Emotional strength and mental strength are often banded together as being one in the same.
There is so much information out there to help us find a way to be all around better human beings that it can be tricky to distinguish between the various ways in which we can improve upon ourselves.
As someone who suffered from various anxiety presentations for over ten years now including; social anxiety, agoraphobia and claustrophobia, I’ve been determined to understand exactly how I managed to pull myself out of it.
…if that is indeed possible.
If you’re anything like me, you might be scrambling around among the depths of the internet simply trying to find some answers.
How can I live my best life?
How can I cope better with pain?
What can I do to become the success I always dreamed of?
How can I be happier?
What will make life EASIER?!
In the search for deeper understanding, we can get lost among the fluff and less than informative ‘information’ available. It’s pretty aggravating actually.
Through my research for finding the ‘answer’ I stumbled upon this so-called mental strength. Aha! Perhaps I have found the answer?!
Wait… Then I went further and up popped something new, a different proposal… emotional strength.
Alright, I’ll play ball. So what do I need, mental strength or emotional strength? They look the same, sound the same and have been described in much the same way. Ok, I THINK they are the same.
I want to offer some clarity.
The reason being that I believe that I have indeed found a solution that satisfies my needs and answers my questions; an answer that solves the problem and is something I can actually implement and work with.
Emotional strength and mental strength are indeed what is needed to live a life of fullness, meaning and purpose. They are not one in the same and should not be used interchangeably.
Likewise it is not an ‘either or’ situation here. Bread or butter, peanut butter or jam, gin or tonic… The best concoction for a life of content is to have both.
What is Mental Strength?
Who doesn’t want to be strong? Even when I think about it on a physical level I can compare myself of today (a svelte 50kg) to the me of two years ago (an athletic 57kg) and can feel the lack of strength in my body.
Strength is desirable in any form but we can often forget that mental strength may be even more important than the physical strength that we are often more likely to strive for.
I suppose in some sense it’s because it is easier to build upon physical strength. Not a great deal easier but easier none the less.
Take my own goal of getting back to a healthy weight of 57kg. I am doing this by eating more often, increasing my protein intake, building muscle mass through strength conditioning and letting go of the food guilt when I indulge in the occasional family size bar of Dairy Milk.
This is all measurable.
And measurability is a key determining factor of success. Can I measure it? Can I see the numbers going up or down telling me whether or not I’m moving in the right direction?
And this is why building physical strength is perhaps easier than building mental strength, because it can be easily measured.
Tough though it may be to develop the mindset required to re-sculpt our bodies, the scales don’t lie. And neither do our belt buckles or bikini bottoms.
Alternatively, mental strength is about finding the lessons within each struggle and challenge and moving forward with a positive outlook.
It is so much more than being able to bulldoze your way through pain and push yourself on regardless of how you feel. It is about making sure that you can move on with positive intentions; finding something of benefit from the incessant hardships of life.
That doesn’t sound quite so easy now, does it?
The mentally strong are able to cultivate the willpower to move forward with determination and grit. They do this by actively choosing to tolerate emotional pain and using it as a catapult to meet the end goal.
A desire to move forward and the WANT to make positive change is what allows them to find some positive nugget of consolation in any negative experience.
Mental strength is born of a number of factors – resilience, emotional regulation, regulation of thoughts and behaviors, self-motivation, self-confidence, gratitude, drive and so much more. Mental strength is so much more than white-knuckling our way through the negative experiences.
It’s finding appreciation for what pain and struggle have to offer and using that to propel us forward with a positive outlook.
What is Emotional Strength?
Alright, that’s an albeit brief overview of mental strength.
Let’s take a look at emotional strength now and figure out how it is any different to what we’ve just spoken about.
Do you ever watch an old movie that has been written and directed so badly that every Italian mother we are introduced to wails uncontrollably as their beautiful son marries and evil seductress? Or perhaps they ball their eyes out when someone doesn’t like their homemade pasta?
In an intense display of emotions they hit the cobbled streets, screaming and bellowing; making sure that everyone knows how they feel… You get the gist.
They are the stereotypical, emotionally expressive, Italian women that these old movies love to milk.
Well, these characters perhaps make for the perfect example of women who exude emotional strength. It may feel counterintuitive but hear me out.
As a culture we are only recently coming to terms with the idea that we do in fact need to feel and express our emotions. I know, shocker. For the longest time, it was considered weakness if a man were to shed single tear for his dying wife or for a woman to ‘lose control of her senses’ after discovering the other woman.
Emotions were to be locked away, hidden out of sight and internalised until all we could do is explode with outbursts of feelings that were never addressed.
Yet, emotional strength is the exact opposite of this.
Emotional strength is about actively managing and understanding your emotions and the very first step in doing this is allowing ourselves to feel them in the first place. In modern society, emotional strength might look like a person who is ‘holding themselves together’ but let me ask you this…
Between two people who have been left at the alter – one of them wails in agony, unable to move, stand or speak while the other sits in silence, looking out of the window and contemplating what this all means… who has emotional strength?
Ah, you got me. It’s a trick question! The answer is BOTH.
Emotional strength is defined as ‘the ability to respond in an open and vulnerable way in the face of intense emotional experience, feeling one’s way deeper into the emotion which allows access to implicit functional processes driving action’.
So you see, it does not matter HOW we choose to express the emotion because this is different for everyone. There is no right or wrong here.
Yet it does matter that you actually allow yourself to feel the emotion.
Only by letting ourselves feel and experience them on a deeper level than what is naturally comfortable for us, can we ultimately move on from them.
Again, physical strength suddenly seems a lot easier to tackle doesn’t it!
Why You Need Both!
Ultimately, the question many of us want to know the answer to is, “How can we cope better with pain and struggle?” If you’ve had the pleasure (or misfortune) of reading even just a handful of other articles on this blog, you’ll quickly come to realize that we cannot eradicate pain and struggle.
Struggle is a necessary component of life.
It helps us discover what is truly important, it shows us what we value, it guides us to a life of meaning and, through sacrifice we are better able to understand what we would happily bleed for.
And this is certainly worth knowing.
To live through these ordeals and move forward with gusto we need both emotional strength and mental strength. You can have one without the other but ideally, you want both!
Much like everything else that is intrinsically linked, the development of one often encourages the development of the other and so focusing on one at a time certainly isn’t a bad shout.
As mentioned above, mental strength consists of a variety of attributes which ultimately contribute to how mentally strong an individual can deem themselves to be. Emotional strength sits under the umbrella of mental strength; a necessary component to overall mental wellbeing.
The determining factor of a good life ultimately depends on how we utilise emotional strength to experience and live through a painful experience coupled with the mental strength to move on from it in with positive state of mind.
Think of it like this:
Emotional Strength is the Expressing of Your Emotions
You’re living through some sort of nightmare. Whatever it may be; divorce, redundancy, physical illness, grief or rejection, and you can deny your emotions or you can feel them.
Not just feel them, but dig deep and let them overflow in your mind, body and soul.
How you express them is entirely dependent on who you are. Me? I like to cry. It makes me feel better and I always find a moment of enlightenment after three packets of tissues and four hours of heavy metal music.
However, I don’t like to cry in front of people necessarily. Sometimes I don’t cry at all but I’ll sit on my bed and think. I’ll simply let the emotions run through me yet no tears are required. They come or they don’t
Our ability to live in the present moment and truly feel these sensations is not a skill that many find easy. We want to fight them, right?
Fight the urge to cry, scream, run or smash the place to pieces (perhaps a little restraint isn’t a bad thing)… fight the urge to feel and understandably so. For most of these feelings don’t feel good. They aren’t comfortable, warm and cosy. They are cold and lonely.
Yet, for emotional strength to really persist it is integral that we allow ourselves to feel.
And even more importantly than that, allow ourselves to feel without judgement.
Embracing our emotions is counterproductive if we are then going to criticise and ridicule ourselves for feeling this way. It is an absolute waste of energy! The deeper and further into the emotion you can allow yourself to go WITHOUT judgement, then the better equipped you will be to handle and understand them.
And perhaps more importantly; how to regulate them.
Emotional strength focuses solely on how we address, understand and regulate our emotional responses.
Emotionally intelligent people are generally extremely capable of managing their emotional states and do so by allowing themselves to express their emotions freely before trying to figure out how they can use this emotional feedback to help them.
The point of emotional strength is not turn a negative experience into a positive experience as many might like to think.
To deny a negative experience and a negative emotion is to deny that which makes up half of who we are. The point of emotional strength is to be vulnerable with all emotional experience and to feel it deeply.
Mental Strength is the Processing of Your Emotions
Then, allow our good friend mental strength to step up.
This is where we allow our cognitive brain (thinking brain) to show itself and work its magic. Whilst emotional strength is specific to emotion regulation, mental strength goes beyond this and factors in the regulation of thoughts and behaviours.
A person with emotional strength sets a great foundation in place for someone to build upon mental strength.
You’ve allowed yourself to feel and have expressed yourself in a way that is healthy and appropriate, now we must learn how to use this knowledge and understanding of self to move forward with positive intention.
Understanding our emotions can be considered a lot harder than allowing us to feel them. However, if you’ve done the hard part and let yourself feel whatever it is you need to feel then you’re actually part of the way there.
Only by expressing our emotions can we begin to understand them and therefore adjust our thoughts and behaviours accordingly.
Our emotions provide us with guided feedback – they are telling you how you feel and therefore how to respond.
So we can avoid feelings of shame, jealousy, anger, frustration or boredom because they make us feel awful about ourselves but they actually have something important to say.
Emotional strength will allow someone filled with rage to sit and experience it. Allow it to pass through them. Fighting it will only encourage it to continue.
We might raise our self-awareness and ask ourselves why we feel this way, what is this rage trying to tell us or what do we need that we aren’t getting?
Mental strength takes this initial emotional work and uses it to move forward with greater understanding of self.
This person must be willing to feel and they must also want to find a way to move forward. Addressing the emotion is one thing, finding the truth behind it is another and taking positive action is something else entirely.
It is mental strength that enables us to make positive progress despite negative experience by viewing pain and hardship as a challenge to overcome, not a threat to be avoided.
Feel it, Rationalize it and Move Forward
It can seem very often as though there are two types of movements in the world fighting for one spot on the podium of good living.
There seems to be a divide between the people who believe that we must feel our way out of our sticky situations and those who believe we must think our way out.
Thinking vs. feeling or rational vs. spiritual or, in this case, emotional strength vs. mental strength.
The truth is, there cannot be one without the other. It’s basic science. Whilst it is certainly true that one can be stronger than the other or that some do better with a focus on one over the other – both are needed to make us well rounded individuals.
We have our two brains, or two minds, working away inside our skulls.
They are constantly doing their best to help us experience, rationalize and respond to the ups and downs of life in a way that is helpful to us.
Unfortunately, we now know that our brains are wired for negativity.
We remember negative experiences easier than the positive. We remember insults clearer than memories of praise, loss over gain, betrayal over love, bankruptcy over wealth… you get the idea.
Ideally we want a nice neat balance of both the thinking and the feeling brain; the emotional and the rational.
Both are needed for us to function in a way that allows us to march through the field of crap and make to the other side with cow pat on our boots and a smile across our faces.
It is not a case of, “We need to just allow ourselves to FEEL, that is the path to enlightenment!”
And neither is it a case of, “We need to understand and rationalise everything. Once we know EVERYTHING we can possibly know, we can make informed decisions!”
We need both.
We need the emotional strength to feel what we feel and not deny or avoid. And we need the mental strength to rationalise and help us move forward in the best way we know how.
The ultimate goal is to move forward, right?
But not just force ourselves onward with gritted teeth and pain in our eyes, but with an open mind and a willingness to embrace and tolerate the pain that will inevitably come our way.
To do this we must sit with our emotions in the present before engaging our thinking mind. Using it to search through the wilderness of suffering and find the key lessons that we can learn from it and progress with.
We must feel it, rationalize it and move forward.