The past few years have been deeply unsettling on many levels. You may be wondering: How do I maintain my sanity in a time of seemingly never-ending chaos and change?
Although we all crave order and predictability, we must accept that we live in a world of deep uncertainty and confusion. As individuals, we have little control over world events and the forces shaping our future. What we can control, however, is how we relate and respond to these events.
Resilience – the ability to bounce back from adversity and navigate the rough waters of our times – is a learned skill. This week’s reading recommendation introduces you to Damon Zahariades’ concept of mental toughness – a mindset that helps you navigate the unexpected challenges life presents. Read our summary to learn how to build and practice mental toughness in any life situation.
Learn to cultivate mental toughness and adapt to life’s challenges.
Productivity, Business, Health, Wellness, Psychology, Personal Success, Self Help, Personal Development, Mental Health
Damon Zahariades says the secret of enduring success is mental toughness: a mind-set that helps you navigate the unexpected challenges life presents. Zahariades endeavors to teach readers, including CEOs as well as professional athletes, the ongoing process of cognitively restructuring your mind by questioning your thoughts, attitudes and emotions. Transform your life, he urges, and inspire others in the process.
- Success requires mental toughness – but many people don’t bother cultivating it.
- Overcome threats to mental toughness by increasing your awareness of them.
- Control your emotions and thoughts – even when facing adversity.
- Cultivate stronger impulse control and build better habits.
- Build your confidence and overcome your inner critic.
- Welcome boredom and conquer the desire to quit when working toward goals.
- Take purposeful action by building willpower, motivation and self-discipline.
- Navigate challenges and build mental toughness using Navy SEALs tactics.
Success requires mental toughness – but many people don’t bother cultivating it.
Those who achieve enduring success possess mental toughness. Mental toughness is a mind-set which enables you to avoid catastrophic thinking and embrace positivity when facing challenges. It teaches you to use setbacks to your advantage. If you struggle to reach your goals and maintain your desired level of success, or perhaps feel discouraged, depressed or angry, know that you have the power to improve your circumstances and shift your mind-set. Many people don’t cultivate mental toughness, however, because it requires patience and work.
“No matter where you are in your life, no matter what struggles you’re currently experiencing, you can improve your circumstances.”
Mental toughness has numerous benefits:
- Improved emotional and stress-management skills.
- A clarified sense of purpose.
- Higher confidence and performance levels.
- The capacity to overcome your fears.
- A healthier attitude toward failure and the ability to learn from mistakes.
- Greater impulse control.
- The ability to stop fixating on regrets and painful experiences while fostering a growth mind-set.
Overcome threats to mental toughness by increasing your awareness of them.
Mentally tough people focus their energy on what they can influence, as opposed to wasting time fixating on the things they can’t change. They’re flexible and adaptable when facing unexpected outcomes. These individuals are self-aware and can identify their emotions and understand what triggers their negative feelings. They accept uncertainty and don’t wallow in disappointments. Tough-minded people have high emotional intelligence and they can regulate their emotions. They are positive, yet pragmatic. Nobody possesses all of these traits innately – everyone must work to develop them.
“No one is born mentally strong. It’s something each of us develops. That’s terrific news because it means that you control it.”
Threats to mental toughness include self-pity, self-doubt, negative self-talk, fear, laziness, perfectionism, self-limiting beliefs and the inability to control emotions.
Control your emotions and thoughts – even when facing adversity.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to comprehend and manage your emotions, so you can perform at your best. Resist the temptation to repress your feelings; learn to identify them instead. The first step of mastering your emotions is increasing your self-awareness, so you’re better able to identify your feelings. Once you identify an emotion, evaluate it. Ask if your emotional reactions and any accompanying negative views of yourself are reasonable, or are holding you back. Reflect on whether you can influence the circumstances triggering your emotions. Take action if you see ways to improve your situation. Release yourself from your frustrations over situations you can’t control.
This exercise helps you control unwanted emotions: List the negative emotions you regularly experience when facing adversity, jotting down how each impacts your behavior. Next, write a plan detailing how you’ll respond to these emotions when they arise in the future. You might, for example, engage in mindful breathing.
“Managing our emotions – that is, exerting emotional control – gives us an opportunity to acknowledge them, confront them, scrutinize them, and decide whether what we’re feeling is levelheaded given our circumstances.”
Embracing mental toughness requires being open to failure and perceiving it as feedback that can guide you in taking purposeful action.
To cultivate mental toughness, write down five of your most recent failures and how you responded to each one. Next, write down more positive ways you could have dealt with each failure. For example, if you missed an important deadline, you could have spent time reviewing your workload and re-evaluating how you manage your time. Overcoming your fear of failure doesn’t mean mustering false bravado or ignoring your weaknesses. Instead, take purposeful action toward your desired outcome after recognizing the reality of your situation and considering your options. Assess how you face the unexpected by writing down your typical responses. For example, perhaps you avoid making tough decisions.
Cultivate stronger impulse-control and build better habits.
Mentally tough people resist the temptation to indulge in something they desire in the present, and, instead, focus on attaining something they want more in the future. Practicing self-restraint builds your tolerance for discomfort and improves your cognitive resilience. Checking your urge for instant gratification bolsters your ability to tune out distractions.
Change your expectations, so you don’t associate low-effort activities with high rewards. Identify compulsive desires and find reward-stimulating alternatives that are more productive. Give yourself small rewards, such as reading for pleasure, when you resist temptations. Define your guiding values and compelling reasons to pursue your goals, while reminding yourself of their importance. This exercise can help you understand that delaying gratification feels good: Describe two incidents, one in which you resisted temptation to complete a goal-oriented task, and another in which you succumbed to temptation and failed to work toward your goals. Then, describe how each decision made you feel.
“Our habits signify what is important to us. They reflect our values and priorities.”
To improve mental strength, take the following steps:
- Rethink the past – Don’t let past events define you. Instead, view them as valuable training to help you overcome future adversity.
- Investigate negative emotions immediately – To avoid letting negative emotions overwhelm you, evaluate them as soon as they surface.
- Build self-confidence – You can’t overcome your fear of the unknown and persevere when facing obstacles without trusting yourself and your abilities.
- Practice daily gratitude – Rather than complain about challenges, remind yourself of things you’re thankful for.
- Develop change tolerance – Leave your comfort zone and seek out the unknown.
Build your confidence and overcome your inner critic.
When you possess confidence, you trust you’re prepared to face uncomfortable, difficult situations. You know you’re adaptable and capable of pivoting when necessary. Check in with yourself, reflecting honestly on whether you’re over- or under-confident, and align your confidence levels with the reality of your abilities.
Build appropriate confidence by abandoning any need you might have to feel you’re in total control of your circumstances. Be open to emotional pain, so you’re not paralyzed by fear. Take inventory of your growth and skills development. Cultivate a positive outlook, and forgo the need to seek external validation. List everything that contributes to your feelings of insecurity and jot down ideas about how you can lessen their negative effects. This might entail replacing recurring negative self-talk with a positive affirmation.
“Your inner critic is a shrewd adversary. It knows that it doesn’t have to yell to get your attention. It doesn’t have to scream to pummel your psyche, wear down your self-confidence, and encourage you to adopt a negative attitude.”
To overcome negative self-talk or your inner critic, take these steps:
- Don’t ignore it – Examine the negative claims your inner critic makes about you, recognizing them as emotionally and mentally destructive.
- Check its facts – Ask if there’s any evidence supporting the negative stories you tell yourself. Remind yourself that failure can be a growth opportunity.
- Respond rationally to overgeneralization – When you catch yourself using words like “always,” and “everyone,” replace the baseless claims of your negative inner voice with reasonable statements.
- Avoid negative people – Don’t let cynical, demoralized or pessimistic people monopolize your time – emotion is contagious.
- Talk to yourself like you would to a friend – Give yourself the advice you’d give a good friend, and resist the temptation to insult yourself.
Welcome boredom and conquer the desire to quit when working toward goals.
Contrary to popular belief, boredom can be a gift; it provides you with an opportunity to self-reflect. You’re unlikely to increase your mental toughness if you avoid boredom. You don’t master a skill without experiencing boredom, as mastery requires repetitive practice work. Without mastery, you’ll feel a lack of control and confidence.
To stop feeling discomfort when bored, identify and accept that you’re bored, reminding yourself of the broader goals your boredom serves. Meditation can help you connect to the present moment and prevent you from chasing distractions. Rethink boredom’s role in your life by listing the emotions you tend to associate with feeling bored. Identify what triggers those emotions, and reframe your boredom triggers more positively.
“We don’t like to think of ourselves as quitters. But most of us have, at some point in our lives, abandoned goals due to the obstacles we faced at the time.”
To avoid quitting when you’re trying to accomplish an important goal, consider the main reasons people give up: They get distracted; don’t overcome their impulses and bad habits; don’t take their commitments seriously; don’t clarify the rewards they’re working toward; and/or are overly optimistic and fail to anticipate potential setbacks.
If you find yourself lacking the resolve to work toward your goals, question your motives for quitting. For example, has your outlook actually changed or do you have weak resolve? Reflect on whether your goals and purpose are worth abandoning. Make yourself more mentally tough by developing a more positive attitude. Build positivity by cultivating gratitude for the resources you have, and resisting the temptation to wallow in self-pity.
Take purposeful action by building willpower, motivation and self-discipline.
Willpower means controlling your impulses and resisting temptations and distractions when trying to accomplish something. Motivation refers to the impulse to take action toward change. If you can’t muster motivation and willpower, your habits can give you the structure to take action toward your goals.
Turning purposeful action into a habitual behavior makes engaging in goal-driven activities more automatic. One practical method for building self-control is to take five minutes to meditate whenever you feel tempted to indulge in an activity that’s not goal directed. Build motivation by writing down five activities that inspire you to take purposeful action, and five that detract from your motivation. Identifying the environmental factors influencing your motivation levels guides you in making adjustments that serve your goals.
“Willpower is like that friend who’s occasionally there for you but mostly not. He – or she – cannot be relied upon. Self-discipline is like that friend who’s always there for you, regardless of the circumstances.”
Five secrets of self-discipline help you cultivate self-control:
- Eliminate temptations – Remove environmental temptations to avoid triggering impulse-driven behaviors.
- You won’t become self-disciplined overnight – Recognize that you’re in control of your mind by taking small steps toward increased self-discipline, daily.
- Make a strategy – Create a feasible action plan to enable your consistent progress by scheduling goal-driven activities.
- Get comfortable with discomfort – Tolerate feelings such as malaise rather than indulging your impulses.
- Focus on tasks – When engaged in a task, give it your full attention.
Navigate challenges and build mental toughness using Navy SEALs tactics.
Navy SEALs use these strategies when dealing with adversity:
- They embrace positive self-talk – Navy SEALs can’t afford to panic.
- They keep training after mastering skills – Navy SEALs understand that training is continuous, and continue practicing skills essential to their long-term success.
- They focus on micro goals – Practicing “segmentation” – breaking dauntingly large goals into smaller ones – helps Navy SEALs stay present and endure difficulties.
- They visualize – Psychologists believe your brain doesn’t differentiate between lived and imagined experiences, so visualizing yourself successfully tackling difficult tasks prepares you to do so in real life.
- They anticipate problems – They prepare for every possible adversity and rehearse their responses for each.
About the author
Damon Zahariades created the blog ArtofProductivity.com, a site devoted to showing you how to hack your day to get more things done.
He wasn’t always productive. Damon spent many years in Corporate America, dragging himself to ridiculous meetings and enduring the impromptu “drive-by” visits of his coworkers, before striking out on his own. Today, he owns his own content marketing agency and creates action guides that show others how to boost their productivity.
Table of Contents
I. Fundamentals of Mental Toughness
What Is Mental Toughness (And How Does It Differ from Grit)?
10 Benefits of Becoming Mentally Tough
Top 7 Traits of Mentally Tough People
8 Sworn Enemies of Mental Toughness
II. Pivotal Factors in Developing Mental Toughness
Mental Toughness and Emotional Mastery
Mental Toughness and Mental Resilience
Mental Toughness in the Face of Adversity
Mental Toughness and the Importance of Delaying Gratification
Mental Toughness and Your Habits
Talent, Ability, and Confidence: How They Influence Mental Toughness
How Your Attitude Affects Your Mental Toughness
Mental Toughness and Your Inner Critic
The Role of Willpower and Motivation
The Role of Self-Discipline
How to Reject the Desire to Give Up
The Upside of Boredom
How to Learn the RIGHT Lessons from Failure
How Navy SEALs Develop Mental Toughness
III. A Quick-Start Guide to Becoming Mentally Tough
Practical Applications of Mental Toughness
A 10-Step Training Program for Toughening Your Mind
The Mental Toughness Maintenance Guide
Final Thoughts On Developing Mental Toughness
Did You Enjoy Reading The Mental Toughness Handbook?
About the Author
Other Books by Damon Zahariades
Do you feel overwhelmed by your circumstances? Are you exhausted and overburdened with stress? Are you tempted to give up whenever you encounter obstacles and mishaps?
If so, THE MENTAL TOUGHNESS HANDBOOK is for you.
Imagine boldly facing any challenge that comes your way. Imagine confronting any problem you run into and resolving it with confidence.
Imagine being 100% certain that you can handle any predicament or setback life throws at you.
Amazon bestselling author, Damon Zahariades, provides a step-by-step training program for toughening your mind against adversity. You’ll learn how to persevere when life become difficult and your circumstances deviate from your plans. You’ll discover how to handle pressure, control your impulses, and endure the emotional and psychological distress that accompany misfortune.
And best of all, you’ll learn how to achieve more than you thought possible through sheer tenacity and determination.
In THE MENTAL TOUGHNESS HANDBOOK, you’ll discover:
- how mental toughness differs from grit (most people mistakenly think they’re the same thing)
- the top 7 traits mentally-tough people adopt to conquer any problem they encounter
- how mental toughness is closely entwined with emotional mastery (as well as the importance of self-awareness and empathy)
- 5 daily habits you must embrace to strengthen your mind and harden your resolve
- why willpower and motivation are unreliable (and how mental toughness trumps both!)
- 5 simple tips for controlling your impulses and delaying gratification
- how Navy SEALs develop mental toughness (and 5 surprising tactics they employ to do so)
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
NOTABLE QUOTABLES ABOUT MENTAL TOUGHNESS
“Successful people have fear, successful people have doubts, and successful people have worries. They just don’t let these feelings stop them.” – T. Harv Eker
“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” – Vincent van Gogh
“Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” – Thomas Jefferson
“The scope of one’s personality is defined by the magnitude of that problem which is capable of driving a person out of his wits.” – Sigmund Freud
“Mental toughness is spartanism with qualities of sacrifice, self-denial, dedication. It is fearlessness, and it is love.” – Vince Lombardi
Anyone who has achieved lasting success possesses mental toughness. Athletes, corporate executives, teachers, parents, students, entrepreneurs, authors… the field of expertise is irrelevant. The fact that an individual has excelled over the long run is sufficient evidence that he or she is mentally tough.
There’s no other way to attain persistent excellence. The road to enduring success is paved with obstacles.
No one is spared the gauntlet.
Mental toughness is required to overcome hurdles that threaten to derail us from our goals. This state of mind can literally mean the difference between success and failure.
The Many Names of Mental Toughness
A lot of terms are used synonymously with mental toughness, and some are less accurate than others. Following are examples:
- mental stamina
- mental fortitude
We’ll distinguish the finer details in Part I: Fundamentals of Mental Toughness. For now, it’s enough to understand the general principle: mental toughness is our durability in the face of adversity.
You’ll see this principle illustrated in greater detail as we examine the many facets of personal durability and resolve in Part II: Pivotal Factors in Developing Mental Toughness. We’ll cover a lot of material in Part II. This section of the book moves quickly and includes plenty of exercises to help you apply what you’ve learned.
Lastly, in Part III: A Quick-Start Guide to Becoming Mentally Tough, we’ll go through a 10-step program for building you resilience from the ground up. You’ll also learn how to maintain your newly-developed mental toughness throughout your life.
What This Book Is (And Is NOT) About
The goal of this book is to help you achieve greater levels of success in whatever area of your life you’d like to focus on. In short, I’m going to show you how to build mental resilience and overcome any obstacle, setback, or misfortune life throws at you.
It’s going to take more than optimistic platitudes and positive self-talk. I won’t lie to you; it’s going to entail hard work. It’ll take effort, and there’ll be plenty of frustration along the way. But the rewards for becoming mentally tough are considerable. You’ll feel more effectual, powerful, and influential. You’ll feel as if you can achieve anything you set your mind to.
The confidence you’ll build from this gradual change in mindset – and it is a gradual process – will help you to literally transform your life. Whether that means excelling as a parent, enjoying greater success as a business owner, or improving the relationships you enjoy with your friends and loved ones depends on your focus.
In my opinion, most personal development books are too long. They’re filled with anecdotes, cheerleading, and research-driven prose that borders on intellectual grandstanding.
This book is different. It’s light on the above and heavy on actionable advice, stuff you can start using today. My goal is to cover the requisite material thoroughly but quickly so you can apply the advice as soon as possible. Nothing would make me happier than for you to read this short book and take purposeful, immediate action based on its instruction.
How to Make This Book Work for YOU
You’ll come across numerous exercises throughout the book. Please don’t ignore them. Take the time to complete them. Most of the exercises are very simple, and require little time and effort.
I suspect many readers will gloss over them for those reasons alone, dismissing them because they’re easy and quick. I encourage you to be different. Do the exercises with confidence that they’ll help you to become mentally tough. While this book isn’t technically a workbook, it does prioritize taking action over mere learning.
Why? Because applying the information you learn is necessary if you hope to use it to change your life.
We know this from experience. I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve read and workshops I’ve attended where the guidance was lost on me due to my failure to put the information to use. Perhaps you can relate to that mistake.
So again, please do the exercises. You’ll be happy you did by the time you finish reading this book.
Your Mission, If You Choose to Accept It…
Has success been fleeting in your life? Have you had difficulty achieving and maintaining greatness in your chosen areas of focus? Has life thrown you unexpected curve balls that have left you feeling discouraged, angry, and depressed?
If so, today is the perfect day to start making positive changes.
No matter where you are in your life, no matter what struggles you’re currently experiencing, you can improve your circumstances. You can achieve greater levels of success. This fact should fill you with practical optimism. After all, you have tremendous influence over your mindset. Control that, and the battle is nearly won.
The Mental Toughness Handbook will prepare you for the fight. It’ll give you the necessary tools, offer a methodical game plan, and provide the training you’ll need to become increasingly durable in the face of adversity.
We’ll be going on this journey together. I’ll be your tour guide, and will ensure you maximize your time and attentional resources. By the time we’re done, assuming you do the exercises, you’ll notice your mindset has already begun to change.
You’ll have started to truly become mentally tough.
Does that sound good to you? Then let’s jump in.
PART I FUNDAMENTALS OF MENTAL TOUGHNESS
No one is born with mental toughness. We develop it over time, similar to building a muscle. That’s wonderful news because it means anyone can do it. All that is required is commitment.
The reason so many don’t develop mental toughness is because it entails a lot of work and patience, and comes with a fair bit of frustration. It involves discomfort. You’re part of a special group because you’re willing to put in the work and endure the frustration to develop a state of mind that’ll reward you throughout your life.
But first things first. Before you can develop mental toughness, it’s important to understand its many facets. That’s what we’ll focus on in this section. We’ll examine what mental toughness is and how it’ll improve your life. I’ll also describe the telltale traits of people who have mastered it. You’ll be able to use this as a checklist for personal comparison as you develop the skill yourself.
Finally, we’ll highlight several enemies of mental toughness. These are the obstacles that’ll try to discourage you from persevering when circumstances fail to go your way. After you finish reading Part I, you’ll be acutely aware of these obstacles. This advance awareness will help you to overcome them when you confront them.
One quick note: you’ve probably glanced at this book’s table of contents. If so, you’ve noticed there are a lot of chapters. Don’t feel daunted. Most of the chapters are short because we’ll be focusing on applying the material.
Minimal theory, maximum action.
WHAT IS MENTAL TOUGHNESS (AND HOW DOES IT DIFFER FROM GRIT)?
I provided a simple definition earlier: mental toughness is durability in the face of adversity. But there’s a lot going on in that definition, so let’s unpack it.
First, it involves our reaction to stress. Do we crumble or persist? Do we give up or stay the course?
Second, it involves our responses to our emotions. What do we do when we feel frustrated? How do we deal with our anger and disappointment when life seems unfair to us?
Third, it involves our resilience. When things go wrong in our lives, do we dust ourselves off and get back on track or complain and blame others for our predicaments?
Fourth, it involves our grit. When we face roadblocks to achieving our goals, do we press onward or concede defeat?
Grit and mental toughness are often considered to be the same thing. In truth, they’re not. Grit is an attribute that defines our inclination to persevere in adverse circumstances. Mental toughness is a state of mind. It defines our attitudinal durability in such circumstances. It describes our general outlook.
In that way, it’s closer to stoicism than grit.
Having said that, grit is a crucial ingredient in developing mental toughness. Grit helps us to regulate our responses to our negative emotions. It fills us with the confidence we need to focus on achievement rather than our fear of failure. It’s impossible to be mentally tough and not possess a healthy amount of grit.
Now that we’ve unpacked the definition of mental toughness, let’s flesh it out with a few real-life examples.
Real-Life Examples of Mental Toughness
You probably know at least one athlete. If this person cares about his or her performance, he or she possesses mental toughness. Athletes, from football players to figure skaters, put their minds and bodies through the wringer. There’s no way they can endure the punishing discipline required of them and the disappointment that accompanies performing below their standards without developing a level of mental durability.
You probably also know at least one entrepreneur. If that person has built a successful business, you can be sure he or she has experienced times of extreme stress. Entrepreneurs and business owners face countless obstacles and setbacks. The only way they can succeed in the long run is to endure and overcome them.
Consider doctors and nurses. These professionals deal with life-and-death situations every day, and none of these situations are scripted. Whether in the emergency room or the operating room, things often go wrong. Unanticipated complications surface at the worst possible times. The only way doctors and nurses can perform effectively is by regulating their emotions, accepting their current circumstances, and acting quickly when things go awry.
Consider first responders, those who are tasked with arriving at the scene of an emergency and providing specialized help. They include firemen, police officers, paramedics, and other highly-trained individuals. They work in extremely stressful environments. They’re expected to perform at a high level, often when their lives are at risk. There’s no way they can do so without possessing mental toughness.
If you’re a parent, you undoubtedly have a healthy measure of mental toughness already, even if it is focused in a single area of your life. Raising children involves uncertainty and fear. Unforeseen trauma – for example, an injury or serious illness – must be addressed in the face of panic and negative emotions. Immediate happiness must often be sacrificed for future rewards. Raising healthy, confident, capable, self-sufficient children requires weathering times of stress, fear, and guilt.
Becoming Mentally Strong in Every Area of Your Life
The above are examples of mental toughness exhibited by people you probably know. In fact, you may be one of these people. But mental toughness exhibited in one area of our lives often eludes us in other areas.
For example, my ability to endure adverse situations while running my business doesn’t mean I’d be able to endure the challenges that accompany raising a child. Likewise, a doctor who’s able to remain calm and effective in the emergency room may be unable to endure the gnawing stress that accompanies marital problems.
This book will show you how to become mentally strong in all areas of your life. Once you become so, you’ll enjoy the peace of mind that comes with knowing you can handle any situation with poise, grace, and self-confidence.
10 BENEFITS OF BECOMING MENTALLY TOUGH
As we noted earlier, developing mental toughness requires work and patience, and is accompanied by frustration. The only reason to put yourself through this experience is the expectation that doing so will noticeably improve your life. To that end, let’s quickly examine 10 ways that toughening your mind against adversity will benefit you for years to come.
Benefit #1 – Greater Resistance to Negative Emotions
Emotions are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they allow us to experience joy, motivate us to take action, and help us to empathize with others. However, they can also sabotage us. Negative emotions, such as anger, shame, fear, and anxiety prompt us to make terrible decisions, hide mistakes, and feel like giving up when things go awry.
When you become mentally tough, you’ll be better able to regulate your emotions. You’ll still be in touch with them, but negative feelings will have less impact on your behavior and responses to adverse conditions.
Benefit #2 – Improved Performance
Peak performance stems from your mindset. This includes how you respond to setbacks. Whether you’re an athlete, surgeon, chef, or musician, your ability to perform at a high level depends on how you feel and react when things go wrong. If you wilt when you encounter setbacks, your performance will suffer. Worse, you’ll never fully reach your potential.
Mental toughness prepares you for obstacles. Rather than wilting when you encounter them, you’ll approach them with grace and self-confidence. You’ll be better able to weather difficult or unplanned circumstances and overcome challenges.
Benefit #3 – Confidence That Circumstances Will Improve
If you’re not resilient to adversity, it’s easy to become fatalistic when things go wrong. You may feel like giving up, convinced that life isn’t fair. You might be inclined to concede defeat, telling yourself that persevering would be for naught because current conditions are unlikely to get better.
But that’s a false assumption. Circumstances always change. And they often do so as a result of our actions. Stressful situations can either become more stressful or relaxing based on our behavioral responses to stress-inducing stimuli. Uncomfortable situations can either become more uncomfortable or pleasant based on how we react to our environments.
When you’re mentally resilient to difficult situations, you’re able to tolerate them, confident that your resolve will be rewarded as circumstances inevitably improve.
Benefit #4 – Greater Ability to Manage Stress
Stress stems from the expectation of consequences, both real and perceived. It comes from the knowledge that high stakes are involved in whatever we’re doing. If we perform poorly, something bad will happen.
For example, salespeople must hit their sales quotas or risk losing their jobs and income. Firefighters must perform their jobs effectively or others might lose their lives. Athletes must perform at a high level or risk being outperformed by their competitors.
Mental strength allows you to endure the pressure. Rather than succumbing to it, you’re able to thrive under it. Your tenacity helps you to stay motivated, optimistic, and confident in your abilities in high-stress situations.
Benefit #5 – Less Susceptibility to Self-Doubt
No one escapes self-doubt entirely. Show me someone who always seems self-possessed, even to the point of arrogance, and I’ll show you someone who occasionally (and perhaps even frequently) second-guesses himself or herself.
Self-doubt affects us all. We wonder whether we’ll be able to compete effectively. We question whether we’ll achieve our goals. We even entertain worst-case scenarios, allowing our inner critics to wreak havoc with our confidence.
Mental toughness doesn’t eliminate self-doubt. Instead, it prevents self-doubt from sabotaging your performance. It gives you a chance to acknowledge that even though failure is a possibility, fear of it stems from insecurity rather than hard evidence. Success is probably more likely than your inner critic insinuates.
Benefit #6 – Greater Clarity Regarding Your Intentions and Purpose
Dealing with adverse situations is difficult when you’re uncertain of the reasons you’re doing so. It’s hard to stay motivated to act if you’re unclear about why you’re putting in the effort.
For example, suppose you’ve spent months looking for a job. Leads are showing little promise and your savings account is dwindling dangerously low. It’s easy to become frustrated. It’s tempting to give up. Such is the power of despair because it focuses on failure, obfuscating your purpose in the process.
When you’re mentally strong, you’re able to focus on the reasons you’re trying to accomplish your goal. You’re less susceptible to feelings of hopelessness because you know why you’re taking action. That knowledge keeps you motivated to face any challenges that come your way.
Benefit #7 – Fearlessness
Fear of the unknown is one of the most common obstacles to our achieving our potential. It manifests in different ways, but one of these ways is familiar to us all: alarm at the prospect of venturing beyond our comfort zones.
Humans place enormous value on comfort and predictability. We might claim to relish surprises and spontaneity, but in truth, most of us are creatures of habit. We follow routines. These routines make us feel comfortable and in control of our environments. To that end, the idea of trying something new causes us to hesitate. We fear the unknown.
Mental toughness erodes this fear. It gives us the courage to venture outside our comfort zones and try new things. To that end, it gives us the opportunity to grow, developing new skills and acquiring new knowledge and insight.
Benefit #8 – Ability to Accept (And Learn From) Failure
Failure is an inescapable part of life. It’s an ever-present possibility whenever we try to accomplish something.
Most people will go to great lengths to avoid failure. They perceive it as an indictment of their character and value. Accordingly, they avoid taking risks and making mistakes, even though doing so stunts their personal and professional growth. Failure, to them, is unacceptable.
Mental resilience prepares you to not only accept failure as a potential outcome of any endeavor, but allows you to learn from your mistakes. Rather than perceiving failure as a judgement on your character and value, you’ll see it as a chance to take corrective action for improved performance in the future. The prospect of failing will no longer hold any power over you.
Benefit #9 – Greater Ability to Delay Gratification
Given a choice, we prefer to experience gratification now rather than later. It’s human nature. The problem is, this intuitive inclination often imposes negative consequences.
It motivates us to give up on our goals because they require too much effort. It chips away at our patience and impulse control as we perceive forbearance to be a type of needless suffering. It discourages us from working hard toward accomplishing an objective because we’re tempted by the pleasures available to us in the moment.
Mental strength amplifies your ability to delay gratification. You’ll no longer be at the mercy of your impulses. You’ll be able to resist the temptations that surround you and devote your energy and attention to endeavors that promise bigger dividends down the road.
Benefit #10 – Willingness to Let Things Go
We tend to hold onto things that have caused us emotional pain. Examples include mistakes that carried terrible consequences, perceived slights from others, and regrettable decisions from our distant past. These things can sometimes begin to define us. They become a part of our identity. When they become so, they rob us of the inner peace and confidence we would otherwise experience.
When you develop mental toughness, you’ll become more inclined to let such things go. Rather than dwelling on past pains and regrets, you’ll see them as stepping stones to your continual growth. Every mistake become a lesson from which to acquire insight. Every perceived slight becomes an opportunity to nurture valued relationships. Every regrettable decision becomes a chance to reexamine your intentions and ensure they align with your values.
Ultimately, after these things have served their purpose, you’ll be able to move on, leaving them where they belong: in the past.
THIS SECTION WAS A LONG ONE. But it’s important to recognize what you stand to gain from pursuing mental toughness. Let’s now investigate the common attributes of mentally-tough people.
TOP 7 TRAITS OF MENTALLY TOUGH PEOPLE
Think of the people in your life who epitomize your definition of success. Maybe it’s a family member who built a huge business in a competitive market. Maybe it’s a friend who consistently accomplishes every personal and professional goal he sets for himself. Perhaps it’s a coworker who’s exceptionally effective at her job.
Like everyone, these individuals face adversity. Things go wrong during the course of their days. Unanticipated circumstances constantly threaten to derail them. Failure looms around each corner, and is sometimes unavoidable.
Yet they manage to persevere, ultimately succeeding in spite of these obstacles.
Each of these individuals has developed mental toughness. They’ve learned to be resilient when confronted with adverse situations. They’re able to face challenges with grit, tenacity, and courage, confident in their abilities and assured by the fact that hardship and failure are inevitable.
It’s worth placing these people under the microscope to learn what makes them tick. To that end, here are seven crucial attributes that comprise their mental toughness.
Trait #1: Ability to Disentangle Themselves from Things They Can’t Influence
Like all of us, people who are mentally tough are passionate about a variety of things. For example, some tune into the latest political news, reading opinions and listening to pundits hoping to gain insight. For others, major issues like global warming, human trafficking, and food security attract their attention.
What sets apart mentally tough people is their quick recognition that, despite their interest, they’re unable to influence most of these issues. This private concession allows them to disengage after doing what’s possible, giving them the freedom to focus on things upon which they can have a significant impact.
Take global warming as an example. Individually, we can vote, we can sign petitions, and we can minimize our personal carbon footprint. But we lack the ability to materially influence the issue on a global scale. Spending countless hours trying to advance the matter without any hope for a justified and rewarding outcome is a recipe for despair.
Mentally tough people know when to disentangle themselves and move on.
Trait #2: Flexibility in Handling Unanticipated Events
Life throws curve balls. The moment we’re confident that a situation will work out exactly as we anticipate, we encounter unforeseen circumstances that threaten to make a mess out of things.
Most people are surprised, and even paralyzed, by unexpected developments. This is another area in which mentally strong people stand apart from the pack. They realize that while making plans is useful, unpredicted situations can quickly ruin even the most carefully prepared plans. So they learn to adapt. They train themselves to be mentally flexible so they’re able to adjust whenever they’re confronted by unexpected circumstances.
Have you ever watched someone you know to be consistently successful in their pursuits? Have you ever wondered how they can remain calm when they encounter one obstacle after another? It’s largely because of their adaptability, their psychological preparedness for the unexpected.
This is a key attribute among people who are mentally tough.
Trait #3: Strong Self-Awareness
Self-awareness is the recognition of your emotional state, the motives driving your decisions and actions, and the influence of your personality and temperament. That’s a loose definition, but it’ll suffice for now.
Mentally strong people are hyper self-aware. They have to be so. Their confidence to perform effectively and handle any situation that unfolds before them stems from this awareness. They trust themselves to adapt to changing circumstances and overcome obstacles not merely because of their strengths, but also because they acknowledge their weaknesses. This allows them to control their emotions, absorb stress, and remain resilient when things go awry.
Most people believe they possess strong self-awareness. But in my opinion, few actually do. Sure, most of us recognize things that trigger our emotions. We know certain triggers make us angry, tense, or happy. We’re also aware that we harbor both good and bad traits. But true self-awareness extends much deeper. Mentally tough people achieve it by purposefully investigating their psyches and developing compensatory strategies that help them deal with adversity.
Trait #4: Willingness to Face Uncertain Circumstances
We talked about how mentally strong people possess the ability to adapt to unexpected events (Trait #2). They’re also willing to face uncertainty. They recognize that none of their plans are foolproof. On the contrary, they intuitively know that all plans are susceptible to failure based on unanticipated events. As Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, Chief of Staff of the Prussian army in the 1800s said, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”
And despite this acknowledgement, they’re inclined to press forward. They’re ready to act knowing that potential failure looms around every corner.
This is an unusual attribute. Few of us are born with it. Rather, it’s developed over time, usually by running a gauntlet of unfavorable situations that pose a continual threat of emotional, psychological, and even physical defeat. Show me a mentally tough person and I’ll show you an individual who has successfully endured a long string of troubles and challenges.
Trait #5: Ability to Bounce Back from Disappointments
Life is full of disappointments. Some are small and have a negligible impact on our day. Others are weighty and can dominate our mind space for weeks on end. For example, suppose you’ve toiled at your job for years expecting to earn a promotion only to be overlooked when the time finally arrived. Or imagine training for years as an Olympic hopeful only to have your dreams dashed when you fail to qualify.
These types of disappointments can be so traumatic that they cause us to avoid taking risks in the future. They can make us apprehensive to the point that we’re paralyzed, unable to set goals, make plans, and take action. In short, we’ll go to great lengths to avoid experiencing such disappointments down the road.
Mentally strong people have a different perspective. Like all of us, they acknowledge that disappointments, big and small, are inevitable. But they also recognize that such occurrences can be terrific learning opportunities. And they investigate accordingly. Disappointing results often reveal tactics that aren’t working, approaches that are ineffective, and mistakes that can be avoided henceforth.
This healthy perspective makes it easier for mentally tough individuals to bounce back when they fail.
Trait #6: Emotional Mastery
All of us experience negative emotions. They arise from disappointment, unmet expectations, and unforeseen events that complicate our lives.
For example, you may have felt disheartened after receiving a poor performance review at your job. Perhaps you felt angry at yourself when you received a terrible grade on an exam after spending several days preparing for it. Maybe you experienced profound frustration the last time unanticipated traffic on the freeway made you late for an important appointment.
Many of us live at the mercy of our emotions. That’s a problem when we experience negative emotions, such as discouragement, anger, and frustration. These feelings hold us back. They prevent us from making rational decisions and taking productive action, and thereby hamper our personal and professional growth.
Mentally strong people have mastered their emotions. Their emotional intelligence (EQ) is higher than that of most of their peers. That’s not to suggest they never experience negative emotions. Rather, it indicates they’re aware of these feelings, are able to regulate themselves in light of them, and can move forward with purpose.
Trait #7: Practical Optimism
It’s easy to become mired in the negativity that surrounds us. We’re bombarded by it every day. Whether it’s the latest political scandal or reports of a pending recession on the horizon, we can forgive ourselves for feeling gloomy and pessimistic.
Having said that, mental toughness is usually found in those who have a positive attitude. These individuals are optimistic about the future. To clarify, they’re not the ebullient type who remain cheerful as their world crumbles. Rather, they’re cautiously optimistic, seeing opportunities where others see only disaster and hopelessness. Mentally strong people are upbeat pragmatists. They protect their minds from negativity, refusing to dwell in it. Meanwhile, they remain confident in their abilities and sound judgment to make the best of every situation.
The Good News about Mental Toughness
No one is born mentally strong. It’s something each of us develops. That’s terrific news because it means that you control it. You can incorporate each of the seven traits profiled above into your life. Rather than being paralyzed with fear, frustration, and lack of confidence when things go wrong, you can develop the mental resilience you need to perform effectively.
Now that we’ve covered the most common attributes of mentally strong individuals, let’s switch gears. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest obstacles you’ll encounter on the road to developing mental toughness.
8 SWORN ENEMIES OF MENTAL TOUGHNESS
Learning to face complications and setbacks while remaining confident in your ability to persevere is a long road. If developing mental resiliency were easy, everyone would do it and the idea of giving up would be strange to us. The fact is, life throws obstacles in our path that can seem, in the moment, overwhelming. We must train our minds to withstand the despair and hopelessness that chip away at our confidence and optimism when things go awry.
There are several adversaries you’ll meet along the way. In fact, you may already be acquainted with some of them. Each one will try to intimidate you and pressure you to surrender when situations become difficult to handle.
Below, we’ll take a look at the eight most common threats to your burgeoning psychological tenacity. By the end of this section, you’ll know exactly which hazards to look for as you gradually strengthen your resolve. If you can identify them before they rear their heads, you’ll be better equipped to overcome them.
Enemy #1: Self-Pity
Feeling sorry for ourselves is exhausting. It takes a lot of energy. It also sabotages our resolve, making us more likely to resign ourselves to failure than persevere through difficult situations. We end up dwelling on our unfavorable circumstances rather than toughening our minds to see our way through them.
That affects our behavior. Instead of rolling up our sleeves and digging our heels in, we focus on the fact that everything is going wrong. We wallow in that negativity, which prevents us from taking the necessary action to overcome our adverse conditions.
Such is the danger inherent in self-pity. It is the bane of psychological resilience.
Enemy #2: Self-Doubt
It’s difficult to stay mentally strong in unfavorable situations when you lack confidence in your abilities and skills. But lack of ability and skill is rarely the main factor that determines whether you’ll fail or overcome your circumstances. The deciding factor is usually insecurity. Insecurity breeds inaction, which is a much larger threat to your success.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling self-doubt. Doing so is natural. It’s our brain’s way of both protecting us and preparing us for the hard work ahead. Fortune 500 CEOs, world-class athletes, top film directors, and even presidents experience it.
The trouble begins when we allow self-doubt to possess such a foothold in our minds that it paralyzes us. All of our energy becomes focused on our perceived deficits that our insecurity incapacitates us.
Enemy #3: Your Inner Critic
This enemy is related to Enemy #2 above. But it deserves its own spotlight because it can have such a crippling effect on our cognitive resolve.
Each of us has an inner critic. It’s the voice in our heads telling us that we’re not good enough, smart enough, or attractive enough. It’s the nag that tries to convince us that we don’t deserve the success we seek. It finds fault in everything we do, and asserts that others will do the same.
Your inner critic may prove to be your most challenging adversary as you develop mental toughness. It will not only dwell on the negative aspects of your performance (both perceived and real), but it’ll try to get you to do the same. And once your mind is focused on negativity, your inner critic will have successfully distracted you from strengthening your resolve.
Becoming mentally strong requires silencing negative self-talk. In Part II: Pivotal Factors In Developing Mental Toughness, I’ll share some tips for showing your inner critic who’s the boss.
Enemy #4: Fear
Fear comes in a lot of flavors. We fear disappointing others. We fear not meeting their expectations. We fear not meeting our own expectations. We fear failure. We fear success. We fear the unfamiliar and unknown.
Regardless of its form, fear sabotages our psychological resilience. It erodes our resolve, releases unhealthy emotions, and causes us to focus on potentially negative outcomes. We freeze up, overwhelmed by the possibility of disaster.
Fear distorts reality. It implies that catastrophe and ruination are certain to follow our performance. If we allow fear to gain a foothold in our minds, we end up feeling defeated before we’ve even taken action. The truth is, the odds of catastrophe resulting from whatever we’re doing are so infinitesimal that they’re unworthy of consideration.
Fear takes every potentially negative outcome and amplifies its impact. For example, if we’re about to give a presentation, our fear may tell us that we’ll be ridiculed by our audience and forever branded an incompetent failure. In reality, we’re likely to leave a favorable impression on our audience even if a few things fail to go as planned.
Fear is an emotion that opposes the development of mental toughness. Once the latter develops, fear is rendered powerless.
Enemy #5: Laziness
There’s nothing wrong with feeling lazy. Nor is there anything wrong with taking the opportunity to relax. We must do so on a regular basis. The alternative is burnout. And burnout is a much greater threat to your performance and productivity than bouts of laziness. Having said that, laziness can breed additional laziness if it’s left unchecked.
For example, suppose your alarm goes off in the morning and rather than immediately getting out of bed you hit the snooze button. After a few minutes, you hit it again. And then again. By the time you finally get out of bed, you’re feeling sluggish. And you’re running late, to boot. Your morning is off to an idle start, and that sets the tone for your performance later in the day.
In this case, early laziness opened the door to a general sense of lethargy. And this feeling of sluggishness will make you less likely to persevere when things go wrong. Rather than digging in and persisting through adversity, your mental torpor will encourage you to concede defeat.
Enemy #6: Perfectionism
All of us want to perform without fault. At work, we’d like to give flawless presentations. At home, we’d like our living spaces to be completely free of clutter. While participating in sports, we’d like to display impeccable execution. In school, we’d like to ace every assignment and exam.
In short, we’d prefer to be perfect.
Most of us are willing to admit that we’re not perfect. But for some of us, the idea of being less than perfect is anathema to our sensibilities. We’re unable to accept it. So we struggle to be perfect in everything we do, partly to satisfy our own expectations and partly to avoid disappointing others’ expectations.
The problem is, perfectionism is the scourge of mental toughness. Nothing breeds inaction and erodes cognitive resilience as completely as the nagging thought that any performance that’s less than perfect is unacceptable. This self-harassment breeds self-doubt and gives center stage to your inner critic.
Enemy #7: Emotionalism
Our emotions can be our best ally or our worst adversary. Sometimes, we experience joy, hope, love, and inspiration. These positive emotions can make us feel confidence, content, and optimistic about the future. Other times, we experience anger, sadness, and jealousy. These negative emotions can lead to feelings of frustration and resentment, and cause unnecessary anxiety.
As noted earlier, negative emotions aren’t a problem in and of themselves. They’re a natural part of our psyches. Experiencing them does not preclude the development of mental toughness.
The true issue stems from an inability to control these emotions. When we lose control of them, we can too easily become lost in a pool of negativity. The more of our attentional resources we surrender to negative emotions, the less capable we are to remain mentally strong and resolved during times of challenge and hardship.
In short, we’re less able to cope with life’s difficulties.
Enemy #8: Self-Limiting Beliefs
Each of us possesses a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Each of us also possesses a set of beliefs regarding our abilities. These beliefs are often out of alignment with reality; we presume personal deficits where none exist. When this happens, our beliefs hamper our ability to take purposeful action toward our goals. In short, they limit us.
For example, suppose you’re thinking about starting a side business. Following are a few common self-limiting beliefs:
“I’m too old to start a business.”
“I don’t have experience running a business. Without experience, I’ll fail.”
“My product idea is stupid. Nobody would buy this product.”
These beliefs compose an inaccurate picture. They highlight things that are either untrue or baseless speculation. For instance, you’re never too old to start a side business. And millions of people have successfully done so with zero experience. Moreover, there’s no way to know if people would buy your product without first offering it to them.
The problem with self-limiting beliefs is that they sabotage us before we get started. They convince us that we’re not prepared to achieve what we’re trying to accomplish. Unless we overcome these uncharitable thoughts about ourselves, we’ll never persist when we encounter hardship and pressure. Consequently, we’ll inadvertently inhibit our personal growth and fail to reach our potential.
The Road Forward
We’ve now covered the background you need to train your brain to endure difficult circumstances and persevere when you’re tempted to give up. In Part II: Pivotal Factors in Developing Mental Toughness, we’ll go through the process together, step by step, toward doing so.
Fair warning: this can be a long, arduous road. It’ll require introspection, patience, and consistent application of the tactics and strategies you’ll learn in the following pages. But once you reach the end of this road, you’ll possess the mental toughness you need to courageously overcome life’s adversities in all of its myriad forms.
REVIEW the eight enemies of mental toughness profiled above and consider which ones are wreaking havoc with your cognitive resilience. You may be struggling with one of them in particular. Or perhaps you’re struggling with several. Whichever is the case, write them down on an index card. Then, place the index card on your desk where it’ll be visible to you.
This short exercise will make you hyper-aware of the challenges you’ll need to overcome as you build your mental toughness.
Time required: 5 minutes.
PART II PIVOTAL FACTORS IN DEVELOPING MENTAL TOUGHNESS
In this section, we’ll train to become mentally tough. I’ll share practical strategies you can use to master your emotions, improve your resolve, and develop the psychological readiness you need to handle any situation you encounter. The tools you’ll receive in this section will also help increase your tenacity and grit when circumstances deviate from your expectations.
This isn’t merely about mental stamina. Nor is it just about persistence. It’s about developing the cognitive mettle to press forward when things fail to go according to your plans. That requires courage, self-confidence, and mental fortitude.
Facing setbacks and overcoming challenges, and doing so with composure and grace under pressure, is a learned skill. That’s terrific news! It means anyone can do it as long as they’re committed and willing to put in the time and effort training their mind. To that end, you’ll find an exercise at the end of each chapter. Each exercise is designed to help you apply what you’ve learned. They’re simple and easy. And most importantly, they lay a crucial foundation for becoming mentally tough.
Other books heroically detail the theory and psychology behind mental toughness. That’s not what we’re going to do. On the contrary, we’re going to focus on practical application. Mental toughness will only be useful to you if you’re able to apply it to your daily experience.
Are you ready to master your impulses, control your behaviors, and adjust your mindset so that you respond to adversity in a positive, productive manner? Are you willing to restructure how your brain processes and reacts to difficult situations? If so, let’s get to work!
MENTAL TOUGHNESS AND EMOTIONAL MASTERY
Our emotions play a vital role in how we face challenges and setbacks. Our ability to function effectively when everything around us is going awry is closely linked to how we process our emotions. If we’re unable to control them, our capability to perform under pressure suffers. If we are able to exert control, handling mistakes and distress becomes much easier.
This is referred to as our emotional intelligence. It’s our ability to understand and manage our emotions in a way that allows us to perform effectively. Rather than stifling our feelings in order to toughen our minds against adversity, we should aim to do the opposite. We should try to recognize how we feel whenever we encounter challenges so we can learn to control our fear, manage our stress, and respond with purpose and determination.
The Value of Self-Awareness
We must know what we feel deep down to become mentally strong. We need to be acutely aware of our thoughts, beliefs, and convictions. We must clarify our values so that our responses to unfavorable circumstances are purposeful.
Becoming mentally strong doesn’t require that we detach ourselves from our emotions. On the contrary, we should embrace them. That’s the only way to truly master them. By acknowledging our fear, frustration, and other negative emotions when things go wrong, we’re able to evaluate them, determine their veracity, and regulate the ones that are unrealistic.
Increasing our self-awareness is the first step toward achieving emotional mastery.
The Role of Empathy
Empathy is often misconstrued and oversimplified as “being nice.” But it’s not merely about being polite or being a good listener. There’s a lot more to it. Being empathetic means putting yourself into another person’s shoes and acknowledging their emotions in light of their circumstances. You’re able to comprehend their thoughts and feelings in that moment.
Although empathy is focused on understanding others, it’s an essential skill to building our own mental toughness. We gain unique insight into myriad adverse situations experienced by others. We achieve clarity about such situations that we can use when we encounter them ourselves. And the more empathy we feel toward others, the less likely we are to make uninformed assumptions about their circumstances.
By being empathetic, we can honestly answer the questions:
“What emotions would I feel in a similar situation?”
“How would I respond given those emotions?”
“Is that a reasonable response given my abilities, skills, and knowledge?”
“What type of person do I want to be when faced with these circumstances?”
Empathy allows us to connect with others. In the process, we’re able to learn more about ourselves and candidly examine our own temperament when confronted with complications and distress.
Why Emotional Control Is Critical
Emotional mastery is often misunderstood as meaning to stifle one’s emotions. But that belief is incorrect. Emotional mastery entails recognizing our emotions, understanding why we’re experiencing them, and managing them in a healthy manner.
As mentioned above, we don’t want to disassociate ourselves from our feelings. That doesn’t lead to mental toughness. Over the long run, disconnecting just makes us more susceptible to anxiety and depression.
Managing our emotions – that is, exerting emotional control – gives us an opportunity to acknowledge them, confront them, scrutinize them, and decide whether what we’re feeling is levelheaded given our circumstances.
For example, suppose you’ve completed an exam at school and received a poor grade. You may feel disgusted with yourself, presuming that you’re dense and incapable of doing better. These negative emotions and overly-critical assumptions will wreak havoc with your ability to perform well in the future. Exerting emotional control allows you to explore these emotions and assumptions honestly and determine if they’re accurate (spoiler: they’re rarely accurate). It gives you a chance to realign your perceptions about your abilities with reality.
Mental toughness is directly connected to how we perceive ourselves and our ability to perform, regardless of our circumstances. Emotions that stem from distress, disappointment, and anxiety hamper us. They slow us down and can even cause us to abandon our intentions when things go wrong. This makes emotion management a requisite skill.
How to Master Your Emotions
Gaining emotional control takes time. Many of us spend our entire lives being heavily influenced by our emotions, even the ones that are unreasonable given our abilities. So, it’ll take time to learn to manage them. Following are a few tactics that worked for me. You may find that they work for you, as well.
Reflect on your feelings, both positive and negative. Acknowledge them.
Scrutinize negative emotions the moment they surface. Ask yourself, “Are these emotions reasonable?” If not, reflect on how these emotions hold you back.
Meditate for five minutes a day. Observe your emotions without judgement. Mornings are best, but any time is fine.
Confront your inner critic whenever it “speaks.” Investigate its claims to determine if they’re accurate.
Recognize circumstances you can influence and circumstances you can’t influence. Get accustomed to letting go of your frustration regarding the latter.
Take action, even when you’re uncertain of the outcome. This will train your mind to be proactive.
Try to sleep well, eat well, and exercise. Our physical health influences our emotional health.
Be patient with yourself. No one achieves emotional mastery overnight. The good news is, if you take action every day, you’ll eventually be able to manage your emotions whenever you experience difficult situations.
MAKE a list of the negative emotions you typically experience the most when things go wrong. Maybe it’s anger. Perhaps it’s despair. Or maybe you feel guilty, apathetic, or embarrassed. Whatever the case, write them down.
Now, think carefully about each emotion you’ve identified on your list. Write a short note next to it that describes how it affects your behavior. For example, feeling angry might cause you to lash out at others. Feeling embarrassed may cause you to retreat mentally, which in turn hampers your ability to take action.
Finally, write a short note next to each negative emotion that describes how you’ll respond to it in the future. For example, if you feel angry, you might commit to taking five deep breaths. If you feel embarrassed, you may pledge to examine the reason and determine whether it’s rational.
Time required: 15 minutes.
MENTAL TOUGHNESS AND MENTAL RESILIENCE
As we noted earlier, the terms “mental toughness” and “resilience” are often used synonymously. Many people refer to them as if they mean the same thing. In reality, these two attributes are distinct from one another. The distinction is subtle, but it’s an important one.
It’s essential that we understand the difference between “mental toughness” and “resilience” as we labor to restructure our minds and adjust our instinctive responses to adversity. We’ll place both traits under the microscope below. We’ll investigate how they differ from one another as well as how that difference affects our training.
We’ll then widen our scope. We’ll explore how we can use these traits to adapt to our circumstances. We’ll also discuss how we can change our perception of failure so we’re not discouraged or paralyzed by it.
Mental Toughness vs. Mental Resilience
Again, the difference is subtle. The two are closely related, and so folks who unwittingly conflate them can easily be forgiven for doing so. Having said that, it’s important to recognize why using the terms “mental toughness” and “resilience” synonymously is wrong. Using them in such a way obfuscates their difference, and there’s value in understanding that difference.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from unforeseen complications. It’s the ability to adapt. For example, suppose you leave your home at a normal time en route to your workplace. Unfortunately, you run into expectedly heavy traffic on the freeway. This setback is sure to make you late for a meeting scheduled that morning.
A resilient person might grit his teeth and curse under his breath, but he’d ultimately adapt to this circumstance. He might seek a different route to his workplace, using his phone’s GPS feature. Or he may call his office and reschedule the meeting. Or he might compose an explanation for his tardiness that allows him to avoid others’ disapproval.
Mental toughness is a mindset. It not only reflects our ability to bounce back from unforeseen complications, but also demonstrates a positive outlook during the experience. It’s not just the ability to handle stressful situations. It reflects how we handle them.
For example, a mentally tough person caught in unexpectedly heavy traffic might take the opportunity to listen to an inspiring audiobook. In fact, she might be pleased with her circumstance because it gives her the opportunity.
While resilient individuals will grudgingly adapt to unanticipated setbacks, mentally tough individuals remain open to experiencing such setbacks. They may wish to avoid them, but they realize setbacks are inevitable and ultimately perceive them as challenges to overcome rather than infuriating problems.
It’s important to appreciate this difference in mindset. Mental resilience is a useful tool for coping with adversity. It gives us the cognitive fortitude to press onward when we confront difficulties. Mental toughness is what allows us to perceive difficulties as opportunities. It gives us the confidence and presence of mind we need to use such opportunities to our advantage.
How Catastrophic Thinking Hampers Our Ability to Adapt
It’s easy to develop the habit of catastrophic thinking. If we fail to prepare psychologically for the challenges we’re sure to face each day, our minds will slowly perceive every obstacle to be more consequential than is true. We’ll begin to see setbacks, regardless of their impact and seriousness, as veritable crises.
For example, suppose you’re traveling to visit a friend. You catch a flight, confident that you’ll arrive at your destination at a predetermined time. During the flight, the captain informs passengers that he must make a detour due to bad weather. The detour will significantly delay your arrival time at your destination.
An individual who lacks mental toughness might panic at this unexpected delay. He may instinctively visualize being unable to contact his friend, who has committed to picking him up at his destination. He might imagine being stuck on the tarmac for hours once his flight finally lands. He may evoke grim images of arriving at his friend’s home hours past his expected arrival time, which presages an abysmal night’s sleep.
This poor fellow is wallowing in catastrophic thinking.
To become mentally strong, we must guard our minds against this tendency. We must immediately “push back” when our minds entertain worst-case scenarios. Otherwise, we risk being seduced by catastrophic thinking, indulging in unreasonable, imagined outcomes. This frame of mind is wholly incompatible with our ability to recover from setbacks and adapt with purposeful, confident action and a positive outlook.
Change How You Perceive Failure
No one looks forward to failure. After all, failure is evidence of our misconceived expectations or inadequate skills. It’s often evidence of both. And that makes failure decidedly unpleasant.
Having said that, we can choose how we regard our failures. Most people are chagrined and shamed by them. They try to hide their failures so others won’t discover them. They explain their failures in ways designed to prevent criticism. They might even try to shirk responsibility by pointing their fingers at other people, redirecting blame away from themselves.
These reactions to failure stem from ego. Because failing to accomplish something implies that we’re less than we expected, we rush to give an account for our lack of success. Oftentimes, these accounts are fallacious, a state of affairs we intuitively rationalize in our haste to camouflage the fact that we’ve somehow fallen short.
To become mentally tough, we must change how we perceive failure. Rather than dread it, cover it up, and redirect blame, we should embrace it. Failure will never feel pleasant. But we can train ourselves to accept it with the same temperament as we accept success.
Both failure and success are merely outcomes of our decisions and actions. Rather than perceiving the former as “bad” and the latter as “good,” we should recognize both as feedback. By doing so, we can more easily identify how our decisions and actions are linked to our results. This in turn gives us an opportunity to adjust our expectations and identify deficits in our skills and decision making so we can produce better results in the future.
Perceiving failure as feedback and responding with purposeful action gives us more confidence in our abilities. As we become more confident, we naturally become less apprehensive of unanticipated setbacks. We intuitively know that we can handle any challenge we encounter, even defeat. This awareness allows us to advance beyond mere mental resilience to developing mental toughness and remaining receptive to life’s inevitable difficulties.
LIST FIVE RECENT FAILURES. They can be big or small, consequential or insignificant in the grand scheme. Include all relevant details.
Next, describe how you responded in each case. Did you wallow in self-recrimination? Did you berate yourself for an inadequate performance or misguided decision?
Finally, write down how you could have responded in a positive manner in each case. For example, suppose you failed to deliver an important report to your boss on time. A positive response might have been to accept responsibility for missing the deadline, review your workload, and look for ways to better manage your time. Do this for each of the five recent failures.
Once you’ve completed this exercise, you’ll notice how a few fundamental changes in the way you react to failure can increase your confidence and improve your results down the road. This exercise will reveal failures to be merely feedback rather than a final verdict on your capacity to perform.
Time required: 15 minutes.
MENTAL TOUGHNESS IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY
Hardships are a part of life. You’ve undoubtedly experienced times when everything has gone wrong to the extent that fate seems to bear a grudge against you. It’s unfair. It’s unpleasant. And it’s almost always out of the blue. During these difficult times your psychological preparedness, emotional resilience, impulse control, and grace under pressure are truly put to the test.
All of us have gone through the gauntlet. All of us can expect to go through it again. That’s how life works.
The good news is, adversity strengthens us. Our mental resilience is toughened just as tempering steel with extreme heat toughens its alloys. But in order to take full advantage of this taxing and frustrating process, we must greet adversity with confidence, courage, and composure.
This isn’t about willpower. Willpower is a severely limited resource. It gets used up too quickly to rely upon when times get tough. Instead, this is about character. Mental toughness requires that we’re consistently honest with ourselves, clear about our commitments and convictions, and willing to face difficult situations with a positive mindset.
The Finnish Concept of Sisu
Sisu is a Finnish word. It signifies a particular attitude exemplified by the Finns during times of difficulty. There’s no direct English equivalent, but sisu can be roughly described as grim courage in the face of certain failure.
There’s a stirring story about the Finns that perfectly describes this admirable frame of mind. At the end of 1939, the Soviet army was about to invade Finland. Negotiations between the Soviet Union and Finland had failed, and war was imminent.
No one expected the Finns to put up much of a fight. The Soviet army outnumbered the Finnish army by a ridiculous factor. It boasted three times the number of soldiers. Moreover, while the Finns had 32 tanks, the Soviet army controlled several thousand. Making matters worse, while the Finns had 114 aircraft, the Soviet army possessed nearly four thousand.
To say the odds were not in the Finns’ favor is an understatement. In fact, so lopsided were the odds that Russian leaders, including Nikita Khrushchev, gloated that a single shot fired would compel the Finns to surrender.
But as history shows, that’s not at all what happened. The Finns dug in. Armed with outdated weapons and limited resources (ammo, fuel, etc.), they prepared themselves for a vicious and bloody war with no expectation of success. Their steadfastness and bravery epitomized the Finnish concept of sisu. In the face of almost certain failure and death, the Finnish soldiers held their ground. They refused to surrender.
The “Winter War” progressed differently than the Soviet Union predicted. During three months of fighting, the Finns suffered 70,000 casualties while the Soviet army suffered a staggering 400,000. In the end, the Finnish government was forced to accept terms proposed by the Soviet Union. Their weapons were threadbare. Their ammo was exhausted. And 70,000 casualties was an enormous toll on the small country’s army.
But the Finns had demonstrated an astonishing degree of mental toughness that shocked everyone. Winston Churchill, in a speech broadcast throughout London in 1940, noted “Only Finland – superb, nay, sublime – in the jaws of peril – Finland shows what free men can do. The service rendered by Finland to mankind is magnificent.”
How to Embrace Sisu in the Face of Adversity
While few of us will ever need to demonstrate the level of tenacity, grit, and courage exhibited by the Finnish soldiers during the Winter War, we can benefit from their example. We can approach life’s inevitable difficulties with a similar attitude. We can accept the challenges we encounter, prepare ourselves to deal with them, and commit to overcoming them. And we can maintain courage and positivity even when the odds are stacked against us.
Following are a few tactics consistent with the Finnish concept of sisu.
First, refuse to let your circumstances overwhelm you. This is easier said than done, of course. Some situations – for example, a diagnosis of cancer – are so dismal and bleak that it’s almost impossible to avoid feeling overwhelmed in the beginning. But if you can manage to take back control of your mind when you feel overburdened, you’ll be better able to address the obstacles standing in your way.
Second, commit to taking action. It’s important to understand your circumstances before responding to them, of course. That requires reflection and contemplation. But eventually, you must act. Even though life is unpredictable and the outcome of your actions and decisions are uncertain, you must adopt an action mindset. This mindset instills courages, enabling you to confront challenges without being paralyzed by your limitations.
Third, practice emotional resilience every day. We’re beset with small setbacks on a daily basis. Individually, none are life-changing. For example, we might visit a local Starbucks only to discover they’re unable to offer the drink we crave. Or we might unexpectedly get stuck in a traffic jam on our way to the airport. Or we might lose our wallet while shopping. Our reactions, healthy or unhealthy, to these challenges train our minds. If we practice emotional resilience whenever we experience misfortune, we’ll reinforce our determination and tenacity.
Fourth, anticipate problems. This not only gives us an opportunity to prepare for them, but allows us to do so with confidence in our ability to overcome them. Imagine being a soldier in the Finnish army in 1939. War is around the corner. The weather is brutal (-40 °C). Your resources are limited. And you’re absurdly outnumbered. By anticipating these difficulties, along with their attendant disadvantages, you can take purposeful, confident action to improve your odds.
Let’s Sum It Up
Adopting a sisu mindset doesn’t mean ignoring your weaknesses. Nor does it entail showing false bravado when confronting insurmountable odds. Rather, a sisu mindset calls for recognizing your circumstances, evaluating your options, and taking determined action toward achieving your desired outcome. It’s an acceptance that things are not working in your favor, but a commitment to press forward in spite of that fact.
WRITE down how you normally react to unanticipated problems. Do you wallow in self-pity (e.g. “why does this always happen to me?”). Does your inner critic tell you to give up? Do you feel compelled to avoid or ignore the issues at hand? Do you procrastinate taking action due to uncertainty and fear of failure? Do you immediately feel frustrated and angry that life is unfair?
Or do you instinctively roll up your sleeves and prepare psychologically to deal with whatever difficulties you face?
This exercise will reveal your current temperament toward adversity. Keep in mind, there’s no shame in how you respond today to setbacks and obstacles. After all, the goal of this action guide is to gradually change your responses and behaviors when life gets tough. As we’ve discussed, that’s a long road. The purpose of this exercise is merely to get a fix on your mindset in the present.
Time required: 10 minutes.
MENTAL TOUGHNESS AND THE IMPORTANCE OF DELAYING GRATIFICATION
Studies show we’re more likely to succeed if we habitually practice self-control. If we delay gratification by way of habit, we stand a much better chance of experiencing success.
“Success” is a murky term because it means something different to each individual. For some, it means earning a large salary. For others, it means being consistently generous, gracious, and humble. Still others measure their success by the health of their interpersonal relationships. For the purpose of this discussion, we’ll define success as the achievement of our goals.
Let’s clarify what it means to delay gratification. It’s the decision to resist enjoying something we crave in the present for something we crave even more down the road.
For example, suppose you’re trying to lose five pounds. You walk past a pizza parlor and are tempted to purchase a slice. You love pizza and can practically taste it. You now have a decision to make. You can sate your present craving. Or you can resist the temptation and decide to steer clear of the pizza in order to meet your goal (losing five pounds).
Notice that it’s a decision. You’re in control. This means exerting self-restraint is a skill you can learn and hone. As you’ll see below, controlling your impulses is paramount to developing mental toughness.
How Developing Impulse Control Increases Mental Toughness
Overcoming setbacks and achieving our goals when we face adversity requires patience. This patience allows us to endure hardships and withstand the emotional and psychological pressure that accompany misfortune. It strengthens our resolve. It increases our grit and tenacity. In encourages us to persist, even when the odds are not in our favor.
When we practice self-restraint, we learn to tolerate discomfort. We train our minds to put up with present unpleasantness for the purpose of achieving our greater goals. In doing so, we inculcate our minds with the idea that we need not satisfy our cravings in the moment. We can resist the impulse to do so.
This improves are cognitive resilience. When we consistently delay gratification, we build our tolerance for discomfort. We grow accustomed to it. This tolerance helps us to persevere rather than surrender to our short-term desires.
For example, suppose you’re taking online classes while maintaining a full-time job. After a long, trying day at your workplace, you finally return home. Unfortunately, you have three assignments that are due the following day. If you habitually satisfy your present cravings, you may be unable to resist the temptation to relax on your couch and binge-watch your favorite show on Netflix. However, if you’ve trained your mind to tolerate discomfort in the present, you’ll find it easier to resist the temptation and complete the assignments.
Delaying gratification also improves our ability to ignore distractions. Think of a recent time when you needed to work on something important. For example, you might have needed to complete a report for your job. Or perhaps you needed to complete a long list of household chores. Whatever the case, there were undoubtedly other activities you would rather have been doing. The temptation to indulge in them was a distraction. It threatened to dash your focus. By regularly practicing self-control, you develop the ability to withstand such temptations and remain resolute in your intentions. This is a crucial skill to possess when you encounter unexpected obstacles in the present.
Controlling the impulse to indulge in present pleasure also ingrains within us an important lesson regarding the relationship between effort and reward. When we repeatedly indulge in immediate gratification, we train our minds to associate low effort with high reward. This conditions our expectations. We become more inclined to surrender to our short-term desires rather than endure discomfort in order to achieve our longer term goals.
For example, we might habitually choose to eat unhealthy fast food because it’s easy, convenient, and tasty. Low effort, high reward. Unfortunately, this habit can severely hamper our intention to lose weight, improve cardiovascular health, and build muscle mass.
When we repeatedly delay gratification, we form a connection in our minds between self-restraint, effort, and reward. We begin to intuitively recognize that we must exert effort, and in the process control our impulses, to attain what we want. Using our fast food example, we’ll feel compelled to resist the siren song of pizza, milkshakes, and fat-laden burgers. Instead, we’ll cook healthier meals at home.
It’s not easy to control our impulses. Most of us have spent a lifetime catering to them, and suddenly practicing self-restraint can be a frustrating experience fraught with countless slip ups. But delaying gratification is important enough to developing mental toughness that it’s worth forming the habit. Following are five tactics that helped me to minimize the struggle.
5 Quick Tips for Delaying Gratification
Fair warning: a few of these tips may not work for you. They proved instrumental for me, but everybody’s different. Having said that, I encourage you to try them and gauge whether they’re helpful to you. If one or two prove to be useful, I’ll consider that a success for both of us.
Tip #1: Clarify your values.
When you recognize what truly matters to you, it becomes easier to prioritize things you’d like to accomplish. That simplifies the decision-making process. It also juxtaposes the importance of your long-term goals with the fleeting pleasure of your short-term desires.
Tip #2: Understand why you’d like to achieve your goal(s).
It’s important to have a compelling reason prompting you to take action. Brainstorm that reason for each of your goals.
For example, suppose you wish to lose 10 pounds. Your reason may be to feel and look healthier. These motives will encourage you to resist the temptation to eat unhealthy foods in a way that the mere intention to “lose 10 pounds” will not.
Tip #3: Create an action plan.
Using your clarified values and motives, brainstorm a plan that’ll guide you through the process of delaying immediate gratification.
For example, suppose you have a tendency to spend every dollar you earn on items for which you have little need (new clothes, new phone, etc.). Create a plan whereby a specific dollar amount from each check is immediately placed into your savings account.
Tip #4: Find a productive alternative to a compulsive desire.
Some temptations are more difficult to resist than others. Simple willpower isn’t enough. In such cases, brainstorm another reward to take its place, preferably one with productive value.
For example, you might find pizza irresistible. Junk food is addictive because it triggers the release of dopamine, stimulating the brain’s reward center. A productive alternative is physical activity. It too releases dopamine along with endorphins. It may be less fun than eating junk food, but it’s a healthier option that feels good, and thereby serves as a fine replacement.
Tip #5: Give yourself a reward for resisting temptation.
Your goal isn’t to completely steer clear of pleasurable things. That would be a dismal way to live. Rather, aspire to develop a habit of delaying gratification.
The most effective way to develop any good habit is to do so by taking small steps. Each step you successfully take deserves a small reward. The reward trains your brain to repeat the rewarded action.
For example, suppose you’re trying to incorporate a daily exercise plan. Rather than forcing yourself to exercise for 30 minutes on Day #1, exercise for three minutes. Then, reward yourself with 10 minutes of leisure reading. Gradually increase the duration of your exercise sessions, and continue rewarding yourself along the way.
I USED the above tactics to train myself to delay gratification so that I could pursue my goals without distractions. To that end, they were a significant aid in strengthening my resolve whenever I confronted setbacks and obstacles. Try them for yourself. You may find them to be as effective as I found them to be.
DESCRIBE (IN WRITING) a recent incident during which you gave in to a temptation, and in doing so procrastinated or abandoned something you needed to complete. Then describe how your decision made you feel after you had satisfied the craving. Did you feel guilty? Did you experience regret? Did you chastise yourself for surrendering to the temptation?
Next, describe a recent incident during which you resisted a temptation and persisted to complete an important task. Then describe how that decision made you feel. Did you feel pleased with your resolve? Did you feel empowered?
The purpose of this exercise is to highlight how delaying gratification for the purpose of achieving longer-term goals instinctively feels good to us. It reinforces the idea that controlling our impulses can yield outcomes upon which we place greater value.
Time required: 15 minutes.
MENTAL TOUGHNESS AND YOUR HABITS
Our habits sustain us during difficult, challenging times. When life deviates from our plans and we encounter unexpected setbacks, our habits and routines help us to stay on track. They influence our behavior, spurring us forward, practically on autopilot, when we’re beset with difficulties and under pressure. When we adopt good habits, our actions and decisions become more consistent. We become less susceptible to our impulses.
The longer our habits have been in place, the more deeply ingrained they are and the more confidence we can have in them. The challenge is in forming them and making them stick.
This section will first discuss how your habits, both good and bad, affect your mental toughness. Then, you’ll learn how to develop good habits that last. This system is simple and easy. Most importantly, it works. Lastly, we’ll explore five daily habits that are pivotal to developing and maintaining mental toughness.
Your Habits Are the Key to Your Mental Toughness
When we think of habits, we typically associate them with action. That is, our habits are things we do. But the truth is, they represent much more than that.
Our habits signify what is important to us. They reflect our values and priorities. If we adopt a good diet and regularly exercise, it means our health is important to us. If we meditate each morning, it means we value starting the day with a peaceful, stress-free state of mind. On the other hand, suppose we constantly eat junk food, refuse to exercise, and regularly argue with people online about politics. These habits also suggest our values and priorities.
Perseverance is as much a habit as brushing your teeth before going to bed. It’s a behavioral response we train ourselves to carry out in certain circumstances. Like any habit, it has cues that trigger us to take action. The good news is, we can create these cues to help us develop this habit.
This process, developing habits that make our behaviors more consistent, is a vital part in developing mental toughness. It eliminates our need to rely on willpower, motivation, and inspiration, all of which are fickle and fleeting. Instead, we can rely on the routines and systems we design to prompt our behavioral responses to stress and pressure.
With that in mind, let’s discuss a simple method for adopting habits that’ll strengthen your psychological and emotional resilience.
A Fast-Track Guide to Developing Any Habit (And Making It Stick!)
Leo Babauta, founder of ZenHabits.net, once said with regard to adopting a new habit, “make it so easy you can’t say no.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that simple statement. In fact, it expresses one of the most important principles to developing a new habit: start small.
For example, suppose you’d like to start exercising on a daily basis. You might be enthusiastic and tempted to start your new habit with a 45-minute workout on Day 1. Don’t do that. Instead, take baby steps. Start with a 5-minute workout.
This first step is likewise important when developing habits that strengthen your tenacity and resolve. For example, imagine that you feel overwhelmed at your job. You’re exhausted and finding it difficult to focus. But you want to develop a habit of perseverance. Rather than rolling up your sleeves and working for hours nonstop, commit to focusing for a 5-minute time chunk. Make it so easy you can’t say no.
The next step is to make slow, incremental progress. There’s no need to grow your new habit by leaps and bounds. This isn’t a race. In fact, striving to progress quickly is likely to do more harm than good. For many people, doing so is a recipe for failure.
Take small steps forward. Returning to our previous example, don’t try to advance from the initial 5-minute time chunk to working in 45-minute time chunks. Instead, take a small break (perhaps 60 seconds) after the first 5-minute time chunk. Then do another. And another. After you’ve done that successfully a few times, break up your work into 10-minute time chunks. Take 2-minute breaks between them. Once you’ve proven your ability to focus for 10 minutes at a time, work in 15-minute time chunks separated by 3-minute breaks.
If you follow this process, you’ll eventually build your habit to the point that you should break it down into reasonable portions. For example, let’s say you’ve improved your focus so that you’re able to work without distraction for hours on end. That’s quite a feat! But it doesn’t mean you should work for hours on end. In this case, it would be more beneficial to work in relatively short time chunks. For instance, work for 45 minutes, and then take a 10-minute break. Repeat this process four times, and then take a 30-minute break. Working in this manner will help you to maintain your momentum. Additionally, your focus will suffer less erosion because you’re giving your brain a chance to recharge at regular intervals.
The final step in developing a new habit is to design cues that trigger your desired response. It’s easy to do. The key is to be consistent.
For example, suppose you’re training yourself to continue working after taking short breaks. The problem is, you’d rather abandon your work and watch your favorite show on Netflix. Try this: pick a short, inspiring song. End each break by listening to it. Immediately after the song finishes playing, begin a new work session. This will cause your brain to create an association between the song and your next action (in this case, getting back to work). The next time you hear the song, you’ll feel compelled to get back to work.
You control these cues. You get to design them. That means you run the show whenever you decide to adopt a new habit.
This simple habit development system doesn’t preclude slip-ups. In fact, you almost certainly will slip up now and then. Don’t worry about it. It’s a natural part of the process. Forgive yourself and move forward.
Now that you have a reliable method for adopting new habits, let’s explore five that’ll increase your mental toughness.
5 Daily Habits That Will Improve Your Mental Strength
Success in any difficult endeavor requires a number of traits, all of which are linked to mental toughness. We’ve discussed most of them already. They include grit, tenacity, resolve, and a positive state of mind. They also include discipline, persistence, and the willingness to delay gratification.
The following habits align perfectly with these traits. They reinforce them, and in a few cases are instrumental toward building them in the first place. Develop these five habits and you’ll find it easier to courageously face any challenges that come your way.
Habit #1: View your past as training for overcoming future adversity.
We tend to let our past define us. We allow earlier events, along with our responses to them, to decide who we are. Our values and convictions are often entwined with what has happened before in our lives.
Sever this connection. Condition your mind to view your past as nothing more than training for the future. Things happened. You responded. Perhaps you made mistakes. Now, it’s time to learn from them. Your past is merely instruction that provides you with insight into how best to respond down the road.
Habit #2: Evaluate negative emotions immediately when they arise.
As we discussed previously, negative emotions are not, in and of themselves, unhealthy. On the contrary, research shows they contribute to mental health and psychological well-being. So it pays to acknowledge them.
Having said that, negative emotions can easily hijack your ability to make rational decisions and take purposeful action. They can quickly overwhelm you. So it also pays to assess whether the anger, shame, sadness, panic, and guilt you experience are overblown.
You don’t want to suppress negative emotions. But it’s important to develop the habit of investigating them the moment they surface.
Habit #3: Build your self-confidence.
Self-confidence is essential to developing mental toughness. After all, it’s only possible to press onward during adversity and overcome the fear of uncertainty when you trust in your abilities.
Business magnate Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.” Ford didn’t dismiss the role of talent and skill, but instead highlighted the equally important role of confidence. He recognized that our self-assuredness is critical to our success and its absence can easily result in failure.
Habit #4: Practice gratitude.
It’s tempting to whine and complain when things go wrong. But it’s crucial that we acknowledge two cardinal truths. First, whining and complaining about unfavorable conditions does nothing to resolve them. Second, it can too easily introduce a host of negative emotions that result in further despair and disappointment.
Maintaining a positive mindset is pivotal to facing adversity with courage. Each morning, reflect on things that have gone right for you. Each afternoon, think about everything you have for which to be thankful. Each evening, before you go to bed, contemplate the small victories you enjoyed throughout the day. Practice gratitude daily.
Habit #5: Build a tolerance for change.
Mental toughness requires that you be flexible to your circumstances. When things go wrong, you must be able to adapt in order to act with purpose.
Most of us dread change. We enjoy predictability because it reduces uncertainty. Fear of uncertainty is one of the chief impediments to taking purposeful action.
Building this habit entails leaving your comfort zone. It calls for actively seeking changes that you can incorporate into your life. The upside is that doing so will desensitize you to changing circumstances, increasing your tolerance for them. As your tolerance increases, your fear will naturally erode.
THE GREAT THING about habit development is that you can advance at your own pace. Again, it’s best to start with small steps and progress slowly. But each of us is different with regard to what “small” and “slowly” mean. Design a plan that aligns with your existing routines and caters to your available time, attention, and energy.
WRITE down three habits you’d like to develop. Next to each one, write down three things you can do starting today to develop the habit.
For example, suppose you want to boost your self-confidence. First, you might commit to saying hello to five stranger each day. Second, you may decide to immediately evaluate negative self-talk whenever your inner critic becomes bold. Third, you might commit to saying no to others, focusing instead on your own projects and responsibilities.
Time required: 15 minutes.
TALENT, ABILITY, AND CONFIDENCE: HOW THEY INFLUENCE MENTAL TOUGHNESS
If the previous section, we briefly mentioned self-confidence as an essential part of developing mental toughness. But the context was limited to habit development. Here, we’ll explore self-confidence in greater detail. It has a large enough influence on mental strength, resolve, and psychological resilience under pressure that it warrants a fuller investigation.
We’ll start by examining the sources of confidence. Where does it come from? What causes it to grow? What causes it to erode? The answers may surprise you.
Then, we’ll discuss why it’s important to periodically evaluate our confidence levels. It’s sometimes necessary to realign them so they accurately reflect our abilities and knowledge.
Finally, we’ll cover five building blocks of self-confidence. This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means. But if you incorporate these five elements into your day, your confidence will grow by leaps and bounds. This in turn will help you to respond to uncertain and unfavorable conditions with a strong, levelheaded belief in your ability to overcome them.
Confidence Springs from Ability
Confidence is an expectation that we can prevail over difficult, uncomfortable situations. This self-trust stems, in part, from our abilities, which are comprised of our knowledge base, talents, and areas of proficiency. We’re confident when we feel prepared for our circumstances.
For example, suppose you’re cooking dinner for a friend. If you’ve spent years honing your abilities as a chef, you’ll feel calm and composed as you prepare the meal. If it’s your first time in the kitchen, you might feel a bit of panic.
Confidence also stems from our ability to adapt. Talent and expertise aren’t enough. We must be able to pivot when necessary.
Suppose that while preparing a meal for your friend, you discover that you’re missing an important ingredient. If you’re an experienced chef, you’d adapt to this unexpected predicament by using a suitable substitute. This ability to pivot is a source of confidence. It reinforces your belief in yourself to rectify unforeseen problems and resolve unexpected predicaments.
Realigning Your Confidence Levels with Your Abilities
Sometimes, our confidence levels move out of alignment with our abilities, knowledge, and readiness to adapt to changing conditions. When this happens, it’s important that we evaluate ourselves and realign our confidence levels with reality.
If we’re overconfident, we might be inclined to take excessive risks, dismiss others’ opinions, and ignore our weaknesses. When we confront setbacks and challenges with this frame of mind, we risk being unprepared regardless of our courage.
If we’re under-confident, we may avoid taking risks, allow others’ opinions to control us, and perceive our weaknesses as a harbinger of certain defeat. With this frame of mind, we’ll be hesitant to respond to setbacks and challenges altogether.
It’s difficult to be mentally strong when our confidence levels are unrealistic. Both arrogance and unjustified self-doubt are the enemies of cognitive resilience and resolve. Arrogance might sustain us in the short term, but will lead us off course over the long run. Unjustified self-doubt may prevent us from responding to adversity altogether, fearful of certain defeat.
Given the potential pitfalls of harboring unrealistic confidence levels, it’s important to perform a periodic self-assessment. Ask yourself:
“Are my confidence levels reasonable given my circumstances?”
“How do I respond to criticism?”
“Am I immediately inclined to back down when challenged?”
“Am I eager or reluctant to share my thoughts with others?”
“When I encounter setbacks, do I instinctively feel fearful and nervous? Or do I feel self-assured? Why?”
This self-appraisal will help you to quickly identify whether your confidence levels need to be realigned. It may also reveal areas in your life that need attention – for example, whether you react to others’ criticism in a healthy, sensible manner.
5 Core Building Blocks of Self-Confidence
Improving self-confidence warrants its own book. But there are several elements we can focus on today that’ll boost our confidence levels with minimal effort. Most of them involve our mindset. If we embrace them and incorporate them into our day, they’ll have a considerable positive impact on our self-trust.
#1 – Willingness to leave your comfort zone.
By leaving our comfort zone, we expose ourselves to unfamiliar situations. Doing so reveals that such situations rarely warrant fear. On the contrary, they offer opportunities to grow, both personally and professionally. They give us a chance to surrender our need to control our circumstances and learn to adapt to new ones.
#2 – Openness to experiencing emotional discomfort.
Self-confidence requires an awareness of our emotions. But it also requires that we build a tolerance to them. The only way to do so is to expose ourselves to the discomfort that accompanies negative emotions.
Many of us tend to suppress emotional pain. But we should remain open to experiencing it as doing so helps us to build resistance to it. This resistance will allow us to remain attuned to negative emotions without being paralyzed by them.
#3 – Habit of self-assessment.
There’s considerable value in performing self-evaluations on a regular basis. Earlier, we talked about doing them for the purpose of realigning our confidence levels with reality. Here, we’re broadening the scope.
It’s important to sit down periodically and reflect on how you’ve grown. Consider new skills you’ve learned. Think about peculiar situations in which you found yourself and how you handled them. Take stock of acquaintances you’ve recently met, recent conversations you’ve had with strangers, and tasks you performed that were once unfamiliar to you.
We’re constantly growing in one way or another. This is especially the case when we leave our comfort zone (see #1 above). The problem is, we often fail to recognize this growth because it happens so gradually.
#4 – Embrace positivity.
Maintaining a positive attitude entails suppressing negative self-talk. It involves highlighting our strengths and celebrating our successes while perceiving our weaknesses and blunders as opportunities to learn and grow.
Sadly, many of us learn to be pessimistic about ourselves thanks to the setbacks and disappointments we experience throughout our lives. This attitude not only hampers our confidence, but also prevents us from growing. The good news is, we can recondition our minds to embrace optimism and positive thinking. In doing so, we can train ourselves to instinctively recognize our ability to overcome adversity.
#5 – Abandon your desire for external validation.
Seeking approval from others hurts your self-confidence. It trains your mind to distrust your motivations and abilities. Instead, your mind learns to refrain from taking action until it receives permission to do so from someone else. Over time, you become wary and begin to harbor misgivings about your ability to perform.
Recognize that you possess unique value. Your knowledge, skills, talents, and adaptability eliminate the need for external validation. As long as your confidence levels are aligned with reality, you can be self-assured and self-assertive when you face uncertainty.
SELF-CONFIDENCE IS one of the keystones to mental toughness. It’s difficult to develop the latter without first possessing the former. Fortunately, changing how you see yourself is relatively simple because it’s based on recognizing your existing value. Adjusting your self-perception is steeped in actuality rather than the unkind phantoms that result from your inner critic’s condemnation.
CREATE a short list of things that regularly hurt your confidence. This might include negative self-talk, a messy workspace, sloppy physical appearance, or an absence of personal boundaries. Everyone is different, and therefore your list will be unique to you.
Next, write down actions you can take to reduce the effect of each item on your self-confidence. Be specific. For example, if you struggle with negative self-talk, you might commit to confronting your inner critic whenever it speaks. If it claims “You’re going to fail,” you might respond with “You’re wrong and here’s why.”
Finally, address one item a time. Take the actions you listed to lessen the item’s impact on your confidence levels. Repetition and consistency are your allies in this exercise.
Time required: 20 minutes.
HOW YOUR ATTITUDE AFFECTS YOUR MENTAL TOUGHNESS
Our attitude heavily influences our behaviors. It sets the tone for how we approach difficult situations and respond to them. It largely dictates our psychological resilience when we encounter adversity, and determines the actions we take to overcome – or surrender to – it.
If we have a positive attitude, we’re likely to evaluate situations with optimism and confidence. If we have a negative attitude, we’re likely to evaluate them with cynicism and fear. Our behavioral responses to setbacks, challenges, and obstacles will spring from these feelings.
This section will do a deep dive into our frame of mind and investigate its impact on our mental toughness. We’ll begin by exploring how we perceive ourselves and our circumstances. This piece of the puzzle is more important than might be obvious at first blush.
Overcoming Your Circumstances vs. Expecting Them to Change
When someone tells us to “stay positive,” we immediately think of the stereotypical positive thinker who goes through life expecting everything to turn out fine. This individual seems to be oblivious to their circumstances. He ignores life’s difficulties, confident they’ll simply disappear of their own accord. He experiences no emotional distress because he expects life’s misfortunes to sort themselves out.
In short, the stereotypical positive thinker presumes his circumstances will change to suit him. If life were a journey, he sees himself as a mere passenger with little to no influence on the events happening around him.
But this image is mistaken.
Maintaining a positive attitude isn’t about harboring baseless optimism. It’s not about having faith that things will simply work themselves out. It’s about recognizing that we can positively influence our circumstances, prevailing over misfortune and hardship by virtue of our talents, abilities, and capacity to adapt.
This positive outlook, which importantly stems from self-confidence, is a requisite partner to our mental toughness. It dictates how we feel when we encounter complications. It governs how we respond to them. This mindset spurs us to assert ourselves, taking purposeful action rather than remaining passive and hoping for the best.
The Importance of Commitment
When we commit to something, we assign value to it. The outcome we seek becomes, in our estimation, worthy of the time and effort required to pursue it. Our actions and decisions become focused on making it a reality. Our commitment not only encourages us to exert effort toward achieving our desired outcome, but also coaxes us to persist when things fail to go our way.
For example, suppose you start a side business. You commit to making it a success. This commitment encourages you to spend time on it during the evenings and weekends. But it does more than that.
If you’ve ever run a business, even a small one from a corner of your bedroom, you know a myriad of things can go wrong. And sometimes, they do so suddenly and without warning. Lacking commitment, you might be tempted to throw your hands in the air and say “I give up!” Instead, your pledge to make your business a success prompts you to roll up your sleeves and work to overcome whatever roadblocks you’ve encountered.
Committing to a task, project, or specific outcome gives us the resilience to stay positive and resolute when we face obstacles. Our commitment helps us to endure when giving up would be easier. It allows us to persist, working toward our goals rather than surrendering them for short-term gratification.
The Willingness to Pursue Continuous Growth
As noted above, a positive attitude gives us confidence that we can overcome adversity. This frame of mind is reinforced whenever we learn new skills (or improve existing ones), absorb new information, or encounter new situations. Our competence and proficiency increases, and with it our self-assuredness.
For this reason, it’s vital that we pursue growth in all matters related to our commitments. In fact, pursuing growth in matters that extend beyond our commitments is beneficial. Doing so exposes us to unfamiliar situations, which gives us an opportunity to expand our skill set and knowledge base.
People who are mentally tough have a growth mindset. They believe their abilities are not set in stone. Rather, they trust they can learn new abilities, often by persevering when life becomes difficult. These individuals are rarely inclined to give up. They perceive their shortcomings as areas that warrant improvement, and setbacks as opportunities to learn from their mistakes.
A growth mindset is integral to cognitive resilience. It’s an essential component of a positive attitude. The underlying belief that we can