The grocery store is just about the only place I’ve been able to interact with human beings outside of my home lately. It’s given me the chance to observe some people shine in a crisis, where others struggle.
There are so many people there now, acting in so many interesting and unusual ways that I don’t get the chance to see in normal times.
I saw one man browsing the aisles, carefree as if he didn’t have, by my estimation, 8 GALLONS of disinfectant solution in his cart. Later, I discovered he intended to resell the cleaner for profit.
I saw a woman upset that there were no bags of rice left, and another woman nearby freely offer up the bag from her own cart. She said that she didn’t need it too badly, she could wait a little longer.
I saw one older lady absolutely reaming a store employee who was stocking produce. She was upset about the 2-count limit that the store had recently imposed on certain items. She decided that this young man was to blame. And blame she did.
I saw that young man, and many other employees, show up to work at the risk of their personal health. They were getting their jobs done and endeavoring to maintain a brave and positive attitude while surrounded by panic and aggression.
Hard times tend to bring out an ugliness lurking in some people. At the same time, we see others rise to the occasion. The light of their courage, compassion, and leadership flourish in the darkness.
Who do you want to be when the chips are down? Do you want to lead, support, and inspire others, or do you want to isolate, attack, and bring others down? As you’re about to see, whether you will shine in a crisis is up to you.
Hard Times Tear Down Your Walls
Life’s difficult moments cause serious stress. They put you through new situations and make new demands of you. And as I discussed in my recent post on willpower, situations like these have a very real, physiological impact. They wear you out and reduce your self-control.
That self-control is valuable for a pile of reasons. One of the most vital is the ability to regulate your social behavior.
Under normal circumstances, we are able to filter our thoughts and control our impulsive urges, to a degree. This helps us put our best foot forward and socialize well with other humans.
But sometimes you can’t put your best foot forward because life kicks you in your best foot, forcing you onto your back foot.
Trying circumstances hamper your ability to control the words, actions, and demeanor that you put out.
The external, well-managed layer of your personality is worn down, and you’re left with what’s underneath… a mix of raw emotions, animal instincts, and habits. These are all devices your brain uses to automate your most important functions and keep things running efficiently.
Unfortunately that mix of raw, animalistic drives, for many of us, can look pretty ugly. It’s what leads to people fighting over groceries and tearing each other down. They are not operating as their full selves. Their cognitive walls are broken down by stressful times, and they’re being driven by baser impulses.
The Good News
So, what then? Our personalities are all a big lie, a fragile veneer over the nasty basket of lunatics lying just underneath? Actually, I’m glad you asked that oddly specific question, because… well, no. It’s not like that at all.
I truly, deeply believe that people are good. We want to be good to ourselves and to each other. We fall short sometimes, and that stings. But by and large, we’re doing our best.
That pursuit is far from simple, or easy. It’s a matter of constant internal struggle. We have the firmly planted instincts that help all animals survive, and the complex thinking that leads humans to thrive.
The inner you is not some monster waiting to be freed from its cage. The inner you wants to keep you fed, and safe from danger. It wants to look after those around you. It wants to love and be loved. But when its counterpart (the more rational you) isn’t around, it gets a little confused about how to do that.
The good news is that a situation we understand is usually a situation we can influence. Now that we know what makes stressful situations like these so challenging, we can face the problem head-on.
Remember, crisis does bring out regrettable impulses in some, but it also drives others to shine. Indeed there would be no heroes in this world without dire situations for them to overcome.
And that’s what this is all about. I want to help you find the hero in YOU.
How to Shine in a Crisis
We all have the potential to shine in a crisis, even though we all must grapple with our impulses. Like most worthy goals, it takes preparation and consistency.
Making changes to the outer version of yourself is comparatively easy. Whether it’s a visual change like how you style yourself, or a personal change like how you respond to others in conversation, superficial adjustments are a little easier to put into practice.
But changing the direction of your underlying self takes time and effort.
Think of how a bicycle, a simple and nimble machine, can steer around things pretty quickly and easily. But an aircraft carrier, a massive and complex vehicle, takes a large number of actions, a heavy expenditure of effort, and several minutes to change its direction and adapt to a new course.
You can build a version of yourself who can thrive and flourish even when the chips are down. It just takes preparation and commitment, much like turning a large ship. It is not so simple as turning the handlebars and letting the wheels take you.
The strategy here has two main pieces. The first is to build up and preserve stronger external composure – not letting your “walls” crumble so easily. And the second is to shape your inner self, the person who remains when those walls can’t handle it all.
Be Ready to Ride the Waves
If you can avoid being brought down to your raw self in the first place, that is always worth investing in. And it so happens that this is something you have a lot of influence over.
It goes back to working on that outer layer, the one that gives you discipline and composure. You can read all about training and maintaining your ability for self-control here. But quite basically, it works like this:
When you use your conscious thinking to check an unconscious urge (like skipping a snack or refraining from yelling at someone) it uses mental energy. That energy can wear out and leave you at the mercy of those urges until you recharge again. It’s like a muscle: when you overuse it, it gets tired.
And also like a muscle, your self-control can be exercised, and grow stronger. With a balanced cycle of testing and resting your decision-making ability, you can drastically improve your odds of having greater willpower when you need it.
Build the Hero You Want to Be
When the time comes and this raw version of you is calling the shots, there’s not much you can do to intervene. But that doesn’t mean the whole thing is out of your control.
The influence you have over this side of you comes from the way you shape it over time.
Your values and drives are always a work in progress. They are under construction through the thoughts you harbor, the habits you form, and the self-image you nurture.
If you find yourself constantly smiling to hide a negative attitude, then guess what happens? The day comes when your willpower takes a hit. You’re not as in control of the smile as you’d like to be, and the negativity floods out.
On the other hand, you can train yourself to think more positively, foster habits that help you grow, and become a person that you respect. That is how you foster an inner self that is less drawn to negativity in the first place.
If this message sounds familiar to you, you may be recognizing The Tale of Two Wolves.
Humans always have, and always will tell each other stories. Just now I shared my story with you about me trying to buy some ramen noodles without getting slapped.
The great stories, the ones that survive for hundreds or even thousands of years, can only do so by sharing a message that continues to make a difference to people.
How you grow yourself when times are good shapes who you’ll be when things take a downturn. Feed the wolf that tells you to be kind to yourself and others, do the right thing, and work for better results. If you do, then that is the wolf that will prevail.
You Can Shine in a Crisis if You Choose to
No strategy is perfect. No person’s character is without flaw and no iron will is impenetrable. You don’t have to be perfect under stress all the time; none of us is. But with a little self reflection and inner work, you’ll be able to shine brighter, more of the time, even when shit goes south.
By improving your self-control, you will become stronger at maintaining your composure in difficult moments. And if you work to consistently build the best version of yourself, then that’s who will rise when willpower alone isn’t enough.
The more attention you give to these two strategies, the stronger your inner hero will be, and the more ready you’ll be to shine in a crisis.