How to Build Mental Toughness in Your 20s (or 80s)

A Psychologist’s Letter to His 22-Year-Old Self

Photo by Quinten de Graaf on Unsplash

In case it wasn’t obvious from the title, I’m writing an imaginary letter to my 22-year-old self about what I wished I had done at an earlier age to build mental toughness and emotional resilience. And while I think these tips are exceptionally beneficial at a young age, I also think they’re evergreen — useful no matter what decade of your life you find yourself in.

Dear Nick,

Believe it or not, turns out you become a psychologist and therapist (Sorry, the NFL never called back).

As someone who spends all day talking to people about their struggles, one thing you quickly learn is that eventually everybody has stressful, sometimes tragic, things happen to them:

  • The love of their life is unfaithful.
  • They get fired from their dream job.
  • They start having debilitating panic attacks out of the blue.
  • A close friend is killed tragically.

Stress, challenge, pain, and tragedy are inevitable, in one form or another. But the way people respond to the inevitable hardships in their lives varies a lot: Some people seem to wilt and crumble whenever things go badly, spiraling into episodes of major depression, anxiety, or even rage. But others seem to consistently rise to the occasion and meet their challenges — even tragedies — with grace and confidence.

Why is this? What separates these two groups of people?

To be honest, I don’t know exactly. People are complex. They have wildly different contexts, histories, genotypes, temperaments, and resources available to them. But I have noticed one pattern that seems to separate those who weather the storms of life well and those who are consumed by them: Mental habits.

Just like we all develop physical habits — from tying our shoes to logging on to some annoyingly complex piece of software we have to use at work — we also develop mental habits: patterns of thought that strongly affect the way we process and feel about what happens to us.

For example:

  • Worry is a mental habit. Going over and over a feared hypothetical scenario in the future even though you know it won’t actually help you. The mental habit of worry makes people far more susceptible to bouts of major anxiety, for example, than people who manage to avoid or detach from this unhelpful pattern of thinking.
  • Rumination is another mental habit that puts people at risk for not handling the stresses of life well. If you develop the habit of continually replaying in your mind mistakes you’ve made or slights made against you, it’s going to make it especially difficult for you do move on from your difficulties. The mental habit of rumination often is a key driver of depression and anger problems, for example.

The point is: We don’t have much control over when and how tragedy strikes in our lives — and we don’t have much control over the genes we inherited or the family we were raised in — but we do have control over our habits, including our habits of mind.

And just like saving for retirement (I know, lame), learning to play the guitar, or any other investment, the sooner you start investing the better.

Luckily, Nick, you manage to avoid too many major tragedies in your life, at least so far. But there are definitely stresses and challenges that you aren’t nearly as well-prepared for as you think you.

You can’t avoid them. But if you work to build mental toughness by cultivating healthy habits of mind, you’ll save yourself from a few particularly bad choices and a whole lot of stress.

I know you probably won’t take this advice, but I’ll go ahead and give it anyway. Here are 3 mental habits you should build in your twenties to cultivate mental toughness and emotional strength.

Cultivate strong beliefs loosely held.

The best athletes are both strong and flexible. They work hard to develop a few core skills and abilities, but they’re adaptable too. As they get older or their circumstances change, they are willing to let go of certain strengths and cultivate new ones. Late in their careers, Jordan and Kobe were willing to do a little less dunking and perfect those sweet, sweet fade-away jumpers instead.

Be like Mike in your beliefs. Don’t be afraid to cultivate and defend your beliefs with strength and passion. Have the courage to take a stand and argue for what you believe in. Be bold!

But have the humility to know you don’t know everything. Life goes on, circumstances change, new information shows up — whether you want it to or not. Be willing to embrace new facts and adjust your priors. You can’t force reality to fit your beliefs. But you can adjust your beliefs to fit the ever-unfolding nature of reality.

Someone wise once said:

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

In my experience, suffering comes from rigidity. When you get stuck in a certain way of thinking and behaving even though it’s not working, that’s a setup for suffering.

Learn to be strong and flexible in your beliefs and you’ll save yourself a lot of suffering and stress.

Practice validating emotions — other people’s and your own.

I’m sure the notion of validation sounds suspiciously new-age and hippie-dippy, but I promise you that the capacity to be validating emotions is the single greatest competitive advantage you can cultivate.

Here’s the thing: You know what separates people who are truly great from those who are pretty good? In any area — from basketball and business to romantic relationships and politics — it’s the people who can manage their emotions effectively.

It doesn’t matter how much talent or skill or money you have, if you’re a slave to your emotions (or hell-bent on enslaving them) you’re not going to get very far. When we fight with or try to escape how we feel, we train our minds to be afraid of emotions, which leads to more fighting or fleeing. This creates a vicious cycle of emotional avoidance that leads to everything from addiction and broken relationships to panic attacks and choking during moments of peak performance.

You must cultivate a healthy relationship with your emotions if you want to be successful and happy.

And validation is how you do that. Validating emotions means that you’re willing to approach them and acknowledge them instead of suppressing them or distracting yourself from them. It means acknowledging that no matter how painful or unpleasant, emotions are not bad or dangerous. They’re not viruses to be eradicated. In fact, they’re often valuable messengers containing useful information.

Learn to be accepting of your emotions and they will work for you instead of against you. And the person who has their emotional life on their side is a force to be reckoned with.

If nothing else, learning how to validate other people’s emotions (instead of trying to fix or problem-solve them) will score you MAJOR points as a boyfriend and spouse since it’s a skill 99.9% of your competition is utterly terrible at.

Start meditating seriously.

Again, I’m sure this sounds silly but here’s what you should know about meditation: It’s the best way BY FAR to strengthen your ability to control your attention.

And the ability to control your attention — to hold your focus on one thing for long stretches of time, or to disengage your mind from patterns of thought that are unproductive — is an absolute superpower.

For the last 20+ years, you’ve been in school training your ability to think and reason — in particular, the ability to think analytically. And while the ability to think carefully and critically is often necessary for both success and resilience, it’s rarely sufficient.

Here’s a metaphor:

When it comes to driving a car, being able to accelerate is pretty important, right? Well that’s like the ability to think critically. Super important and actually necessary for the act of driving. But there’s a lot more to driving than simply going faster… You also need to steer! Attention is like steering for the mind — it’s what guides and controls the ability to thinks and therefore, how you feel.

Remember this:

How we habitually think determines how we habitually feel.

While the ability to think has served you well so far, you’ll find as you get older that the ability to not think and effortlessly shift and change your patterns of thinking are just as important.

In other words, the how of thinking matters at least as much as the what.

When it comes to both success and happiness in your future, the ability to control and manage your attention is paramount. So start meditating.

One last thing…

The topic of this letter isn’t exactly simple: How to build mental toughness in order to be happier, more productive, and emotionally resilient in the face of life’s challenges and stressors. So I’ve tried to distill things down to 3 mental habits to build in order to get there:

  1. Cultivate strong beliefs loosely held.
  2. Learn to validate emotions, both yours and other people’s.
  3. Start meditating seriously to train your attention, not just your intellect.

But even if you forget all that stuff, I want to leave you with one simple idea that sums up all my advice for building mental toughness and emotional health.

It’s so simple, in fact, that I can do it in a single word:


Learn to be gentle. Be gentle with yourself when you fail and make mistakes. And be gentle with others when they do the same. This is true strength. And this is where mental toughness comes from — the ability and willingness to be gentle.

Psychologist and blogger. I help people use psychology for meaningful personal growth:

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