Those attributes are all great, but mental toughness is about endurance. Its about going the distance and lasting till the end. Its about dealing with adversity, and knowing who you are and being comfortable in your own skin. You can be the most loving person in the world but if you aren’t mentally tough you’ll most likely self destruct when the haters show up. And they always do.
I was not raised to be mentally tough. That’s no criticism of my parents its just that while most students were involved in sports (where mental toughness is more often a focus) I was drawing or playing music or working in my laboratory in the basement. There were never any discussions about ‘drop and give me another twenty pushups!’ Or ‘finish what you started’. It was, oh man, I’m all out of crimson red to finish the sky in my painting so I think I’ll go cry. Or, someone said something really critical of me and my codependency issues and wanting them to like me made me want to find a corner somewhere and cry. Starting to see a pattern here?
It wasn’t until recently when I discovered some great books and teaching on mental toughness. I can see now how so much pain in my life was caused by not being able to mentally handle tough things.
Being overly sensitive to criticism. Lack of discipline or follow through. Plagued with thoughts of fear. Lack of focus.
All of these issues arise from a lack of mental toughness. People who are strong mentally are able to handle the pressure, rejection, criticism, etc because they’ve conditioned their mind to handle it. Its not like things don’t impact them but they know how to stand when the fight comes at them.
Being in shape isn’t about lifting weights in the gym, its about lifting weights in the gym so you’re in shape when you leave. You have to put the work in so you’re ready when adversity and stress comes whether mentally or physically.
NOT MY FINEST HOUR
Years ago I was employed by a company where I asked tasked with leading someone who didn’t want to be led. She had been at the company for decades and I was just another new guy hired to oversee her. She had seen guys like me come and go so there was no interest on her part in doing things the way I needed her to do them. We clashed from almost day one. I tried everything but I was immature as a leader and unable to bridge the divide.
Eventually, we were both called into a leadership meeting with the board who wanted to help find a workable solution. About five minutes into the discussion I began to cry. Not ‘Gilmore Girls reunion movie’ tears, but like ‘death in the family’ tears. Everyone was stunned. They all gathered round and tried to calm me down.
I eventually left and went into my office to pull myself together and I sat under my desk and wept like a baby. The pressure of all that conflict between myself and this person had been building up over time and I finally let it out. In a very public way.
I lacked mental toughness. I also lacked emotional health and the ability to understand my inner dialogue, or lack thereof. I’ve since learned how to recognize the signs so that I don’t let things build up like that.
Mental toughness is key to managing complicated relationships. You have to know who you are, who the other person sees when they look at you, and not let their false impression become your identity.
Mental toughness is also key to success because it will help you embrace challenges and problems others would run to avoid.
HOW CAN YOU IMPROVE YOUR MENTAL TOUGHNESS?
1) FOCUS ON IT
I’m a firm believer that unless you are intentional its hard to make anything a permanent habit or life change. There are countless books and videos that discuss the topic of mental toughness. There are great coaches and teachers discussing this issue all over the internet. Watch them. Every day. Make it a goal to listen to something about this topic several times a week for a year. You’ll be amazed at how, in a very short time, you view the world and handle conflict.
2) PRACTICE IT
Just like any muscle in your body, mental toughness takes deliberate daily work. You have to look back at situations you have been through and reevaluate them through this new lens you’ve acquired. How could you have handled things different? What situations are you in now where you feel anxiety and fear? How should you respond? Instead of worrying about where you are and how far you have to go take it a day at a time. Learn to rest in the daily decisions and choices you make and look for opportunities to practice your new skills.
3) SPEAK IT OUT: VERBALLY OR INTERNALLY
As silly as this sounds a huge part of implementing this into your life is to simply address situations with “I got this” or “I’m a little freaked out right now but I’m going to do it.” When a coworker says something that riles you up, telling yourself, “okay, no problem, I’ll work through this” has a dramatic impact on your life. I can’t explain how important it is. I think it must rewire the brain or something because when you actually talk to yourself and say things like “I’ll get through this” or “this isn’t that big of a deal, I can do it”, you start believing it. When you start believing it you start living it. There’s tremendous power in our words and when we talk to ourselves in this way we start to realize just what we are capable. Problems, tough relationships, difficult jobs, are no longer things we run from but challenges we know we can handle.
As you can see, being mentally tough takes practice and consistency. Its a muscle that needs worked on. Deliberate focused attention will reap incredible rewards as you find yourself running towards your problems instead of away from them and handling all the chaos that life has to offer.