Health

‘Control Aversion’ Might Be Why Self-Improvement Is Annoying You Right Now

Stop TELLING ME what to DO about my LIFE, well-meaning workout class instructor!
May 13, 2020, 11:00am
'Control Aversion' Is Why You're So Fed Up With Instructional Videos Online
Photo by Westend61 / Bartek Szewczyk via Getty Images
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How to Stay In is a series about redefining "normal" life in order to take care of ourselves and one another during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the beginning of the stay-at home orders—before I could really fathom what was ahead, before I realized how crippling the uncertainty and stress would be—I had very lofty ideas about what my newly homebound life would look like. My workout plans were especially ambitious, and I was further encouraged by a hollowed calendar and an inbox full of offers from fitness studios and gyms—I signed up for at least five. I was high on the idea that I might end up working out more than ever. What really happened: I did three HIIT classes in the first two weeks, and the rest of the trials expired without my logging in once. Following directions was inordinately difficult. A friend shared her barre subscription with me, but right before I hit play, the idea of air-thrusting my pelvis in my living room felt ridiculous. Instead of relaxing during a yoga class, I closed my laptop 15 minutes in—I found the instructor’s cooing voice, echoing from a retreat center in Costa Rica, irritating, too much of a contrast with the chaos and pain of our current reality. The last time I did an online workout was the end of March.

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With IRL meet ups canceled, many people have turned to instructional videos in the hopes of maintaining some sense of normalcy (working out with a favorite instructor) or just some sense of human connection. What you could have done in person before—work out, learn a language, take cooking classes, go to a rave—is available on Zoom, Skype, Instagram, or Houseparty. If you’ve been putting off that screenwriting class or tennis lesson, you can learn it via Masterclass, the ads for which pillage inboxes and social media feeds.

But for many people, including myself, instructional videos don’t seem to be as helpful or inspirational or productivity-inducing as we’d imagined. Just as Zoom fatigue is real, engaging with these types of videos can leave many users annoyed, angry, and overwhelmed.

Before Texas shuttered its businesses, Kana LiVolsi, a 35-year-old who runs a marketing agency in Austin, Texas, was “on a roll” with Masterclass and online workouts, but has since stopped doing them. “My patience for watching videos is getting thinner by the day, and I just end up feeling cranky,” she said.

Normally, it might be fun to follow along with a video, but the current circumstances can make them feel more challenging. One reason for this is that, even though we can agree that the restrictions imposed on us—social distancing, closing down businesses—are necessary, they can still feel intrusive.

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“Most of us have never experienced anything like this in our lives, so the rules can start to feel like too much,” said Vaile Wright, psychologist and director of clinical research and quality at the American Psychological Association.

Completing instructional videos involves some degree of following orders, and when we have so little control over many aspects of our lives, relinquishing more of it, even in this small way, can turn up an urge to “rebel” and stop engaging with the content, even if it’s something we previously enjoyed or find helpful, according to Kevin Chapman, a licensed clinical psychologist in Louisville, Kentucky. “We want to hold on to whatever control we have,” he said.

Psychologists refer to acting out against perceived control from others as "control aversion," and while it often manifests in more extreme situations—as observed in anti-lockdown protesters—it may crop up on a smaller scale with online content, said Chapman.

The concept of control aversion felt relevant to a recent conversation I had with a yoga instructor friend. She had been doing online classes with her home studio, but was losing steam. “I don’t want to be told what to do. I CAN LIVE MY OWN LIFE,” she wrote in a text. So she added jump-roping to her workout routine, which, she said, makes her feel a little more in charge.

Wright thinks that part of the struggle with doing online classes is that they don’t fulfill us the same way as IRL activities. “We don’t really want to do the exercise video or cooking tutorial. What we really want to do is go to the gym or have friends over for dinner, like we used to.”

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This tracks with LiVolsi's experiences, as she described them. “In a time when I crave human contact, most of the videos I was watching don’t feel engaging to me,” LiVolsi said. “It’s like I am just being talked at, but what I want now is someone to talk to.”

Experts think that the sense of uncertainty and stress that many people are feeling also leads to shorter fuses. “If we pick up on someone who is a little bit too positive given the state of the world, or feel like they are telling us what to do, it’s much easier to get upset, whereas, under normal circumstances, you might not even notice it,” said Wright.

When a friend suggested they workout out virtually together, Nowal Massari, a 34-year-old writer and comedian in Portland, was open to it. But when she received a link to a bootcamp class video, she changed her mind. “The instructor’s bubbly positivity felt too forced, especially given how grave the situation in the world is,” she said.

Though the impacts of this lockdown on mental health are yet to be studied, a review about the psychological impacts of other quarantines published this February found periods of isolation were linked to anger, frustration, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. These emotions only make it that much harder to motivate. Whatever drive many of us had to keep past routines or develop new skills has likely been curbed by the pandemic. “I don’t think anyone could have expected how stressful and challenging this situation was going to be—and the negative impact that would have on our motivation and ability to be productive,” Wright added.

Once we’re able to connect in person more often, online videos may not seem as intrusive. For now, non-tech alternatives—like reading a recipe instead of watching a chef make it on Instagram—can help take away some of the frustrations that crop up with videos. “This way, it feels like you’re doing things on your own terms, versus having to follow a voice on the screen,” said Chapman.

LiVolsi has shelved her Masterclass schedule. Instead, she's mixing in non-screen physical activity, like running outside, to her workouts. If she does video fitness classes, she sets up shop in her backyard and opts for the Live versions, which helps each session feel more like a “real class.”

No matter how you're personally responding to control aversion: The most useful tactic when it comes to contending with your feelings about instructional videos of any kind might just be… doing less of them. Chapman suggested dialing down expectations of how productive you “should” be. “It's a crisis—it’s not the same as taking time off a few months ago to improve yourself,” he said.

Follow Maggie Puniewska on Twitter.