“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”―Pema Chodron
Mental strength can mean many things: strength in the face of adversity, resilience through uncertainty, and dogged determination during dark times.
So how do we cultivate that intangible presence of mental strength that weaves itself through resolute resilience and calmness?
One evening as I was walking in the woods, I thought to myself that physical strength is great, but that “mental strength” is where real resilience comes from. This is because our body can’t do what the mind doesn’t ask … and what happens when our physical health declines? Thus I set out to intentionally hone mental strength, whether that meant self-discipline, grit, resilience, forgiveness, and perseverance. And those are the skills that we need in order to go through life on our own terms.
Growing up, I was praised for my mental and physical strength. When you grow up in an abusive environment, you learn to put a shell over your soul and your heart to survive. But that isn’t real mental strength; it’s a protective mechanism. So when my physical health failed, my mental health took the brunt of the pain, and I had to work for a very long time to come back from that.
Life had taught me to focus on physical strength. I was an athlete, a runner, a dancer, a weight lifter, and I loved it. But then I got sick, really sick, file-for-disability-take-time-away-from-work-can’t-dress-or-feed-yourself sick. To survive the catastrophic illness that overcame me, I had to refine my grit, determination, and perseverance. It was hell, and it took a decade, but throughout the experience, I developed several strategies that helped me increase my mental strength and what a difference it made.
“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
These experiences have shown me the power of being mentally tough in any situation. Here are some of the steps that I took in order to increase my mental toughness.
1. Owning a growth mindset
A “growth mindset” means believing that our skills and intelligence can grow with practice and experience.
If we seek to increase our mental strength, we put in the effort to grow and develop our personal power.
2. Define and live by your principles
Don’t allow external influences to tell you who you are and what you are capable of.
Part of being mentally strong is knowing who you are and refusing to let anyone define your personhood. It’s what we believe about ourselves that counts, not the critics.
3. Do the hard, uncomfortable things
Decide to do the things that other people aren’t willing to do, or the things that you’ve always avoided doing. This leads to growth, and there are few things more fulfilling and life-giving than real growth or change.
Have the uncomfortable conversations, get out of your comfort zone, and do one thing a week that you may be afraid of.
Embrace discomfort because growth rarely occurs otherwise.
4. Move toward your goals
It’s important to develop long-term life goals, but it’s equally important that these goals are realistic and achievable. How do you discern the difference?
Try creating small goals that move you forward each day in incremental amounts, which makes it easier to achieve bigger ambitions and far more likely that you’ll be motivated to keep going when things get tough.
Make it a point to work towards your goals each day, and celebrate your accomplishments. Did you show up? Give yourself a pat on the back. Did you pick yourself back up when things got tough? Celebrate yourself and any progress made towards your goals every single day.
While this may seem overly simplistic, it can be extremely difficult when your internal critic is constantly telling you that you are a failure or not enough.
On a personal note: I started my journey with self-compassion when realizing that my physical health had changed and there was no guarantee that it would ever get better. I had to develop a new sort of grit that was grounded in compassion for myself, which I loathed at first. It was frustrating to lose the mobility of my body, the strength, and the functional part of who I was. But I came to be grateful for what I could do versus what I couldn’t.
Give yourself the space to be happy regardless of uncontrollable circumstances.
6. Find forgiveness
Forgiveness isn’t a pardon, but rather a crucial building block of the mentally strong.
Grudges, anger, and resentment take up strength and energy that could be used to create change, live happily, and peacefully coexist. It can be hard to achieve our goals, much less forgive ourselves, with an internal backlog of hate or grief toward others.
Resentment doesn’t lead to mental strength, but finding forgiveness in tough situations can do just that.
7. Foster emotional regulation
Learning to regulate our emotional barometer is another important attribute of the mentally strong.
We can’t control everything in life, but we can control our response. While this is easier said than done, I often tell my son that no one can control another person, but that we are each responsible for our own actions and behaviors.
Make it easier on yourself by starting to pay attention to your feelings and then using them as an internal gage for decision-making.
Introspective writing is an accessible and powerful way to tune into what you are thinking and feeling. Keep a journal to learn more about your inner state and how it affects your behaviors and emotions.
Writing down your feelings in a safe, non-judgemental space is particularly helpful for combating anxiety or depression.
Someone who writes about how they feel is more adept at figuring out the part that their actions play and making the necessary changes.
9. Seek out opportunities for self-discovery
Unexpected challenges can often result in the most growth. And make no mistake: while living through difficult situations can be arduous, the end product is more authenticity, confidence, empowerment, and ultimately more mental strength.
Many of us who have experienced the trials of life (and haven’t we all?) end up with a renewed appreciation and fervor for living.
Mental toughness is the gas in the fuel tank on the road toward fulfillment.
Don’t forget that mentally strong people reflect on their progress toward their goals each day. An attribute of the mentally strong is the appreciation for what they are doing well, and also the acknowledgment of what could use improvement. They consistently strive to grow with purposeful, compassionate actions.
“Sometimes the bravest and most important thing you can do is just show up.”―Brene Brown