrase “it’ll work itself out.”
“If I keep running this hard I’m going to pass out/puke on myself/poop my pants. And I’m ok with that. It’ll work itself out.”
Paradoxical Intention Method 2: Chase your Demons
This method is directly paradoxical. You decide that it’s Opposite Day.
Here, you try, as hard as you can, to do the thing that you’re afraid of. This is what Craig was doing on that run when he decided to sprint as hard as he could with the goal of blacking himself out.
Instead of just accepting that if you push hard into the pain that something bad might happen, you actively try to accomplish it.
“If I keep running this hard I’m going to pass out/puke on myself/poop my pants. And that’s what I’m going to do.”
This process can teach you several things:
- However much pain you’re in now, it can still hurt worse
- No matter how much it hurts, you can still keep going
- When it’s over, the exact degree of pain that you felt along the way won’t really matter
- The things you tell yourself about what pain might mean are mostly fairy tales
- Choosing to push harder into pain is extremely difficult. So is accepting that it’s a choice. Your choice.
Pain is an inescapable part of life. How you train your mind to interact with it is up to you. With the right approach, you can learn to be in pain without suffering, even in the worst moments.