Do you ever sit down, on a hot summers day with your windows open and a mini fan buzzing in your face, sipping on an ice tea and screaming at the telly as you enjoy the long-awaited Olympic Games on the flat-screen whilst wondering to yourself: “ How have these athletes become mentally strong?”
But it goes beyond this. We might think, “Not only are the mentally strong but they seem to enjoy the pressure and enjoy the pain!”
Think about it.
They spend a lifetime training, putting their bodies through hell and back, muscle aching day in and day out. They have to be laser-focused on the food they consume and a training regime. These psychos get up at the crack of dawn every morning and do a 20-mile run… for fun?
No, all in a bid to win that beloved golden medal at one of the most important athletic competitions known to man.
It’s truly inspirational to see the passion and drive of these competitors as they step up to the line and put their heart and soul into the next 10 seconds, hoping to stand on the podium at the end of it.
Now, is it not devastating to see them fall short?
Come on, I can’t be the only one who ignores the victors and laments for the poor guy that came in fourth place? So close, yet so far away. Yet, this same guy will train again and come back in four years to potentially feel this rubbish again.
This is mental toughness. In athletes, it’s very apparent that this is a mindset that they possess.
A hell of a lot of work and training rests in the hands of a brief moment in time. The difference between winning and losing can be minute and yet they come back every year. Frothing at the mouths and ready to smash their competitors.
Mentally strong individuals do not possess a gift that is out of our reach.
They have developed grit and tenacity toward life, it’s victories and it’s failures. And, whilst we search for answers to other questions like, “How do I become successful?” or “How do I cope with challenges?” or “How do I overcome my fears?” there could be one simple way to answer all of these questions – by developing mental strength.
Mental strength is what these bloodthirsty athletes all have in common. And mental strength is not just for these superhumans, it’s necessary for everyday life and available to all of us.
Research has now shown that mental toughness and resilience are a greater predictor of a person’s success than intelligence. And isn’t that great?
This means that you and I, just like the Roger Federers, the Usain Bolts, and the Paula Radcliffe’s all have the potential to build mental strength and become the person we’ve always wanted to be.
What is Mental Strength?
Let’s get the basics out of the way, shall we?
When we’re discussing mental strength (toughness), what exactly do we mean? We’re not talking about injecting our brains with steroids, we’re talking about determination, resilience, and grit.
When you look across the street at the neighbor who explained in no great detail that she was abandoned when she was young, was bullied at school, harassed at work, and has lived off state credit for the past two years; we might wonder how she has a) managed to live through this ordeal relatively unscathed and b) how she has managed to explode her online business and is now living the life of a self-made entrepreneur, doing what she loves.
It’s because mental strength is about being able to keep going in the face of adversity.
A person can consider themselves mentally tough when they can cope with the everyday stressors of life and move on without the burden of past painful experiences.
Within different aspects of life, tenacity and endurance can play an extremely important role. Take your health, business, or relationships; we find longevity and strength in these areas when we can tough it out through the hard times and move forward.
Resilience is a key factor in determining a person’s mental strength. How mentally strong a person is considered to be relies on their ability to tolerate pain and struggle, endure hardship and accept challenges. This is resilience.
Feeling the pain and doing it anyway.
And the reason for this is simple; nothing worth having in life comes pain and struggle free. On the contrary, you will come to find that the things you desire most in life come with the greatest of sacrifices.
And when you can be mentally strong you run toward the fear, the heartache, and struggle with the underlying passion to reach what you desire most.
This is why these athletes can come back year after year even when they’ve only ever placed last; they are willing to endure pain to someday experience the pleasure of placing that gold medal around their neck.
If you’re sitting there, worries that “this could never be you” then fear not!
Thoughts, Behaviors, and Emotions
According to psychotherapist Amy Morin, three important aspects of self contribute to a person’s ability to be mentally strong.
These are; thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.
With a greater understanding and regulation of these three aspects, you’ll set yourself a strong foundation on which to build some rock-hard mental toughness. Let’s take a look at each.
It is estimated that we have approximately 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts running through our heads every day. And you know what that means? There are between 50,000 to 70,000 chances of self-sabotage.
Negative self-talk consists of a multitude of cognitive distortions such as perfectionism, catastrophizing, and negative bias that can seriously impair our ability to perform well.
I know from personal experience that I have stood in my own way far more often than any external objectification has. Thoughts run through our heads like:
‘You can’t do this’
‘Remember what happened last time’
‘They’re going to think you’re an idiot’
‘Don’t put yourself through that again’
Our perspective on each situation we encounter will determine whether we can move forward despite the possibility of failure or we give up before we even get started.
I will never forget taking the time to travel two hours across London for an audition (back when I was a naive, aspiring actress) only to walk straight up to the front door and turn around. These thoughts occupied my mind and I listened to them.
We must replace these negative thoughts with more helpful, productive dialogue so that we can walk up to our auditions, bang on the door, and scream “I’ve arrived bitches!”
To become a mentally strong individual, we have to rewire our brain to talk to itself differently.
A mentally strong person would rephrase how they thought about any given moment to be open to possibilities and not restrict their thinking patterns to self-doubt based, usually based on a lack of evidence.
The reason emotional intelligence is usually another trait of the mentally strong is that mental strength requires us to be extremely aware of our emotions.
Understanding your emotions is a tough gig. We love to live in denial of them, we hate to find the underlying reasons behind them and we struggle to embrace the truth of what they really mean.
Our emotions are there to guide us and so when we can understand why we feel the way we feel, we can better navigate our way through life. But, it goes beyond this. Our emotions have a direct effect on our decisions and an important element of mental strength is to make good decisions.
It’s difficult to make a good decision when you’re overwhelmed with fear, sadness, anger, or grief.
They throw a hazy fog over the entire process and can have us reacting irrationally and spontaneously. It can require us to take a moment, stop, and understand why we feel the way we feel. Once we have done this, we can use our logical brain to help us respond appropriately.
This is why self-regulation is so important.
It could mean the difference between someone taking a leap of faith, again, or throwing in the towel.
If we’re taking my avoidance of the audition as an example, the emotions I was experiencing might include fear, worry, and frustration (toward myself).
However, if I were able to regulate this, then I could use my rational brain to remind myself, “This is the career you want. Even if you don’t get the role, you will feel better having had the experience. If you leave now, you’ll only feel guilt and disappointment”
Again, mental strength can be found in a person who feels painful emotions but can reframe their internal dialogue to work for them.
‘You can’t do this’ becomes ‘You won’t know if you can do this unless you try’
‘Remember what happened last time’ becomes ‘Last time it didn’t work out but that doesn’t mean the same thing will happen again’
‘They’re going to think you’re an idiot’ becomes ‘They might not agree with this but I am allowed my opinion and I shouldn’t be worried to express it’
‘Don’t put yourself through that again’ becomes ‘Persistence will eventually pay off so long as I am learning and adapting along the way’
The main behavioral trait of a mentally strong person is the willingness to keep going irrelevant of lack of motivation or previous experience.
The truth will always remain that endurance and persistence are factors that are present in the behaviors of the mentally strong. No matter past failures, mistakes made, embarrassment, pain, struggle, blood spilled, or heartache, mental strength requires us to muster our determination and keep going.
Sometimes, the best thing we can do is stop.
Alright, so we want to power through as best we can, as often as we can in most circumstances because this is true resilience. Coming up against a brick wall and smashing our way through it.
Experiencing rejection with a willingness to try again and do better next time.
However, sometimes the smartest thing we can do is acknowledge when something isn’t working out and let it go. The mentally strong people of this world will push and fight their way to where they want to be but they also recognize when the end doesn’t justify the means.
Wasting your energy on a fight you can’t win isn’t mental strength but merely irresponsible. If a tennis player trains until his legs are sore and his arms ache he might consider it worth it so he is in the best shape he can be for the tournament.
Yet, if he sprains his wrist then trying to continue on through the pain will likely cause further injury and risk his chances of participating full stop.
Pick and choose your battles. And, for the battles you choose – go for it!
Resilience vs. Mental Toughness
Often resilience and mental toughness are used interchangeably. That’s not a problem, I don’t want to get too persnickety about this. After all, if you’re seeking to improve one then you will undoubtedly be also working on improving the other.
They generally go hand in hand, like Jack and Jill, yet there are differences between the two.
If resilience is an attribute that helps you survive life’s difficulties then mental toughness is what allows us to prosper.
Perhaps I’m an aspiring entrepreneur and I have sought out investment from over twenty different investment companies. My ability to keep going back every time could be put down to my resilience. Well done me.
However, this doesn’t mean that I am necessarily able to think positively about these experiences.
With each and every rejection I could be slowly worn down until my resilience wavers. This is because it lacks the positive outlook that we derive from mental toughness.
If resilience allows us to cope in the face of adversity then mental toughness is the positive mindset we need to see the opportunity in these challenges. Enduring and tolerating pain does not mean we are always to appreciate the benefits of the struggle. Mental toughness allows us to do this.
With mental toughness, we can view any given circumstance from a positive standpoint and see adversity as a challenge, not a threat.
So, the main difference here is that resilience is an attribute of mental strength. This is why most people who are mentally tough are also resilient but resilient people aren’t necessarily mentally tough.
Resilience allows us to power through but on its own, it can dissipate and crumble over time.
Without a positive mindset, even the most resilient of us can only take so much. It is the ability to derive meaning from difficult circumstances, to find opportunity in struggle, and to learn from pain that makes a person mentally strong.
A combination of resilience and mental toughness is the perfect concoction for someone looking to tackle life with a positive perspective and a winner’s outlook.
It is the mindset that separates the two and exposure to pain and struggle are what helps to build both. With courage and tenacity, a person can learn to tolerate painful experiences and find positive meaning that will propel them forward.
(Download this FREE e-book to discover the truth behind finding your courage… it’s there for the taking)
4C’s of Mental Toughness
Alright, we’re getting into it now! Let’s get even more specific. Professor Peter Clough is considered a pioneer in researching mental toughness and he considers 4 important attributes when defining a person’s mental toughness.
It’s not a trick. We’re genuinely talking about being in control of our lives.
Someone who is considered mentally strong can self-regulate their emotions, remain calm and respond appropriately to any given situation.
A lot of us struggle with feeling as though we are not in control of our own lives but the truth is quite the opposite. When we feel lost and unstable, we are capable of finding balance and gaining clarity through the fog. It’s just damn hard to do.
Mental strength is seemingly present in individuals who can respond logically to circumstances that could easily throw them out of whack and have them crying into a tub of ice-cream.
With control comes the talent to sit back, think, feel, acknowledge and respond in a state of calm.
If you don’t feel as though you have control over your life then, you are not alone. Life can feel like a big uphill struggle for all of us at some point or another.
When you manage to take control you begin to realize that it isn’t about micromanaging every aspect of your life but dealing with everything that comes along appropriately and letting go of the things you have zero control over.
Are you able to set a goal and commit to it?
Commitment is all about the follow-through. The willingness to keep going and jump over every damn obstacle that blocks your path.
When a mentally strong person can commit to a task and see it through till the end, they build resilience along the way.
Trying to reach the end goal will always consist of a journey that is an amalgamation of smaller, more achievable goals. You do step one to get to step two, then to step three, and on to step four.
Each small goal takes you one step closer to the end goal, and with every small goal offering its own set of challenges, the ability to commit and stay focused is crucial in building mental strength and endurance.
If commitment means a dedication to facing any obstacle then challenge describes how we view the obstacle.
A mentally strong individual views challenges as opportunities to learn and grow. When faced with adversity they feel inspired and motivated to smash on through and continue ahead with full force.
If you’re lucky enough to rank with a high ‘challenge score’ (according to Professor Clough) then you will likely get a thrill from new experiences, meeting new people, testing ideas, solving problems, and innovating.
Routine does not enthrall this person.
You know it. I know it. Everyone else knows it.
Confidence is key (apparently).
The final attribute, and last C, is confidence. Someone who exhibits signs of mental toughness will often walk with their head held high; believing in their capabilities and talents. This person feels confident in their ability to hold a debate, build rapport, manage conflict, and face adversity knowing that they can overcome anything they put their mind to.
It’s important here to remember that mental strength can be learned and developed over time just like self-confidence.
The two go hand in hand which means, if you are lacking self-confidence and fear that makes you mentally fragile, you are mistaken.
Self-confidence is a skill that can be learned. And as you develop your self-confidence you will develop your mental strength in tandem.
Mental Strength Can Be Learned
Following on from that last point, I believe this little nugget of information deserves a section all on its own.
When we look around us and see others who make pain endurance look so easy, it can leave us feeling weak. I know, because I’ve been there.
During my decade of living with anxiety, this is exactly how I felt. Weak and pathetic. I felt as though everything was too painful to bear.
I felt as though I was letting everyone down because I was too scared to make bold choices and follow my dreams. Fear of failure crippled me.
Now, I do not have a fear of failure.
Exposure is all it takes. The more we expose ourselves to uncomfortable situations the more we become desensitized to the discomfort. Pain becomes bearable and failure becomes a learning experience.
Don’t get me wrong, failing sucks. The aim here is to be successful and achieve but the truth is, the likelihood of you failing a few (hundred) times first is almost inevitable.
Resilience plays its part when we can pick ourselves up and keep going.
Each and every time I hit a brick wall or was knocked flat on my face I got up, adapted my process and learned from my mistakes, and had at it. Over and over again. This is resilience.
Mental strength was developed as I began to find the benefits and positive takeaways to each and every failure. When you acknowledge that there is always something that can be learned from even the most unbearable of experiences, you slowly build your mental strength.
Ultimately I began to embrace failure, rejection, judgment, and criticism as things to help me grow. To help make me a better person.
With this, you can use your resilience to keep going, but your mental toughness is what will give you the positive outlook to see setbacks for what they are. You are far less likely to falter with this mindset.
Remember, resilience on its own is passive and can be worn down. Mental toughness is active and makes you comfortable with the uncomfortable.
With all of that said; self-confidence, commitment, control, and challenge are all attributes that can be developed as you train your brain to become mentally strong. So don’t fear if you feel as though you are lacking. Just take action!
Cultivate all of your will power, discipline, and hard work and focus on taking that first hit.
Improve Mental Strength
Now that we know mental strength can be learned, we need to understand how we can train our brain to house a mindset of steel.
I’m going to power through a list of 12 strategies for improving your mental strength.
An important point; becoming mentally strong does not happen overnight. Although the tips below are seemingly easy, they aren’t. They’re hard. And the proof is in the pud. If it were oh so easy, a lot fewer people would struggle with emotional fragility.
It’s hard work and it’s supposed to be hard.
We’re talking about ways in which we can tolerate pain – it was never going to be easy, was it.
1. Find your own definition of mental strength
Do not try and develop mental toughness by running 26 miles every day when you struggle to run across the road. Mental strength will means different things to different people.
This is because it is all relative to the lives we live and what we want to achieve.
Define what it means for you, that might be…
Responding honestly when someone asks how you are.
Openly explaining to a friend how they’ve hurt you and asking for an apology.
Adding one extra weight to your dumbbell each week.
Refusing a client when they offer you a job that won’t bring you joy.
Set up one small aspect of your new business’s website each day for a week.
Everyone will develop mental strength differently. The reality is, so long as you are challenging yourself with something that would otherwise make you feel uncomfortable and stick to your guns, then you will build upon your definition of mental strength.
Find a way to push your endurance level, don’t try to match someone else’s.
2. Celebrate small wins
Every single little tiny victory counts. Every single one. When you deny yourself the celebration of a small win, you aren’t training your brain to appreciate the journey it takes to get to the end goal.
It has to be about balance.
You can’t expect to bash yourself over every mistake and setback and think “It’s ok though, I’m going to learn from it and keep going and that way I will build mental strength”.
You will certainly build resilience but mental strength is imbued with a positive mindset. That means finding the benefits and teachings in every mishap and celebrating the tiny victories. They will be what keeps you going in high spirits.
3. Focus on habits, not motivation
You do not need the motivation to get started. You need good, healthy habits.
Motivation is caused by taking action. We cannot lounge around and wait for motivation to strike, it won’t! You see, we become inspired only after we have begun the work, we feel motivated after we have already taken action.
We have to get the ball rolling before it can tumble down the hill.
So, don’t focus on motivation but focus on habits.
Build healthy, supportive habits that encourage you to focus on positive self-talk, find the lesson in every situation, congratulate yourself on every minor success, and keep you working toward the 4 C’s.
Develop essential habits that encourage you to stick to your schedule, meet your deadlines, take the necessary action and overcome challenges.
The more consistent you can be, the better your chances.
4. Never Stop Learning
Knowledge is power.
I will continue to write that one sentence forever and eternity.
Often we can overcome adversity quite easily when we understand the problem better. When I was trying to break free from my anxiety disorder, the real progress came when I took it upon myself to self-educate.
When we can understand our problems in greater depth, we are better equipped to deal with them.
Soak up as much information about anything relevant to you and your life as you can.
With knowledge, you can build an empire, cope better with grief, build a brand, improver your interpersonal skills, develop leadership qualities, design your own house, sew your own clothes, write your own book… The list goes on.
Mentally strong individuals see a problem and tackle the problem regardless of the outcome.
You can aid this by having the knowledge that can help you mitigate any issues that might arise and when they do, you will be better equipped to handle them.
5. Goal setting
Small actionable goals people!
When we make goals that are gargantuan in size, we make it impossible for us to succeed! Give yourself every opportunity to achieve by setting manageable goals that you can celebrate along the way.
Without goals in place, we may find ourselves wandering aimlessly throughout life.
With goals comes challenge. We need control, commitment, and confidence to take on the challenge of hitting a goal. These are the four components of mental toughness.
If we do not challenge ourselves by setting goals, we cannot hope to become mentally strong individuals.
A goal too big will have us feeling overwhelmed. If we don’t believe it is achievable, we won’t even try in the first place. Set the goal, stick to it and make sure it challenges you but is also achievable.
6. Exposure therapy
Exposure therapy is exactly what I used to ‘cure’ myself on anxiety disorder.
It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant, but by god does it work. Only through constant exposure to challenge, struggle, and pain can we learn to develop a tolerance toward it.
We can only train the brain to believe that we can handle the hardship by experiencing the hardship and moving on with resilience and a positive outlook.
It takes courage and wilful tolerance to get started.
“Ok, I know this is going to suck. I know it fills me with dread and I’ll feel sick to my stomach. But just do it this one time and the next time will be easier”
Each and every time becomes easier and easier until you build some true resilience. With this in place, we can begin to work on our mindset and become the mentally strong person we always dreamed of.
Soon, you are not only able to keep going despite all odds but you will appreciate what adversity is teaching you.
7. Focus on the process, not the outcome
If you want to climb a mountain, it’s not advised to walk toward it looking at the very top peak. Why? Because, it will likely scare the sh*t out of you and have you turning around, back to your chalet for a nice hot chocolate.
One of the biggest mistakes people can make when building mental strength is focusing on the outcome rather than the process.
We need to help ourselves in the best way we are able; by taking one small step at a time.
When we are setting the goals we spoke about earlier, we will always have the final and ultimate goal in our minds.
You must visualize this clearly. Have it in your mind’s eye, feel it and imagine yourself there – victorious.
Then forget about it.
The only way you will reach that final goal is by taking one step at a time. The process is the journey you will take to get there and it is the process that needs your attention.
By focusing on the process, not only does each step feel easier but each obstacle feels easier to overcome. Likewise, each failure is easier to bear.
As you can see, by doing this you gradually cultivate mental strength without the brutal pain that comes from a ‘big’ failure.
If you focus on the massive mountain peak ahead of you, you might likely feel as though you’ve failed before you’ve even begun. The task seems gargantuan and near impossible, so why even try?
But walking that first 10km? You can do that.
Then the next and then the next.
Focus on the process, not the outcome. You can always remind yourself of your desired final goal to make sure you’re staying on the correct path but then turn your attention back to the next step you have in front of you.
One step at a time.
8. Make decisive decisions
Decision-making is a skill that can be taught.
The more decisions you make the better you will become at making them! The important thing to recognize here is this; do not hesitate to make decisions. Think logically and make an informed decision, whatever it may be make it definitive and roll with it.
The point here is that sometimes you will make bad decisions.
We all do because we’re human. Right? But by making decisive decisions you build your self-confidence which is a key attribute of mental strength.
“Even when my decision was the wrong one?” Yes! Especially then.
It’s an exercise in being decisive, confident in your thought process, and content with the outcome. If it leads to one hundred failures, great! You’re well on your way to success. The more we fail, the more we learn and the better equipped we are when we try again.
Make decisive decisions and learn to deal with the outcome without self-blame and self-loathing.
Always find the lesson and move on. There is no room in life for regret and our time is too precious to give away to rumination and what if’s.
Make decisions and do not regret them, simply learn from them.
9. Be flexible/adaptable
Mental toughness does not make for a stubborn person.
When we think of mental toughness we can often picture someone who is physically tough and imagine that standing our ground is what is required. Quite the opposite is true,
We must be willing to adapt and be flexible to everything life will undoubtedly throw at us.
Mentally strong people can compromise even when it is painful to do so. Life will not adapt to us, we have to adapt to life. That means letting go of dreams and promises that are not working out, leaving relationships that aren’t going anywhere, and changing direction for the twentieth time.
Mental strength does not require us to be hard. It requires us to bend and adapt. A willingness to do this shows signs of emotional intelligence and control.
10. Learn from past experiences
Our past experiences are there to teach us much-needed life lessons.
It can be easy to be caught in the trap of dwelling on painful events and internalizing them until they define us.
Everything that happens to us in life can teach us something. We can learn from even the most unbearable of experiences something that we can take into the future. The important thing here is to see for what it can be – a lesson.
Often we come across people who bring up the same memory in every conversation. Everything can be blamed on the partner who cheated on them, or the boss that fired them, or the father who didn’t pay for the wedding, or the friend who told them they were selfish.
These people internalize their experiences and it defines who they are.
Make no mistake, this is easily done. These people are not weak but they do lack mental strength.
Learning from our past experiences and using them to our advantage builds mental strength and in turn, makes it easier to…
11. Move on
Eventually, we have to find ways to move on.
Finding ourselves stuck in a moment in time can only lead to unhelpful, negative cognitive behaviors. It’s a difficult thought habit to break following an upsetting experience. It’s quite instinctual to lean toward negativity bias.
We remember negative experiences far more often than the positive, we are quick to judge and criticize ourselves and we struggle to focus on how we have benefitted from our trials and tribulations.
Mental strength is built when we can find a way to move on with at least a small nugget of positivity.
Something among the mess would have taught us something. What is it?
Once you’ve found it, put your best foot forward and power ahead, squeezing every ounce of energy from that little nugget of positivity as you possibly can.
12. Challenge yourself
The last of the 4 C’s.
Mental strength simply cannot be developed without challenge. We need mental strength to face challenges so it only makes sense that challenge is what we need to cultivate it in the first place.
People can recoil from adversity because it doesn’t feel pleasant, it doesn’t feel comfortable.
But nothing thrives in comfort. Mental strength does not thrive in comfort. And the unfortunate reality is that a lot of life is uncomfortable, painful, and full of struggle.
Avoidance is futile and so embracing challenge as a tool to help you become a mentally strong person is certainly reason enough to dive right in.
Challenge yourself little by little every day. No matter how small it is, if it tests you then it is perfect. As you move on you can take on bigger and better tasks that will become easier to face over time.
(Download this FREE e-book today and allow me to persuade you to THRIVE in discomfort!)
Traits of Mentally Strong People
If you’re wondering, “Hm, so can I consider myself mentally strong or is this something I need to work on?” then take a look at the list below.
This is a list of traits typically possessed by an individual with considerable mental strength.
See what sounds familiar to you:
- Adaptable in their thinking
- Feel fear but don’t let it stop them
- Define who they are
- Do not obsess about being happy
- High emotional intelligence
- Accountable and responsible for their actions
- Embrace change
- Focus on things that are in their control
- Focus on pleasing themselves not everyone else
- Learn from their mistakes
- Celebrate other peoples success
- Can be alone with their thoughts
- Are willing to endure pain and disappointment to see great results
An important note to end on, a reminder if you will:
If you look at the list above or the information previously given and think, “Holy crap, I only possess two traits on that there list! I must be weak!” then please know that this is not the case.
Very few people in this world are born with a healthy dose of mental strength and there is a reason that oftentimes the mentally strongest people have lived through the most traumatic experiences – they have faced adversity and have had to develop resilience and mental toughness to make it through.
The more you can challenge yourself the more mentally strong you will become.
And do not worry. All of the above traits will develop along with it, you just have to have the courage to get started and take that first leap.
Ultimately, our ability to tolerate pain and appreciate struggle is what will allow us to live a more peaceful and enjoyable life.